Cyprus – much more than an Israeli Las Vegas

I’d posit that Israel shares more in common with Cyprus than with any other country.

Tochni, Cyprus 311  (photo credit: (Roni Sofer))
Tochni, Cyprus 311
(photo credit: (Roni Sofer))
We all travel for different reasons. Some seek new experiences while others simply seek calm. Some venture out into areas dominated by locals while others prefer the beaten tourists’ path. It’s a careful balance of familiar and different we must determine for ourselves.
Having said that, Cyprus presents a bit of a quandary for the Israeli-based traveler. For what is different and what is the same on this small island nation, a mere 45-minute flight away from Ben-Gurion airport? It’s difficult to determine.
I’d posit that Israel shares more in common with Cyprus than with any other country. Both are islands: one by terrain, one by ethnicity. Both are plagued with a territorial conflict and a divided capital: one the topic of analysis the world over, the other a blip on the average person’s news radar. Both feature a remarkable amount of topographic variety, given their size. Both feature cuisines, music and sensibilities that are located somewhere on the axis of Middle East, Near East, Balkan and Mediterranean.
And yet, within these similarities, subtle differences emerge, reminding us all the while that we are indeed on vacation. They are easily spotted on the surface – language, driving on opposite sides of the road, etc. – but many more reveal themselves if you look hard enough and converse with locals.
Over five Cypriot days, I found myself returning to this frame of thought over and over again. The differences within the similarities make Cyprus a travel destination as much thought-provoking as sensory-indulging for the average (if there is such a thing) Israeli. And if you’ve declared 2012 as a year to tighten the financial belt, a $300 round-trip fare might be just the ticket.
Cyprus is divided into six districts, each named for its respective capital: Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca cover the southern half of the country from west to east, while all of Kyrenia in the north, much of Famagusta in the east and the northern half of centrally-located Nicosia – also the capital of the country – has been under Turkish occupation since 1974.
For the purposes of this review, we’ll be staying out of Turkish Cyprus and away from the conflict.
In Nicosia, the Turkish presence is always present in the back of your mind, aided mostly by two enormous crescents draping the Besparmak mountain range, viewable from most open areas around the capital. One comprises the flag of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, while the other is accompanied by the phrase “Proud to be Turks.” The whole scene amounts to a not-unsuccessful attempt at psychological warfare: bring it up with Nicosians and you’ll be met with gritted teeth and rolled eyes.
Nicosia is where you’ll want to go if the conflict is a source of genuine intrigue. The walled Old City provides a few pedestrian crossings (sound familiar?) but they come with administrative hassles. Museums, historical sites and churches dot the old city, while high-end shopping is available outside the walls. Like I say to tourists in Israel, get out of the capital and explore.
Urban living
Exploring the island is easy to do on your own with a rented car – you can traverse the whole island in a few hours – just remember to keep on the left side of the road. In the summer, Limassol, Larnaca and Paphos should be focal points. Each one sports a healthy number of beaches, hotels ranging from five-star down to budget and plenty of shops, restaurants and nightclubs.
Limassol is perhaps the most touristy of the cities, and is known for its Carnival in late February and its Wine Festival in early September. Paphos should be a point of focus if golf is your game – the western district houses most of the country’s courses, including its newest: Elea, designed by Nick Faldo, was ranked ninth in’s top new international courses in 2010.
Even when the traditional tourist season ends in October, however, the country’s natural treasures remain, waiting to be discovered.
Out of the cities Acquainting yourself with Cyprus’s rural side is easy, even if your hotel is in one of the big cities: just schedule day trips and drive around. But planting yourself in nature is also an option. The country’s agrotourism website offers lodging and activity directories for those who want a country-oriented trip.
Another option is Cyprus Villages - a network of tzimmer- style lodges located in clusters throughout south-central Cyprus. Rates are quite reasonable, and any number of tours and trails exist – you could easily leave your car in the lot for a few days and survive on foot (or on horseback), basking in the glow of rural Cypriot hospitality.
But there is still more to be explored north and west, away from the tourist villages. In particular:
• Platres: Nestled in the Troodos mountains, this village is home to John Adams’s Chocolate Workshop. The London-born chocolatier took a roundabout route to Cyprus, but be glad he did: his flava chocolate, infused with royal jelly from queen bees, boasts a litany of health benefits and is only available here. Down the road and worth checking out (or into) is the Forest Park Hotel, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year.
The architect was an Israeli named Shmuel Barkai, and his original plans are on display in the lobby. If you’d like a full-service hotel still suitable for surrounding agro-tourism, it should serve you well.
• Agros: 20 km east of Platres, Agros is home to Venus Rose cosmetics, which harvests around 30,000 pink roses daily beginning in May when they first bloom. Rosewater candles, tea and any number of face scrubs and serums are available for sale. Also worth visiting is Nikki’s Traditional Sweets, where you can find classic Cypriot jams and jellies – all with no added sugar and all “healthy,” if you’re to believe cashiers.
Nikki can also provide you with her own Soutzoukos – a ubiquitous Cypriot snack in which strings of almonds are dipped over and over into a concentrated grape juice and dried in the sun, yielding a consistency somewhere between the caramel of a caramel apple and a tootsie roll.
• Akamas peninsula: The western tip of the island is best discovered by jeep tour – any Paphos hotel or tourist center can hook you up. When you realize at a certain point that you’re surrounded by water, the landscape becomes suddenly breathtaking; imagine the Mediterranean cuddling up next to the Golan and eventually surrounding it.
Or don’t imagine; go see it for yourself.
Around 1,500 Israeli couples hop over to Cyprus to tie the knot each year after becoming disenchanted with the religious marriage system in Israel. But it’s much more than an Israeli Las Vegas. Striking a careful balance between familiar and different, this tiny island could very well be the travel destination you’ve been looking for for the coming year.
The writer was a guest of the Cyprus Tourism Board.