The quiet side of Ayia Napa
Forget all those boozing Brits. There's more to the famous Cypriot party resort than 'Sun, Sea and Suspicious Parents'.
Wednesday 15 May 2013
Mention Ayia Napa to anyone under 30 and a glazed yet slightly euphoric look may well cross their face. Either that or a look of shame. Of course, the majority who have been will have no idea where Ayia Napa actually is, but that's what breakfast lagers, fishbowl cocktails and free shots in every bar do to you.
Ayia Napa has a reputation as the party capital of Cyprus. The third- largest of the Mediterranean islands, Cyprus lies deep in the southernmost corner of Europe, past Greece and close to the coasts of Turkey, Syria and the Lebanon.
With its ancient history, Middle Eastern temperatures and aquamarine waters, it's an island that should shout of the exotic, but it seems every- one's had a piece of it. Under British administration until 1960, Cyprus retains a legacy of driving on the left, three-pin electrical sockets and, more controversially, two military bases.
In 1974, Turkey invaded, and still controls the north of the island in the shape of the self-styled "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" – the Green Line marking the border with the internationally recognised Republic runs close to Ayia Napa itself.
However, from a tourism perspective, the past 15 years have seen Ayia Napa become synonymous with hot summer clubbing, rather than political intrigue.
Although not nearly as wild as it was in its early Noughties heyday, Ayia Napa still has more than 80 bars and more than a dozen nightclubs. In July and August it's a magnet for the 18-30 demographic: a young-and-looking-for-fun crowd. But despite this hedonistic reputation, the partygoers make up only a small percentage of Ayia Napa's visitors. The rest are families and couples who flock here for the pale, sandy beaches, safe, clear waters and relaxed, friendly atmosphere – all at affordable prices.
It's easy to see why they come. If you can see past the somewhat tacky bars advertising live sport, London Pride and a full English breakfast, Ayia Napa is home to some of the best beaches in Cyprus. A string of stylish lounge bars have also opened recently – including the super-cool Pepper – and smart hotels such as the Napa Mermaid and Sunrise Pearl, which come with designer spas and slick restaurants.
I stayed at the Nissi Beach resort, Ayia Napa's very first hotel. Built in the Seventies, when the town was little more than a fishing village and the nightlife was of the games-of- dominoes variety. Now a smart four-star hotel set in lush tropical gardens, it overlooks the beautiful swathe of Nissi beach itself, Ayia Napa's most popular stretch of sand.
At my insistence, Stelios, my local guide for the week, took me on a brief tour of Platia Seferi, known as "The Square", the small but infamous party district that's recognisable from shows such as Channel 4's Sun, Sea and Suspicious Parents. This pocket of fun in the centre of town is the area most families avoid. The square is a dense clutch of neon-lit theme bars, nightclubs and big-brand, fast-food outlets. Perhaps it's the heavy bass beating from every bar, the Day-Glo posters promising a good time or the pints of cocktails for €4 , but as a former worshipper at Ibiza, Magaluf and the Costas, I felt a certain affinity to the place.
But just as I was about to give in to temptation, throw on a "Frankie Says Relax" T-shirt and down a pint of Sex on the Beach, Stelios whisked me past a bar called Teasers and straight into a monastery tucked away in the very heart of Ayia Napa's party zone. Formed around an ancient chapel carved from a cave, the sandstone 15th-century Venetian monastery is set in a beautiful, tree-lined courtyard and is just the place to confess the sins of the night before.
Nearby Nissi Avenue is the resort's popular retail strip, but shopping in Ayia Napa is not just limited to condoms, thongs and glow sticks. With brands such as Calvin Klein, Lacoste and Gant on show there's obviously money to be spent here – and Cyprus's well-documented financial problems means tourist euros are more important than ever.
When the sun set over a darkening sea, Stelios treated me to a traditional Cypriot meal at Tony's Taverna on the quiet outskirts of town. With its white-washed walls, terracotta crockery and blue-checked tablecloths, Tony's is a time-honoured hotspot for hungry locals. My host might have the look of an orthodox priest – his impressively long beard being a hallmark – but with a twinkling smile he knocked out a never-ending parade of fabulous meze, fried slabs of salty halloumi, chunky meatballs, homemade sausages and oodles of feta-laced Greek salad.
The next morning I eschewed the party cruise boats of Ayia Napa and headed 10km along the coast to the quieter resort of Protaras. From Victory harbour I took a gentle boat ride past craggy sea caves to Cape Greco point, the Land's End of Cyprus, where according to legend, "Napy" the fabled Ayia Napa monster lives.
I checked in to the Grecian Park for the night, a sprawling five-star hotel perched high on the cliff. Its staggering views across Konnos Bay and Cape Greco made it my favourite spot on the island so far. I walked down the wooden steps to the curve of Konnos beach, where the soft sand was lapped by temperate, schnapps-clear waters.
Then it was back to Ayia Napa for a visit to the Thalassa Museum of the Sea. Opened in 2005, this vast museum is a splendid way to spend an hour out of the sun. The main exhibit is the Kyrenia II, a life-size replica of a merchant ship built in 400BC which was salvaged from the seabed in the 1960s. It sits alongside a collection of badly stuffed sharks.
My favourite discovery was the fossilised remains of the dwarf elephants and pygmy hippos which were found close to Ayia Napa in 2002 and date back a quarter of a million years.
From the museum I headed a few kilometres inland to an area collectively known as the Kokkinokhoria, "the red villages", thanks to its vibrant, iron-rich soil. Here Rita Ioannidou welcomes visitors into her home, a rustic, whitewashed villa decorated with ocean-blue shutters and fuchsia bougainvillea. Here, she teaches them how to cook kleftiko, a Greek-Cypriot dish of wood-roasted lamb with lemon, herbs and potatoes.
To say I helped is a rash overstatement, unless you count picking lemons fresh from the tree, pulling up the odd earthy potato or plucking a sprig of fragrant laurel from Rita's garden.
We sat together under a laser-blue sky and enjoyed the warmth of the early season sun, our plates piled high with rich kleftiko, a huge platter of crisp Greek salad and several generous glasses of chilled local wine.
Now, for me, this is havin' it large in Ayia Napa.
The writer travelled as a guest of Cyprus Airways (020 8359 1444; cyprusair.com), which flies from Heathrow to Larnaca twice daily from £221 return. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) also fly there from various UK airports.
The writer stayed as a guest of Nissi Beach Resort (00 357 23 721 021; nissi-beach.com) where doubles start at €150; and the Grecian Park Hotel (00 357 238 44044; grecian park.com) where doubles start at €212 (both inc breakfast).
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