x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Make your own way through the revelation that is Cyprus

The laid-back island of clear waters and sunny skies is now shaking off its lethargy to become more modern and sophisticated.

The Londa Beach Hotel in Limassol, Cyprus. Courtesy of londahotel.com
The Londa Beach Hotel in Limassol, Cyprus. Courtesy of londahotel.com

Is this really Cyprus? It is nearly 10 years since I visited the island, but it feels more like 30. There is an energy, a sophistication, a razzmatazz, an ambition to be bigger and better, that was not there before.

In my five-star hotel in Limassol, the Amathus Beach, there is bubbly in an ice bucket in my room, and chic-looking blondes in designer sunglasses by the pool. I hear Russian accents, French, German, Italian.

Limassol itself, once a scruffy, cheap-and-cheerful port peopled by unshaven Zorba-the-Greek types, and white-haired women in black dresses, is unrecognisable, mainly because parts of it are a building site, and will be for some time.

The Limassol Marina - a US$570 million (Dh2.1 billion) development on reclaimed land next to the historic city centre - dominates the horizon. When it is finished, in 2014, it will extend a kilometre out to sea, have nearly 300 villas and apartments and provide moorings for a richly cosmopolitan fleet - everything from dinghies to mega-yachts.

"We are at the crossroads of three continents," says Nick Pampakas, marketing manager for the marina. To emphasise the point, he gestures out towards the sea, which is looking indecently brilliant: as clear as a freshly run bath and glistening in the midday sun. It is a clever sales pitch. Even in early spring, the sun is surprisingly fierce.

Old Europe is represented by the centuries-old buildings on the seafront, notably the rugged Crusaders' castle where Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarre in 1191.

As for Asia, not only is the Suez Canal just a few hundred kilometres away, but new Asian money - from Russia, from Ukraine, from the UAE and the Far East - is pouring into the island at an unprecedented rate.

A once somnolent British colony with an RAF air base and ragged Union Jacks fluttering above the tavernas has entered the 21st century with a spring in its step.

Tourism is gradually eclipsing agriculture. You still see the vineyards and the olive groves and the fields speckled with orange and lemon trees - everything that first captivated visitors to Cyprus - but the island is on the move.

There are bustling golf courses where once there would have been nothing but goats grazing in solitude; luxury villas overlooking formerly deserted beaches. It is an exciting time to visit, and in a few years it will be even more exciting. There is adventure in the air.

Politically, the stalemate with Turkey remains: the northern part of the island is still under Turkish occupation. But economically, thanks to prudent financial management, Cyprus has had relatively few of the problems that have beset mainland Greece.

A destination once associated with package holidays - not to mention the noisy hellhole that is Ayia Napa, Cyprus's answer to Faliraki - is fast reinventing itself. And it is Limassol, one-time working port now a chic European resort town, that is in the vanguard.

When the marina is completed, it will stand at the end of a promenade that will stretch for 14km - one of the longest in the Mediterranean. Already you can walk or jog or cycle past ice-cream parlours, fish restaurants, spas, air-conditioned shops and art galleries, all under the shade of the palm trees that line the promenade.

The new and the old sit happily cheek-by-jowl. Some of the buildings in the old town, notably the magnificent library, have the architectural grace of an earlier era, putting other European cities to shame. But there is some exciting modern stuff, too, not just slabs of concrete.

On our first night, we dine in the elegantly modernist surroundings of the Londa Beach Hotel, on the fringe of the old town. The next night, we go in search of more traditional pleasures, roam the narrow backstreets and end up in one of those family-run tavernas where everyone knows everyone else, there is a smell of charcoal-grilled lamb, and the mezze are so exquisite you end up eating twice as much as you meant to.

At lunchtime, if you want sea air in your nostrils as you inspect the passing parade on the beach, there is nowhere better than the Limassol Nautical Club, a local institution for nearly 50 years. It is a little way from the city centre, but well worth the detour.

The fish you eat will have been caught that morning, if not within the last 10 minutes, and all Cypriot life is here, from the ageing Jack the Lads in their yachting caps to the bulging matriarchs with their olive-skinned daughters. Peals of laughter ring around the dining room, drowning the sound of seagulls.

If Limassol is a revelation, a far more rewarding place to stay than it used to be, the rest of Cyprus should not be neglected.

Take the coast road west out of Limassol and you soon reach Kourion, one of the most impressive archaeological sites on the island. Cyprus does not offer the ancient-history buff as rich pickings as, say, Crete or parts of the Greek mainland, but Kourion is the exception that proves the rule: history and geography in perfect harmony.

The hemi-cyclical Greco-Roman theatre, still used for stage performances, is a gem of its kind. The acoustics are stunning: stand centre stage and your voice comes echoing back to you from every side, with eerie precision. There are also some some dainty Hellenistic mosaics and the ruins of the old bathhouse. Best of all is the setting, on a little rocky promontory, dotted with wild flowers. The stage is backed by the sea, almost unnaturally blue, and a solitary paraglider, splendidly incongruous, is silhouetted by the sun.

In the summer, when the coastal areas of Cyprus can become punishingly hot - 40°C-plus - a lot of native Cypriots, particularly those with second homes, head for the Troodos mountains and the cooling shade of the pine trees. It is a fascinating region and, time permitting, well worth a detour at any time of year.

Sun, sea and sand are all very well, but there is something extraordinarily seductive about the scent of pine needles in fresh mountain air. The Aphrodite Hills Golf Club, between the Troodos mountains and the sea, must be one of the prettiest places I have ever taken 12 on a par-3 - and I have taken twelves on par-3s on five continents.

Cyprus was slow to discover the joys of golf - irrigation used to be a major problem - but it is making up for lost time. Sport, like much else in Cyprus, is on the march. In winter, there is even the option of skiing in the Troodos mountains. The season is short, perforce, but when Cypriots boast that you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, it is not just an advertising stunt. You really can - if you are mad enough.

On the west coast, Paphos is an amiable, not particularly glitzy resort, with a higgledy-piggledy mix of holiday apartments, shops, bars and restaurants. But for somewhere a bit more unusual - Cyprus in glorious miniature - it is worth driving right up the north-west corner of the island.

The road from Paphos to the fishing village of Latchi contains some of the prettiest scenery on the whole island: field after field of orange and lemon trees, dazzling to the eye, punctuated by the muter shades of the olive groves and the odd tumbledown farmhouse.

Elderly donkeys poke their heads over dry-stone walls, as if curious to establish who you are. Butterflies zig-zag through the trees. There is a smell of oleander and ripe melons. In the distance, you can just see the dome of a whitewashed church.

You really feel as if you have stumbled across "the real Cyprus", an ancient land of unchanging charm - a feeling that intensifies when you get to Latchi, with the tavernas ringing the old harbour, the fishermen busy with their nets and the sun dancing on the water. The squid in the restaurant is fresh-grilled, the tomatoes are so red it hurts to look at them ... Perfection.

Of the serious money now flowing into Cyprus, some of the most serious has found its way to this beautiful but relatively secluded part of the island.

A couple of kilometres from Latchi, multimillion-dollar luxury villas of the kind snapped up by Russian oligarchs are proliferating like rabbits. Beyond the villas is the Anassa, the coolest, most luxurious, most effortlessly stylish hotel on the whole island, the sort of place you go to have a drink and watch the sunset and never want to leave.

It is a magical spot, overlooking a pristine, craggy stretch of coast - and it epitomises the new-look, self-confident Cyprus of 2011.

 

If you go

The flight

Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Larnaca on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh1,705 (US$464) including taxes.

The hotel

Superior Sea View rooms at the Amathus Beach Hotel in Limassol (www.amathus-hotels.com; 00 357 258 32000) cost from €219 (Dh1,152) including breakfast and taxes.