Welcome to Ayia Napa

The hippest holiday on Earth (and we're a long, long way from Ibiza)

Lena Corner
Thursday 20 July 2000 00:00 BST

As a stereotypical package-holiday spot, it lacks a few key ingredients. There are, for example, no screaming kids, no beer bellies, no blistered casualties of the midday sun and not a single inflatable banana in sight. Instead, here on a sandy point on the west coast of Cyprus, Britain's teenagers have transformed a sleepy resort into this summer's most happening holiday destination. Forget Ibiza: for those in pursuit of the cool, Ayia Napa's Nissi Bay is absolutely the place to be.

As a stereotypical package-holiday spot, it lacks a few key ingredients. There are, for example, no screaming kids, no beer bellies, no blistered casualties of the midday sun and not a single inflatable banana in sight. Instead, here on a sandy point on the west coast of Cyprus, Britain's teenagers have transformed a sleepy resort into this summer's most happening holiday destination. Forget Ibiza: for those in pursuit of the cool, Ayia Napa's Nissi Bay is absolutely the place to be.

And whatever else it is, Ayia Napa is a well-dressed scene. In the Nissi beach bar, DJs and club promoters in Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana sip on soft drinks while, outside, a steady flow of bikini-clad PR girls work their way around the bay, promoting the latest fashionable club night with banners and balloons. Though the bathers are wearing only the skimpiest of beachwear, hair is still immaculate, manicures intact. Mobile phones trill incessantly.

The punters may be British and they may be here for sun, sex and dance music, but Ayia Napa is a long way from the drug-fuelled, hands-in-the-air hedonism of Ibiza. Instead, this is style-conscious urban London decamped to the eastern Mediterranean. It's a predominantly black crowd, and so represents perhaps the broadest racial mix you'll find on any beach in Europe. And, every evening, regular as clockwork, a lone metal detector can be seen picking his way among the empty sun loungers after the beach has cleared. Jewellery is an essential part of Nissi Bay beachwear and there are rich pickings to be had.

Welcome to the world of UK Garage - a soulful form of uptempo dance music - which has been shaking up the British club scene for the past five years. What was once a deeply underground, late-night scene based around a few south London pubs has exploded into the mainstream. It's got its own major league DJs, it's own million-selling chart toppers in the shape of The Artful Dodger and Craig David. And now it has its own holiday destination.

If any further endorsement was needed, this weekend, for the first time, Radio One will be shipping a group of DJs out to broadcast their weekend shows direct from the beach. "People who like black urban music have been excluded from an affordable fortnight in the sun," says Radio One's Trevor Nelson. "Ibiza is a no no. It's all just house music and it's too dependent on the drug culture. Historically the vast majority of black kids tend to go on holiday to the West Indies or America - to visit relatives. I've never really ventured to Europe for a holiday. But Ayia Napa is a London thing: R'n'B and garage is hot right now and this is THE destination." It's not just Radio One that wants a slice of the action. Hot on their heels are the inevitable array of film crews. MTV, UK Play and BBC2's youth-music strand, Ozone. All heard the hype and will be descending on Nissi Bay in the next few weeks. The Ministry of Sound is throwing two big summer parties here to promote "Ayia Napa - The Album", one of a stream of UK garage compilations soon to be clogging the record racks.

And, this summer, Ayia Napa is booked to the rafters. Two and a half million visitors are expected - double the numbers of a decade ago. Hotel space is notoriously difficult to find and those who can't find room have been checking into Nicosia and splashing out on cabs to take them to the Ayia Napan clubs 90km away.

But the exposure has brought problems too. Last year Channel 4 filmed a six-part series here, dubbing it Fantasy Island. As a result, this season the resort has been deluged too with thrill-seekers, out for a classic fix of sex and sun. This sits uneasily beside the chic burgeoning UK garage scene, and many feel that this type of publicity will kill their musical hideaway in its infancy.

"This year the crowd is so much younger," complains Lily, a club promoter. "A lot of people are just here for Fantasy Island - here for the sex. Last year, it was so much more chilled but now it's getting too much. I give it five more years: the crowd will get younger and more rampant and then fizzle out. Already they're losing the families; soon it will be the garage lot too."

From her marble municipal headquarters, the Mayoress of Ayia Napa, Barbara Pericleous, is also monitoring the situation closely. She isn't happy either. "Channel 4 are a disgrace," she thunders. "They came and they set all those things up. They showed people having sex and taking their clothes off. They made the people who come here look like animals. They [Channel 4] are back again this year but this time I have my people following them. I know where they are staying and they are being watched. I don't trust them and if they do it again we will sue."

It's hard to believe now that just 25 years ago Ayia Napa was a fishing village with only around 100 inhabitants. After the Turkish invasion of 1974, the government compensated some of those who had lost their homes and livelihoods with sections of land in Ayia Napa. At that time, there was nothing there but the beaches. The displaced Cypriots had to eke out a living somehow and the obvious solution was to turn their new-found home into a tourist destination.

Quite how the UK Garage scene first found its way here remains something of a mystery, though like most things in Ayia Napa it can be traced back to three colourful brothers - Linos, Finos and George Melas. Together they opened their first club, the Black and White, way back in 1985, when Linos, the middle son, was a wide-eyed 18-year-old.

Back then, the clubs were playing cheesy Seventies disco hits and and shut down at a respectable 2am. Then, a couple of years ago, Linos heard about what was happening on the London club scene, that the garage clubs there - such as Pure Silk and Vauxhall's Twice and Nice - were pulling in huge crowds and, what's more, these were people with taste, style and plenty of cash.

So Linos paid them a visit and secured a deal with Pure Silk, who in 1998 became the first UK garage club to venture out to Ayia Napa. They played in Pzazz, a 2,000 capacity Melas-owned venue and the biggest in the resort. A year later, Linos struck a deal with Twice as Nice and they too started doing nights at Pzazz. Linos had bagged both of London's premier UK garage nights and Pzazz is now considered Ayia Napa's top venue.

These days, the Melas brothers seem to have things sewn up in Ayia Napa. As well as four clubs, they own a bar, a go-cart track, a nearby water park and Napa FM, the ubiquitous local radio station which is even piped through to the swimming pools. As a marketing tool it's invaluable - all their own club nights are ensured continuous exposure.

Linos talks frequently of the Ayia Napan "system" but this seems to amount to an unwritten rulebook devised entirely by him. Sharing DJs between clubs, he believes, is bad for business. As such he has signed an exclusivity deal with the top UK garage DJs, the Dreem Teem, to ensure they play at his clubs and his clubs only. Linos closely monitors his rivals to ensure they work strictly within the "system".

It seems to work. On a stifling Tuesday night, queues for Twice as Nice are snaking 200 metres down the road. Despite the £10 entrance fee and a hitch with the air conditioning everyone wants to be here.

A couple of girls dressed to the nines are attempting to sweet talk their way past the bouncers but at Twice as Nice, there's no chance. Inside, the heat of hundreds of dancing bodies smacks you right in the face. "I say Ayia, you say Napa," chants the MC into his microphone to the crowd who sing it straight back. The main dance floor is a sunken pit in the centre of the club and rammed inside is a seething mass of joyous, glistening bodies.

This isn't any old dancefloor where people just move in time to the music. Here they dance with it - movements are flamboyant, jerky and quicktime - everyone is showing off, begging for attention.

But unlike Linos, others haven't found it quite so easy to break Ayia Napa. Martin Alexander is promoting a club night, Fresh'n'Funky, at Black and White on a Thursday and at Pzazz on a Monday. The overheads are high as he has a team of three based out there for the whole summer so the pressure is on.

Black and White only holds 400 people and the £6 entrance fee leaves little margin for error. The club has to be full. "If I'd known it was going to be this hard don't think I would have bothered," he says.

"The difference between promoting a night over here and in London is so vast we might as well be doing a night in Russia," comments another promoter. "There are restrictions on everything, the authorities are breathing down your neck all the time. I've seen a hell of a lot of people get their fingers burnt. Contracts are all handshakes and word of mouth so one night you could be doing a club and then the next night you're not."

Still, when major UK Garage DJs can command up to £1,500 an hour, there's big money to be made too. Anonymous calls to the police about rival clubs' noise levels or licensing hours are frequent. And the signs are that Ayia Napa may be in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. Almost inevitably, drugs are starting to seep in, despite Cyprus's strict zero-tolerance policy. Now the Mayoress has had enough and, next year, she is going to crack down. Licensing hours will be cut back and strict new laws about noise levels introduced. "We are not the new Ibiza," she insists, "we never have been and we never will be."

But still they will keep on coming. As Ayia Napa gets bigger, people are unlikely to sacrifice their new found paradise for the sake of local politics. "Now it's has gone mainstream I'm waiting for the next step. Coming here from London is about seeing into the future," concludes Rashida, a Moroccan-born veteran of the Garage scene. Not everyone is so philosophical, however.

As he casts his eyes across the clear water of Nissi Bay, Fresh'n'Funky's DJ Rampage reflects: "You won't catch me anywhere near that water. I don't do sea." And besides, he adds, strolling over to a group of girls lying in the sun, "I've got a club to promote."

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