Fragrant isolation

Away from the playgrounds of Agia Napa, Cyprus is a rambler's paradise full of exotic flowers and birdlife. Malcolm Smith goes off the beaten track

The cool, damp air hung like a veil above the turbulent stream, the towering walls of rock on each side smoothed, over millennia, by its waters. Fig-tree roots dangled from high above and dripped water on to vivid-green maidenhair ferns eking a life from clefts in the greying limestone. After walking along the Avakas Gorge in the west of Cyprus, it was proving impossible to go further. The stream, confined by the cliffs on both sides, was just too deep and too cold.

There are two Cypruses. Not the obvious division between the official Greek republic in the south and the Turkish-occupied north, but the developed Cyprus frequented by most package-holidaymakers, and undeveloped, off-the-beaten-track Cyprus.

We had found our way into the Avakas Gorge (pictured) after parking on the potholed track a kilometre north of the village of Agios Georgios, near Lara Bay, north-west of Pafos, and following a rough wooden sign. The walk takes you first through plantations of grapefruit and orange whose perfume, wafting on the breeze, is a delight. Also filling the air is the chatter of hundreds of skulking Sardinian warblers who can clearly recognise a lovely spot when they see one.

The path becomes narrower and rockier as you go upstream. Burnt-white cliffs on either side close in. Phoenician junipers leave space for the occasional olive, leathery, long-leaved oleanders and a few lentiscs, with their pungent resin, used in mastic. On the stony ground, yellow trumpets of oxalis compete for attention with paper-thin crown anemones, white with black-as-coal centres.

Pretty, and aroma-drenched as it is, the Avakas Gorge is close to habitation. But walk further west, along the Akamas Peninsula on which it lies - one of the largest areas of undeveloped land remaining around the Mediterranean - and almost all human influence fades. We followed the potholed track along its south coast, a 25km walk from Agios Georgios past the sweep of caramel sands at Lara Bay to the peninsula's tip at Cape Arnaoutis. Some beaches are summertime egg-laying spots for loggerhead turtles, the few left undisturbed on the island.

The Akamas's south coast has precious little shade, its weather-worn limestone like a pavement carved by windblown sand into intricate swirling circles and hollows, sprouting shrubs - juniper, some stunted pines, and rock-rose bushes flowering a delicate pink. All day long, we saw no other walkers, though the solitude was occasionally interrupted by a 4WD carrying tourists for a "wilderness experience". But stray a short way off the track, and Akamas feels yours, and yours alone. Swallows did low-level strafing sorties over the bush tops to catch airborne insects, while Cyprus warblers vibrated with their powerful songs.

Summer snowflakes, with their drooping, bell-shaped white flowers, and the intense-pink globes of orchids peered out from between the shrubs. Butterflies in blues and yellows scurried past, too quick to identify. And then there were the aromas - of sage, thyme, rosemary and countless other herbs. An appetising reminder of the delicate flavours infused in the superb evening mezes at George and Lara Demetriades' Seven St-Georges Tavern, on the edge of Pafos. With no menus, and no fish ("the Med is so overfished"), you are served with one tiny but delicious dish after another, all accompanied by heavenly sultana bread and home-made wine. You call a halt when you wish. But were we glad we left room for Lara's dessert! Their tavern is a world apart from the glitzy seafront tavernas and fast-food outlets in Pafos, rather like the difference between the Akamas and Agia Napa.

The more mountainous terrain running along the spine of the Akamas is accessible from Drousia village, where we rented a whitewashed apartment with beams in a renovated stone house. You can head north-west about 8km out of the village, on a track, to the pine-shaded Smiyies picnic site, and then walk west. An alternative walk starts out from the tourist honeypot of the Baths of Aphrodite on Akamas's north coast. Legend has it that she bathed and "entertained" lovers here. Busloads of tourists visit the tiny, dingy pool fed by a stream. "Why on earth would she bathe there instead of in the warm sea lapping the beaches a few yards away?" asked a fellow-walker in disbelief.

The baths proved a good starting-point for a path which zigzagged up through juniper, broom and pink-flowering Judas trees, to the high ground of the Akamas. We passed white cyclamens, lemon anemones and lipstick-vermilion field gladioli, among many other flowers. Way below, grassy fields echoed with the squawks of francolins. Cyprus is as far west as these grouse-like birds come. Birds of Africa and Asia, they were shot almost to extinction here by the 1970s. Today, they are abundant again.

Another day, and clear skies over the mountains beckoned. We headed for Cedar Valley, signposted along 18km of track north-east of Pano Panagia. Far from any habitation, at the valley head we walked a snow-patched path up through aromatic pine, plane, larch and cedars to the mountaintops of the Tripylos Nature Reserve. From here, we could see across perhaps half of the island, over the branches of the elegant cedars of Lebanon in the valley below.

Back on lower ground, a sign says "EOKA hideouts, 2km". A walk along the track reveals concrete bunkers used by Greek-Cypriot fighters in their 1950s conflict with the British. Amid this beauty, strife. But for us, Cyprus will always signify the birdsong and fragrance of an untamed land.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Cyprus Airways (020-8359 1333; www.cyprusairways.com) flies between the UK and Cyprus from Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham to Larnaca and Paphos. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Larnaca and from Gatwick to Paphos. There are also charter flights to both airports.

STAYING THERE

The Elysium Hotel, Queen Verenikis Street, Paphos (00 357 26 844 444; www.elysium.com.cy). Doubles start at CY£88 (£105), including breakfast.

Cyprus Agrotourism (00 357 22 340071; www.agrotourism.com.cy) offers apartments in traditional cottages and houses. One- and two-bedroom apartments in the Sapho Manor House in Droussia, Paphos, cost between CY£28-£38 (£33-£45) per day.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Cyprus Tourism Organisation (0900 188 7744, calls charged at 60p/minute; www.visitcyprus.org.cy).

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