The sun warms my face, bees buzz lazily in rosemary bushes, hedgerows are alive with the twitterings of tiny birds and soft air carries the gentle perfume of wild thyme, sage and a nearby taverna’s charcoal grill, just fired up to welcome the first customers of the day.
This is Cyprus – island of olives, goats cheese and long sunny days – even in winter.
There’s no guarantee of sunshine – the week before we arrived the island was experiencing one of the coldest snaps on record – but you’ll be warmer than on any given February day in the UK.
Winter here is short and gentle. December is mild, though it is the month with the most rainfall. January can be pretty chilly but by February you’re likely to get real warmth to the days, although it’s not a case of “No Jacket Required” in the evenings.
Cyprus out of season
The roads are quiet
Well to be honest the roads are pretty quiet in Cyprus all year round, except the rush in towns at 1pm when the workers leave for lunch and again at 3pm when they return, but it can be unnerving meeting a tour bus on a narrow bend halfway up a mountain – which rarely happens in the winter months.
We hired an economy car, swiftly nicknamed “The Kia Gutless” for its inability to get out of second gear on any serious incline. It turned out to be tough enough to get us up the winding road to Stavrovouni Monastery, bounce over rough tracks in the foothills and even tackle fresh-fallen snow in the Troodos mountains.
Thank you little Kia.
You will see flamingos
Up to 20,000 greater flamingos spend the winter months on the salt lakes of Akrotiri and Larnaca. Flocks spread out across the middle of the lake, just distant blobs to the naked eye and way beyond Pork Belly’s camera lens, but through binoculars you might catch flashes of pale rose and striking pink as they take off and land on the vast salt pan.
Then check out the viewing platform of the Akrotiri Environmental Education & Information Centre. If you’re very lucky you may even glimpse the rare black flamingo. He’d been spotted in the days running up to our visit but had clearly opted for the shores of Larnaca lake while we’d plumped for Akrotiri.
You will be far from the madding crowd
You can often find yourself the only traveller around, even at the most popular of tourist attractions.
We saw Aphrodite’s Rock (or Petra tou Romiou as the Cypriots call it) early in the morning. An underground passage leads you from the car park and café to the tiny beach where you burst out into bright sunshine on the curve of a small bay. Water laps gently on the shore and the geological anomaly that is The Rock itself rises above the water.
If you’re romantically inclined you’ll feel the vibe of love and will imagine Aphrodite herself rising from the foam. In warmer months you may even be tempted to swim out and round it for yourself (beware of strong currents and make sure you get the right rock), hoping the myth of long life and fertility for all those who brave the waters is true.
But to be honest it is just a rock, in a very pretty bay, so if you have to fight your way through crowds over the stony beach to see it you might be disappointed. Go, as we did, early on a clear winter’s day and you’ll be entranced.
The mountain village of Omodos gets over-run with coach trips in the summer months but off season it’s delightfully quiet and it’s not so high in the hills to get too chilly. The village square is a perfect place to linger outdoors even in February.
We spent more than four hours exploring the ancient hilltop town of Kourion and barely saw a soul. The site is well worth lingering over especially if, like me, you are fascinated by the past.
The whole site was buried in a massive earthquake in the fourth century AD, abandoned and left almost completely undisturbed until the 1930s.
Most visitors only stay long enough to see Eustolios’ House with its well preserved mosaic floors and try out the acoustics in the amphitheatre, then they move on.
But take time to explore and you will find the huge expanse of the Roman marketplace, the remains of an early Christian basilica and an enormous public bathhouse and even more mosaics.
Sunset comes early (and sunrise is late)
Any photographer will tell you that the light is best early in the morning and again in the evening. Travelling with Pork Belly I have had far too many early alarm calls and have waited almost every day, mostly with patience, on rocks, benches and under trees while the sun goes down and he holds on for that last, perfect shot (never believe a photographer when they say “just one more”).
The good news is that in winter the sun starts to go down around five-ish and the late afternoon light also gives rise to some spectacular seascapes and romantic shipwrecks.
Which means you can still be back in time for an evening meal. Result!
The restaurants welcome you with open arms
In some of the more tourist areas restaurants do close for the winter but the vast majority of Cypriot tavernas stay open whatever the season. Even in the remotest villages you’ll be able to pick up drinks and snacks, although don’t expect a range of fancy coffees.
We actually like Cyprus coffee with its dark, earthy flavour (just don’t swig the last of the cup or you’ll get a mouthful of bitter coffee grounds!) but appreciate it’s not to everyone’s taste.
During our stay we enjoyed a wide variety of meals from simple salads, lunch at Aphrodite’s Rock Brewery, top quality take-away kebabs, freshly grilled souvlaki, melt-in-the-mouth stifado and fine dining.
The most fun was in Paphos – a simple meal at the Kings of Aphrodite traditional taverna, freshly cooked and very tasty. But as the evening wore on Pork Belly leaned towards me and hissed “Don’t look now but I think Brian’s just arrived with his Bontempi.”
He was swiftly joined by a mate on electric bouzouki, and at this point the evening took off. The musicians were skilful and the diners well up for it, dancing and singing along to all their favourite classic (Cypriot) hits and demonstrating extreme moves on the tiny dance-floor. This was no staged event for tourists but simply a great Saturday night out.
You can unleash your inner Indiana Jones
As long as you treat any ruins with respect you’re free to wander at will, poking your nose into every nook and cranny.
The Tomb of the Kings in Paphos is one such place, and is great if you have adventurous kids in tow. Strictly speaking no kings were ever buried here but it is the final resting place for local dignitaries of the pre-Roman Ptolomeic era when graves were built as a representation of the houses of the living.
And if you really miss the cold …
… just head up into the hills.
Cyprus is one of those places where you can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. The Troodos mountains, which are the spine of the island, have a light dusting of snow almost all year round and in winter that increases to give enough for a respectable ski run.
We don’t ski but were drawn to the area not just because of the spectacular views but also the mysterious, abandoned Hotel Berengaria in Prodromos.
Opened in 1931 it once entertained the rich and famous – even royalty – but closed in 1984 and now stands stony, silent and desolate on the mountainside. You can imagine elegantly dressed guests ascending the huge stone staircase in the entrance to dance the night away in the ballroom – now all rotting floorboards and broken balconies.
It’s an eerie place – rumours and stories about its past abound and it felt very sad and lonely as the silent snowflakes fell covering the once beautiful sun deck and long-abandoned diving board.
There are signs warning visitors of the dangers and yet still they come – youngsters bring booze and branches for a fire, graffiti artists busy themselves on the solid stone walls and the footsteps of visitors ring hollowly on the stone floor.
And it was cold, very cold.
So we left for the warmth of the coast and a night of luxury in the King Evelthon Hotel in Paphos.
Disclaimer: We travelled to Cyprus at our own expense but we’re grateful to the Cyprus Tourism Office who provided us with free access to archaeological sites and museums. All views expressed are our own opinions.
More information about Cyprus
To discover more about Cyprus and help plan your trip start with the Visit Cyprus website