The ride to Ben-Gurion Airport for each of the participants in our group - regardless of our varying starting points in Israel - takes at least as long as our 40-minute flight to Larnaka. For someone like me, the bulk of whose international travel is to the Old Country in the US, this is as strange a sensation as it is a pleasant one. No days wasted in the act of merely getting to the destination or returning; no jet lag; and no need for a carry-on bag bogged down with "just-in-case" items that hours upon hours on a plane make necessary. Or, at least, seemingly so.
But it's more than that. Cyprus Airways flights to and from Tel Aviv maximize one's "net" stay on the island - whether its purpose is play or work. Many frequent flyers on this line hop back and forth on the same day to conduct business - departing from Tel Aviv at around 7 a.m., and leaving Larnaka at around 10:30 p.m.
It is this that enables us - journalists from several Israeli publications and representatives from the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO), Cyprus Airways and the DZO ad agency (handling the campaign to "sell" Cyprus in Israel) to embark on our tour the minute we disembark the plane, collect our luggage and exit the airport, which - like every other place we are to encounter during our stay - has a large, decorative Christmas tree on display.
It is drizzling and sunny when we board our mini-buses, and we are greeted by an uncannily clear rainbow, stretching across the highway. Driving here, by the way, is on the left side of the road, so take that into account if you are planning on renting a car. (If not, arrangements for drivers and tour guides can be made through your travel agent or the CTO.)
The reason for this is that Cyprus was a British colony from 1878-1960. The upside is that most Cypriots understand and speak anywhere from passable to completely fluent English, though the local language of the South, where we are travelling, is Greek, and that of the North is Turkish.
OUR FIRST stop on the way to Limassol, where we will be spending the night at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel [www.fourseasons.com.cy], is the village of Psematismenos. Here we are treated to the most amazing brunch of filo dough pastries, similar to burekas, and other delicacies - at Lord Kitchener's Tavern, a quaint restaurant named after the 19th century British surveyor who drew the first detailed maps of the region.
Stuffed like grape leaves - as we are for the duration of the trip - we board the bus again and head for the village of Lefkara, famous for its lace- and silver-making. Hand-made lace and needlepoint is a tradition in Cyprus - one which we are told is dying out with the older generation. CTO Israel's Louisa Varnacas tells us that this craft was a requirement for school girls during her childhood, recounting how she hated it so much that she got a doctor's note excusing her from class on the grounds of a hand malady.
Here it is worth noting that all of these items are quite expensive, and the silver products, such as jewelry and other artifacts (mostly Greek Orthodox, the religion of 78 percent of the population), are cheaper and more abundant in Israel. A simple bangle, for example, sells for the equivalent of around NIS 200.
The lace, on the other hand, is at least a trademark specific to the island, so it is a better draw for tourists like us. An average tablecloth runs for the equivalent of a few hundred shekels. Speaking of which, the currency is the Cyprus pound, which is roughly NIS 10.
That is to change on January 1. Cyprus has been a member of the European Union since 2004, and is shifting its currency to the euro.
After check-in at the luxurious Four Seasons - which houses one of only five Shiseido spas in the world (the other four are located in Africa, Australia, Dubai and France, which makes them a lot less accessible to Israeli fans of the high-end beauty-product line), we are taken to the nearby Le Meridien Hotel and Spa Resort [www.cyprus.lemeridien.com] for a little dose of Thalassotherapy. This is a fancy name for salt-water baths of varying temperatures, and it's basically like floating in the Dead Sea, minus the mud. After that, we hop in the steam room and sauna, refreshed and ready for - what else? - more food. Well, after a soak in the hotel-room jacuzzi, that is, and a glass of wine on the balcony.
Travel tip: When on a spa vacation, you might want to ease up on the pigging out prior to body pampering, because it's not so fun confronting bulges when in a bathing (or birthday) suit.
FOLLOWING A sumptuous dinner at one of the Four Seasons's several gourmet restaurants, off we waddle to the Old Harbor, the location of the Castle of Limassol, which is now a Medieval-period museum, and the old Carob Mill. Carobs, like olives, are a multipurpose staple in Cyprus, commonly made into a sweet syrup that is said to be good for the digestive system.
Now it is time for a taste of the nightlife. The "Draught" pub - which has the trendy look and feel of a Tel Aviv bar - is abuzz with young people drinking brew (the local label is Keo, a pale, mild lager) - with Greek pop music blasting in the smoke-filled background. Indeed, for those of you who care in one direction or another, you should take into account that Cyprus has not yet been hit with anti-smoking legislation, and in most places it is allowed, some in reserved sections.
THE NEXT morning, after an amazing buffet breakfast, we tour the Troodos Mountains, stopping to visit picturesque villages along the way, with narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, and views of the surrounding hills dotted with clusters of red-tiled roofs and church steeples. It is this that, in spite of some similarity to Israel's landscape, gives it a whole different appearance from that of the Holy Land.
We are then treated to a lunch of home-cooked delicacies - such as a traditional rice soup - at the Linos Inn in the village of Kakopetria.
This is good preparation, in the form of stomach lining, for the Linos Winery in the Omodos village. Here we not only indulge in wine tasting, but are given a tour of a factory that makes soutzoukos, a specialty of the island, made of almonds dipped in a batter of grape juice, flour and rose water and dried into a kind of rubbery, salami-looking thing, which is then sliced and eaten like candy or cookies. Because it can keep for long periods of time without spoiling, it is a staple in practically every household. Other sweets made on the premises are fruits and vegetables in thick syrup.
We also see a workshop where all the products - an assortment of cosmetics, liqueur and candles - are made from rose petals.
IT IS time now for our next luxury resting place - the Intercontinental Aphrodite Hills Resort Hotel in Paphos [www.aphroditehills.com] - a sprawling resort, with a grand, 18-hole golf course, a tennis academy, several gourmet restaurants and a Greco-Roman spa.
Here, again, we are wowed as much by our rooms as we are by the grounds. Having a huge bed, gorgeous bathroom and private terrace will do that. But we don't have too much time to dawdle while in awe, as we are off again, this time to a traditional taverna about half an hour away. Nothing like a short rest to whet the appetite, which we certainly need at this restaurant, where meat, cheese and vegetable dishes arrive faster than we can finish even small portions of them. The live musicians playing Greek songs (you know, of the Zorba variety) smile as we all get up and dance, while the waiters fling paper napkins on us, like confetti.
When the real act arrives, we can see why we might have been a source of amusement to the service staff. Dressed in traditional folk garb, two men and two women give a professional dance performance, showing what it's supposed to look like. When they are done, they encourage us to join them, each taking a different partner from our group and leading him or her in the steps.
Such an evening is definitely a must for anyone making this trip.
IN THE morning, we are confronted with yet another bombastic breakfast, that ends up being more beautiful than it is tasty, mainly because, by this point, we are all suffering from eating exhaustion. And we know we have a "light" (yeah, right) lunch to look forward to in a mere few hours at our next venue - the Oleastro Olive Museum (at Anogyra, between Paphos and Limassol), an outdoor display of the process of olive oil production.
Now, though perfectly pleasant, this little tour is less interesting than other sites, simply because olive trees and everything associated with them are a dime a dozen in Israel, so to speak. Not so the process of making haloumi cheese, which is why the step-by-step demonstration we are shown here is genuinely worthwhile, especially for those of us for whom haloumi is a particular favorite. Establishing that it has what the woman preparing it describes cheerfully as "full fat" content is discouraging, to be sure. But, judging by its heavenly flavor and texture, one would have to be in serious denial not to intuit this fact.
This does not prevent us from digging in wholeheartedly to the lunch we are now served on the premises, at the museum's homey restaurant. Unlike the other eateries we have enjoyed - with massive stone walls and antique chic - this establishment is light and airy, with a country-style atmosphere. There is also a gift shop in an adjoining room, where various olive-based products (e.g. oil, soap, shampoo, body lotion, etc.) can be purchased.
Another specialty of this place specifically, and Cyprus in general, is olive bread. Here we are shown how these incredibly delicious loaves are made. But beware: Traditionally, the olives are not pitted before they are kneaded into the dough, to maximize flavor. So, mind your teeth - or at least ask beforehand whether the bread you are about to bite into has been modified for tourists or not.
OUR LAST night is spent at the Anassa Hotel in Polis [www.thanoshotels.com], another - newer - jewel in Cyprus's crown. Its decor is minimalist, with earthy shades of beige on the walls, and marble floors, giving the place a feel of an oasis in the dessert. An example of a touch of local-color class is the string of deep-blue worry beads that serve as room-key chains. The other hotels use the plastic-card system of unlocking the doors.
Anassa - part of the "Leading Hotels of the World" chain - is huge and ultra-classy, with rooms that make you feel like staying put, rather than rushing out to pursue other interests. Unless, perhaps, they involve going down to the spa for some major-league pampering. Which is just what we do when we arrive. Each of us is given a different treatment, and mine is an algae wrap - a first for me, as it happens. And, though having one's whole body covered in paste and then covered in what feels like waxed paper before washing it off and having lotion applied afterwards is pleasurable, paying the equivalent of about NIS 600 for it seems a bit steep. But isn't that what the upscale market is all about?
WITH OUR skin shining and muscles relaxed, we are ready to eat again.
The chef comes out of the kitchen to greet us. There is no need for him to recite the menu, as each of us has one as part of our place settings. The food consists of several small courses of creatively designed items, with fish and meat - and let's not forget dessert. All the while the wine keeps flowing miraculously into our glasses, without our ever having to lift our heads - or a finger - and ask for more.
It is a lifestyle, we all agree, we could easily become accustomed to, if given half a chance. Or a large inheritance. No wonder royals and other dignitaries like to "pop over" for a stay in the presidential suite - a breathtaking duplex with an outdoor hot tub, a four-poster canopy bed, and a long list of other amenities responsible for its costing the equivalent of about NIS 20,000 per night. Oh, how the other half lives. And lives it up.
The good news for those whose budgets don't land them on the Forbes top-10 list is that there are different rates for different rooms, as well as package deals including air fare that make staying in any of these hotels in Cyprus as affordable as high-end resorts at home, such as the Carmel Forest Spa. In other words, if you can splurge on the latter, you can do so on the former as well. Each of the spas we visited also accommodates packages, tailor-made to individual requests. For any such packages, ask your travel agent or the CTO.
At sunrise - a spectacular view of which, over the sea, serves as a kind of dazzling wake-up call from the door and window facing the bed - some of us again are only able to admire the bountiful breakfast buffet from afar, making do with a cup of tea or coffee. In Cyprus, by the way, you can get cappuccino, filter, or Cypriot (what we call "Turkish") coffee.
BIDDING FAREWELL to our king-sized beds and elegant baths, we are off to spend our last day in Cyprus sight-seeing. The guide, who has accompanied us throughout the trip, points out each site by telling its corresponding Greek myth, which in itself is worth the ride.
Our first stop is the Chryssorogiatissa Monastery in Panagia - where there is only one monk left actually living on the premises. Here we see the inside of the ancient chapel, with its gold and silver icons of Jesus and the apostles, and then downstairs to have a look at the modern - active - wine cellars
Now we proceed to the Kourion, one of Cyprus's most treasured archaeological sites, located near the village of Episkopi. Here we see the early Christian period remains of grand homes with magnificent mosaic floors, Roman-era bath houses (the ancient version of the spas we have enjoyed) and a Hellenistic amphitheater.
In spite of the weather, which has become chilly and slightly wet, the excursion is doable, which means that when on a winter vacation here, you do not need to remain indoors during your stay - though, given the leisure options at the hotels, it's not certain you'd feel any urgency to keep on the move.
Still, staying put would mean missing another gem: The Cyprus Wine Museum [e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org] in Limassol's Erimi village. Here, General Manager Pambos Papadopoulos, a fruit-of-the-vine mavin if there ever was one, gives us a really interesting talk on the history of grapes and wine in the region - citing Biblical and Talmudic references as he cheerfully chats on about the subject he's obviously in love with. And then, we get to taste each type of wine, finishing off with Cyprus's trademark dessert wine, Commandaria - said to be "not only the wine of kings, but the king of wines." (Another trademark liquor is Zivania - like schnapps, with 51% alcohol content - better suited, in my opinion, to disinfecting than drinking.)
TO WRAP up the trip before returning home, we are treated to another million-course meal at a seafood restaurant in Limassol, where the shrimp, calamari, sardines and barbounias flow from the kitchen as freely as the wine. Note: travelers who keep kosher need to make special arrangements. Ask your travel agent or the CTO whom to contact about doing so.
Before leaving Limassol, we are taken to its central shopping area. Here there are many fashionable, expensive, European-style clothing, jewelry and souvenir stores - these selling every kind of Christmas decoration imaginable.
Speaking of which, duty-free shopping at Larnaka Airport, though not nearly as abundant as that of Ben-Gurion, is sufficiently stocked for gift buying and last-minute purchases.
"Love Cyprus" is the island's new international marketing slogan. After being spoiled rotten there for four days, how could one not?
The writer was the guest of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation.
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