It was my wife's idea to go to Cyprus to catch some early spring sunshine. I was not enthusiastic. Would the weather be OK? Was there much to see? Wasn't the place overrun with Brits? And hadn't the coast been ruined? On three out of four of these I was proved spectacularly wrong. The sun was warm, the hills green and, by avoiding the towns, we hardly saw another Brit. I was right about the coast, in part at least. In the official Republic of Cyprus, occupying the southern part of the island (the top third is under the control of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), some shores are blighted by building work. Yet there are charming places. Governor's Beach near Limassol on the south coast, for instance, where you find soft chalk cliffs like meringue. And when you have had enough of the sea, you can head for the hills.
We left freezing London on the last day of February, and arrived late in the afternoon. The sun was already preparing a spectacular evening show as we sped down the motorway from the main airport at Larnaca to the house we had rented in the village of Khirokitia, 40km away in the foothills of the Troodhos mountains.
Previously, we had been (too) familiar with the scorched earth that characterises so much of the southern Mediterranean in high summer. Instead, there were mimosa trees bursting into bloom and verges covered in banks of yellow daisies.
Khirokitia is the site of the earliest neolithic settlement on the island, occupied from 6000BC. It lies at the foot of a fertile valley carpeted with wild irises and dominated by a hill. It was also carpeted, we found, with shotgun cartridges – hunting is a passion – but, amazingly, still full of birdsong. Twice we walked the length of the valley, past clumps of wild anemones, overtaking a shepherd and his flock, unsure whether to deplore the local appetite for blood sports or celebrate the locals' lousy aim. Our house in the old part of the village had a lovely arched high-ceilinged room that opened onto a courtyard with a pool and an almond tree, and a view from the tiny balcony to the orange groves below.
On our first morning we sat in T-shirts and shorts eating the fragrant fruit on the terrace – and 90 minutes later were walking through ankle-deep snow around Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the Troodhos at 2,000m. Trudging on one of the marked trails between 500-year-old pine trees, we did not see a soul. The Troodhos have become busy in summer as refugees from the coast seek relief in the cool mountains. In spring, however, we had them virtually to ourselves.
The hidden glory of the Troodhos is the painted churches no bigger than a barn. One morning we drove for half an hour to Louvaras, a traditional mountain village, and found the key-keeper – a short, smiling man who spoke no English – next door to the chapel of Ayios Mamas.
The sun was blazing as he unlocked the door to give us a private view of the exquisite 15th-century frescos, covering every inch of the interior, their colours glowing in the gloom. Our brief encounter with the charming key-keeper – he named all the saints for us – added to the sense of personal discovery. We returned to Vavla, a pretty village next to Khirokitia. It was our favourite place for walking: unspoilt, remote, and peppered with olive trees. You can walk anywhere in Cyprus. Just pick a track and head into the country. It is easy to find glorious scenery, especially in spring.
Despite its troubled colonial past, and continuing unease with the Turkish north, we were met with nothing but kindness. Restaurants needed no booking, roads were free of traffic, and we never saw a crowd. We ordered the meze in a tiny place in Agios Theodorus and counted 25 dishes including stuffed pepper with cream cheese, ribs, succulent souvlaki and a baked apple tart – at about €1 per dish. Three other tables filled up with locals and all chose the same menu. As we ambled through the deserted village streets afterwards, inhaling the wood smoke, we felt we had arrived.
Travel essentials: Cyprus
* Larnaca is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from Heathrow; Cyprus Airways (020 8359 1333; cyprusair.com ) from Heathrow and Manchester; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com ) from Gatwick; Monarch Airlines (08719 405040; flymonarch.com ) from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester; and Eurocypria Airlines (00 357 24 658 003; eurocypria.com ) from Gatwick and Luton.
* The House of Achilles, Khirokitia Village, Larnaca (07909 538844; thehouseofachilles.com ). The listed 19th-century stone building has three double en-suite bedrooms but it can be rented as two separate houses sleeping four each. Rental of the whole house starts at €550 per week.
* Cyprus Tourist Office: 020 7569 8800; visitcyprus.com