Coastal calm on Cape Greco, Cyprus’s peaceful haven

Palaces sea caves

Mercifully, the pirate ship is passing by far enough away as to not be heard. I wouldn’t even have noticed it had I not looked up at that exact moment. And for that I blame the turtles – a pair of them bobbing along enticingly in front of me, asking to be followed, and then darting down through the endless blue to the sands far beneath, well beyond the range of my snorkel.

That pirate ship is a party boat, and it’s as close as the resort of Ayia Napa comes to Cape Greco. Thank goodness for that. Because here at Cape Greco, some six miles east of the infamous square, with its bulging dance floors and laser lighting, is a paradise of unfeasibly blue water backed by a honeycomb coast of hidden caves and a national park.

Eastern Cyprus has always been acknowledged as having the best beaches, the most inviting waters. But to anyone who has winced at Ayia Napa Uncovered on TV, or arrived at Larnaca airport with groups of twenty-somethings in matching T-shirts and comedy hats, Ayia Napa means something very different indeed.

The clubbing crowds have been coming here since the mid-1980s, pushing the couples and families away to the west, mostly to Paphos, and its large, sandy beaches and child-friendly hotels. But today they are starting to return to the east, and to rediscover why tourism started here in the first place. It is, quite simply, beautiful.

 The white stuff … the Artisan Resort

The white stuff … the Artisan Resort

I am staying at the Artisan Resort, up the coast from the white sand beach of Konnos Bay and just outside the boundary of Cape Greco national park. Here, whitewashed villas line a driveway that is gated to keep out the traffic, while a tunnel of jacarandas keeps out the sun. The thick walls and double-skin roofs avoid the need for air conditioning.

Photographs on the walls of the national park’s colourful wildflowers, limestone crags and bright blue waters leave me keen to get out there and explore, so owner Andreas and I lace up our hiking boots and take to the walking trail that leads from just outside our front door. First stop is the coffee caravan at the junction of the main road and the cape road. Owner Louis makes us strong Cypriot coffee – sweet and almost sludgy – for €1 apiece and we sit in the sun on plastic chairs and gaze at the building site opposite.

This will be the park’s visitor centre, set to open next year after being stalled by the economic crisis. Andreas hopes that this renewed investment in the area will bring more visitors and boost the local economy. For now, there is little information available about the park, so Andreas makes the perfect companion, leading me to hidden sites not marked on my tourist map.

Down on the coast we pick our way along the sort of rudimentary, dusty path I would never have noticed alone, passing between jagged limestone ledges to a flat area of rock. Andreas tells me to take a few steps forward and I see, perfectly framed by a natural rocky window, the Palaces sea caves, a line of natural arches along the water’s edge that appear much like a row of simple houses. These once sheltered Jewish refugees fleeing the Romans; today they shade kayakers as they dip in and out of coves and caves as they paddle their way along the coast.

Tourists on the natural stone bridge at the sea caves outside Ayia Napa. Photograph: Alamy

Tourists on the natural stone bridge at the sea caves outside Ayia Napa. Photograph: Alamy

Kayaking is a fantastic way to explore the Cape Greco coastline but hiking is even better, because we can get both down to the water’s edge and up above the perilously undercut coastline at Cape Greco Tabletop. Climbing to the summit of this limestone plug is sweaty work but it has its rewards: birds including Cyprus wheatears and warblers, even a peregrine falcon on the hunt, fly almost at eye level. I am torn between looking up and looking down at the maquis shrubland at my feet, where wild garlic, anemones and poppies sway in the sea breeze. But then suddenly we are at the summit and I can see nothing but water. The intense spring sun makes me throw up my hand to shield my eyes, but from this height the tip of Europe itself is clearly visible, surrounded by brilliant ocean.

Dominating the cape – and stopping us from reaching its tip – is the British military radio installation: our eyes and ears on the Middle East. Seeing this brings home the fact that we are on the very edge of a continent, the last landfall before Syria. Its position means that Cyprus has long been a prize to be fought over, and Andreas tells me that there are ruins from every civilisation from the Phoenicians to the Greeks on the cape, the point at which would-be invaders usually landed.

Naturally, much of this is impossible to spot unless you know what you’re looking for and, as Andreas leads me down a scrubby little path back towards the resort, it is abundantly clear that I do not. It all looks entirely unpromising and I find myself longing to be back in the water. That is until Andreas pulls me over a rocky ledge and into a rectangular hole in the ground – the remains of a neolithic settlement some 6,000 years old. I am gobsmacked. This row of human-cut dwellings is older than anything I have ever seen and yet it all makes sense, from the rough steps that would have acted as a front door, to the ancient road still visible in the limestone beneath our feet.

I stand in one house and look out to sea, where I see that pirate ship once again. I can see the people onboard but they cannot see me, nor the ancient city I am standing in. Ayia Napa seems very far away indeed.

Original article by Helen Ochyra on The Guardian