No Coco Pops on the Karpas

Where can you take young children to get a taste of independent travel? Susan Griffith set out for northern Cyprus
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The Independent Culture
IT'S ONE thing to be a plucky traveller when you're young and unfettered. But what about when you lapse into middle age, and have children? When I was stopped by the Sigurimi in pre-glasnost Albania, and met Kurds near Lake Van, my twin sons were none the wiser, still protected by amniotic fluid. Eight years later, they have opinions of their own, and I was not at all sure that they could be persuaded to share their mother's tastes in travel. So I decided to take them to northern Cyprus to find out.

After booking flights only, I was alarmed to read in guidebooks that the number of hostelries for independent travellers in all of Turkish Cyprus can be counted on the fingers of one hand. So I sent two or three faxes to one-star hotels and within 48 hours had booked a three-bed room in the main resort of Kyrenia for two nights.

As promised, the Sidelya Hotel sent a taxi to meet our flight. We quickly spotted Hussein holding a bold placard, though he seemed reluctant to believe that I was indeed the person he was after. Kyrenia is such a small town that we bumped into him on several occasions during our stay.

The call to prayer was being sung in our bathroom, or so it seemed when I awoke with a start at 5am. "Up to prayer. Up to salvation. Prayer is better than sleep" failed to convince me - or my travel-weary companions, who never stirred. When we heard the muezzin's call during the day, one boy suggested it was a prayer to drive away the rain. If it was, it worked, because we experienced perfect weather all week.

Having hired a not-very-flash car at a matching price, we were ready to see the sights. The Byzantine castle of St Hilarion (where some say Richard the Lionheart spent his honeymoon) is commandingly situated on a mountain top clearly visible from Kyrenia. Its dramatically ruined turrets and towers erupt organically from the crags. The boys were impressed by the rumour that Walt Disney had this place in mind when he designed the castle in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Signs along the steep and winding approach road warn that you are passing through a military zone and are not permitted to stop or take photographs. Predictably, our car stalled just past the entrance to the base. Repeated attempts to restart it prompted a soldier patrolling behind the barbed wire to beckon to a colleague, who within seconds was under the bonnet solving the problem. I was not arrested. I imagine that few international spies travel with small children.

Like the Crusader castles in the Kyrenia range of hills, the classical city of Salamis enjoys a beautiful setting - coastal rather than mountainous. Even better than the well preserved theatre, baths, porticoes and mosaics, is the debris of ancient and Christian history casually strewn over the extensive site as though a natural part of the landscape: a Byzantine cistern, fragments from a temple to Zeus, toppled Roman columns.

After swimming at a perfect beach on the Karpas peninsula, which was as empty as most of the beaches, we went in search of a late lunch. Past Dipkarpaz, the town where 500 Greeks remaining since the 1974 partition live, we followed the rusty sign for the Blue Seas restaurant. On a veranda overlooking a small fishing harbour we ate red mullet served by Mustafa (a Johnny Depp lookalike) and cooked by Irfan who (literally) moonlighted as the fisherman. But he wasn't too tired to sit for his portrait by one eight-year old artist - which earned the children drinks on the house - and to urge the other one to support Besiktas football club.

On a happy impulse, we decided to spend the night at the Blue Seas. Breakfast was included in the price of the rooms and I was proud of how bravely the Coco Pops generation tackled their salty cheese, olives, cucumber, bread and coffee. The simply grilled lamb and chicken with chips and salad served at other times of the day suited them better, while on several occasions I enjoyed excellent mezes and fresh fish, a long way from the execrable meals Paul Theroux complains of in his recent book.

The thing about sightseeing in northern Cyprus is that after paying the entrance fee of 66p or 83p (depending on whether the site is rated superb or very superb), you have the place pretty much to yourself: No coachloads of Germans. No guards to reprimand you for taking short cuts or climbing on walls, which was a great delight to the children - they always chafe against the "do not touch" signs on British monuments. Nobody is around to watch you play frisbee over the mosaic floor of an early Christian basilica, as we did at Sipahi on the Karpas. In northern Cyprus, you are about as far from a heritage experience as it is possible to be. No reconstructions, no explanatory labels, no direction arrows. You are on your own in the midst of raw and unprocessed history.

The other side of the coin is that there are few safeguards in this civil libertarian's nirvana. You have to go out of your way to hire a car with seatbelts in the back seat. No signs indicate whether beaches are safe or not. No fences or walls guard sharp drops. We proceeded to Kantara, another of the hilltop Crusader castles, where the children suddenly vanished. I spent a quarter of an hour reliving the plot of Picnic at Hanging Rock, my anxieties fuelled by the boys' holiday reading, the under-10s' equivalent of Stephen King novels. I longed for the presence of a battalion of sharp- eyed guards or fellow tourists. The poor Turk selling tickets from his car (there was no ticket booth) must have trained as a shepherd in his youth, since he hared up the precipice from the back and soon rounded up my intractable offspring.

Not once did I feel that I needed to be on my guard against rip-offs or hard sells, let alone crime. Everyone seems to operate on the honour principle and bureaucratic procedures are non-existent. All transactions are in cash. No one asks to see a passport when you check into a hotel.

The local car hire firm wanted no deposit and simply waived payment for the impromptu fourth day's rental. The laconic fellow in his cubbyhole didn't even bother to check that the vehicle had been returned intact.

travel facts

Getting there: no flights are allowed to operate direct between the UK and northern Cyprus, so they touch down in Turkey. Cyprus Turkish Airlines, 11 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5LU (0171-930 4853) has seats at pounds 315 from Stansted, pounds 10 more from Heathrow. Bookings are heavy this summer, so seats are scarce.

Warning: northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey. Britain has no diplomatic relations with the north, so consular help is not available in an emergency. Points in northern Cyprus are seen as illegal ports of entry by the Republic of Cyprus; evidence of a visit will result in the traveller being refused admission to the Republic.

Further information: North Cyprus Tourism Office, 28 Cockspur Street, London SW1 5BN (0171-930 5069). For information on the Republic of Cyprus - the legitimate government of the island - call the Cyprus Tourist Office on 0171-734 9822.