Those of you who pack glowsticks for their summer holiday may as well stop reading now. I’m travelling to Ayia Napa a couple of weeks before high-season kicks in and the local clubs will be deserted. And, quite frankly, I’m far too ancient for such shenanigans anyway.
I have been invited to visit by the Cyprus Tourist Organisation (CTO) who are on a mission to show a totally different side of the one-time party capital of Europe. After a late-night arrival at the Nissi Beach Hotel, first impressions on opening the blinds the next morning are promising. The view over the hotel’s colourful, landscaped gardens dotted with palm trees, out towards a 1,000-metre long sandy beach and turquoise sea is stunning. Just four hours flight away from the UK, it could easily be mistaken for a Caribbean scene. And with Cyprus Airways offering flights from Heathrow to Larnaca twice daily from £221, it’s a whole lot cheaper to get here.
After breakfast, local tour guide, Stelios Anthrakiotis, and Orestis Rossides, the amiable silver-haired director of the CTO in London, lead our group to Ayia Napa’s most historic site, the town’s monastery located in the Ammochostos district. Its church was founded to the 13th century after, according to local legend, a hunter’s dog discovered a glowing icon of the Virgin Mary of Napes in a cave on the site, but the walls of the monastery were added over the next couple of centuries.
Shuffling quietly around the monastery’s picturesque courtyard on a sunny Spring day, there is only the unlit neon sign of a bar across the road bearing the legend ‘Teasers’ to remind visitors of Ayia Napa’s gaudier reputation. But driving through the town, with its multinational chain fast-food joints and local cafes and bars touting burgers, chips and jugs of cocktails for unfeasibly low prices, it is clear that Ayia Napa’s popularity has been achieved at some cost to indigenous culture. However Mr Rossides is keen to point out that the roads have improved radically over the past decade and tighter planning laws mean that the bars and shops rise no higher than two storeys and new hotels don’t exceed four storeys.
Later on in our trip, we visit Ayia Napa’s other beacon of culture, The Thalassa Museum (‘Museum of the Sea’). This striking three-storey museum, built from marble, oynx, wood and metal, opened in 2005 and aims to explain the significance of the sea on the history of Cyprus. Good value at just €3 entry for adults and €1 for children and students, the main exhibit is an exact replica of a Kyrenian ship from 400BC. However the life-size replicas of the miniature elephants (hip-height) and hippopotamuses (knee-high) that once roamed Cyprus are my personal favourites. I’m a sucker for bonsai mammals.
Beyond the monastery and museum, it is fair to say that Ayia Napa is not the prettiest place, though, so it pays to venture away from the main strip. A short drive east along the coast and we stop off at the Palatia sea caves, where the brave can jump/dive/bomb into the sea from 20-foot high rocks (sadly, I don’t have my swimming costume with me…). Then we take a pleasant amble along the Agioi Anagyroi-Konnos Trail round the south-eastern tip of Cyprus, during which Stelios introduces us to the wild plants of this protected National Park.
Lunch is taken at the beach café overlooking Konnos Bay (more on that later…). Then we travel a little further north to visit the hilltop Prophet Elias chapel from which there is panoramic view across Protaras Bay (Fig Tree Bay) and beyond, before heading back to Nissi Beach Hotel for a lazy afternoon in the lush gardens. With it’s flowering tree-lined pathways leading to a gazebo for wedding ceremonies plus a rondavel on the beach and attractive open-air restaurant for post-nuptial receptions, it’s easy to see why the hotel is a hugely popular wedding venue. They host over 300 weddings per year and the 100,000m2 garden and ample reception rooms inside means two per day can easily be accommodated without undue crossover.
The resort has been also selected as a model ‘Green Beach’ for the whole of Cyprus and a number of impressive environmentally friendly initiatives are underway from supporting indigenous plants (the gardens are dominated by local trees and plants well adapted to Cyprus’s dry, hot climate) to recycling waste water from the hotel to irrigate the land.
In the evening we dine at Tony’s Taverna (tel. +357 23 722 515), a local institution owned by a charming man who also owns a fantastic beard reminiscent of Sacha Baron Cohen’s in The Dictator. It’s tricky to nominate favourites from the belt-looseningly delicious array of 25 meze dishes served, but the superb lamb kleftiko and red-wine infused Cyprus potatoes are particularly memorable.
Between mouthfuls, I chat to Lakis Avraamides, a former Cyprus international midfielder and journalist and now director Ayia Napa–Protara Tourist Board. He is keen to dispel a few myths. Most surprisingly of all, he says that the clubbing tourism Ayia Napa has become most associated with actually accounts for just 10 per cent of the region’s overall tourist trade and the majority of Ayia Napa’s hotels are in the four-star bracket. Indeed, a number of two-star hotels have closed as young clubbers gravitate towards alternative destinations and, consequently, some of the bars that service that market are closing.
The following evening, on a visit to the stylish four-star Napa Mermaid Hotel for cocktails their urbane manager Christos Louca outlines his grand plan to directly address this issue. Louca has overseen major renovations to his hotel over the past few years and raised room rates, which now range from €60pp for a standard room to the €400-500 suites popular with Middle Eastern clients who rent them for summer months at a time. The majority of his guests are drawn from Germany, Switzerland and Norway, while the number of English guests has dived since the price rices. He tells me that he wants to put together a consortium of local hoteliers to raise around €100 million in capital with a view to taking over properties in town and opening bars, restaurants and cafes to match the requirements of his clientele. This is a major project, but Louca isn’t fazed. After all, he was one of the hoteliers driven out of Famagusta, Cyprus’s original tourist resort, when the Turks invaded in 1974, and forced to start all over again from scratch here. In comparison, the challenge to transform an area within Ayia Napa is relatively minor.
And an upgrade is needed, because while Tony’s Taverna is great, the impression is that four-star punters are generally better off staying around their hotels to eat. The Mousikos Tavern (+357 23 828 833) at the village of Sotira, a 15-minute drive inland, offers a similarly impressive feast, and the deceptively non-descript Isaac Tavern (+357 23 723 560) on the harbour serves up an excellent variety of fresh, locally-caught fish, but other options for discerning punters appear to be thin on the ground.
For those wishing to keep their distance from high-season high-jinks in central Ayia Napa and able to pay, the Grecian Park Hotel a few miles away is a fine option. Twin side sea-view rooms from €106pp (half-board €25; full-board €40) represent good value at this five-star hotel. It is perched high above the aforementioned Konnos Bay, a protected little cove offering calm, crystal-clear waters for swimming and watersports. I sampled parasailing (two people floating 150 metres above the sea), ‘Crazy UFO’ (five people on an inflatable raft being dragged along by a speedboat) and ‘Flying Fish’ (three people on an inflatable raft being dragged along by a speedboat until it tips up almost vertically and you’re hanging on for dear life). Marvellous.
For a more leisurely alternative, take a boat trip (www.ayiatriascyprus.com) with optional barbecue, departing from Pernera, a few miles north. I also experience an ‘Aqua Thermal Journey’ at Sunrise Pearl Hotel and Spa – floating in water as salty as the Dead Sea is a particularly relaxing part of the process, but shivering in wet swimming shorts in a sub-zero ‘Snow Chamber’ might leave you questioning your sanity when the sun is beating down outside. And for something completely different, head out to the countryside near Sotira village to the home of the charming Rita Ioannidou (contact: email@example.com). There you can forage for ingredients and help her prepare lunch (don't worry – she does most of the work) and eat it on the patio of her beautiful garden.
I come away convinced that there is an alternative Ayia Napa beyond the stereotypical image. Okay, if you aren’t into clubbing, probably best to avoid July and August – even the locals find the weather too hot then, anyway. Why not try April or late October instead when the mercury can still rise up to 28-degrees and the partying hordes have largely departed? And while central Ayia Napa is not the most attractive town, they are working on it. In the meantime, there’s excellent hotels, sugar-white beaches, the Mediterranean Sea and a few hidden gems to discover. To borrow the regional tourist board’s slogan, you just need to ‘find your spot’.