Discovering North Cyprus is a special experience in so many ways. This is not just another Mediterranean island holiday because as well as the familiar sunshine, warm sea and beaches plus a wide range of large and small hotels, it also has a long and intriguing history – both ancient and more recent – and some spectacular mountain and coastal scenery.
These days, the two parts of this divided island – Greek in the South and West and Turkish in the North and East – co-exist peacefully. And exploring across the border does not present a problem, provided you have your passport with you. The TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) occupies some 37% of the island and is generally regarded as prettier than the south – but with much less tourism development.
The main resort town is Kyrenia (known as Girne to the Cypriot Turks) with a population of less than 10,000, but with much to offer visitors. The harbour area, usually with an impressive gathering of yachts, large and small, is overlooked by the imposing 12th century Crusader castle. Around the harbour are wall-to-wall restaurants and bars which becomes an impressive sight at night, when hungry tourists gather to taste the speciality kleftiko lamb (slow roasted in the oven), or fresh-caught fish.
Prior to the island’s independence from Britain in 1960, Kyrenia was a favourite retirement destination for the British and many continue to live there. The Victorian buildings around the old harbour seem largely unchanged, including the former British Club where countless tales must have been told over pink gins! Today, the North Cyprus wines, such as Aphrodite and Kantara, are palatable enough, but for a little more you can sample Turkish mainland favourites, including Villa Doluca (red) and Cankaya (white).
The hilltop area of Bellapais, a mile or two above Kyrenia, has a historic abbey and monastery, and this was a favourite residential area for British residents. It now offers several excellent hotels away from the bustling town and harbor areas. This is where I stayed on my most recent visit, in an attractive and traditionally Turkish ‘boutique’ hotel, which proved to be an ideal base for seeing as much of the island as we wished in the time available.
Eastwards along the coast from Kyrenia there are several large resort hotels on the way to the Karpaz Peninsula with its pure white beaches stretching for miles, often without a single bather. You are much more likely to see a wild donkey among the dunes than a tourist. Flanked by the mountain range to the South and the Mediterranean Sea to the north, a trip to the tip of the Karpaz is accurately described as “one of life’s unforgettable journeys”. There are many stops worth making, notably at Turtle Beach and at St Hilarion Castle (said to have been the model for Walt Disney’s Snow White castle).
Over the centuries, Cyprus has been ruled, at various times, by the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, French, Venetians, Byzantians, Ottomans and British and each has left behind something of their culture. Those with memories of the 1950s can revisit the Troodos mountain range in the south with its echoes of the guerilla warfare between the Greeks, led by General Grivas, and the British forces. Then in 1974 came the Greek attempt to annex the island, the Turkish invasion and eventually the UN-mandated separation of the island, now seen most vividly in the divided capital city of Nicosia. Standing between the two sectors is the former Ledra Palace Hotel, now a shadow of its elegant past. Nicosia is now a thriving modern city for shopping and sightseeing – and one unique feature is the former Greek Orthodox St. Sophia cathedral, now on the Turkish side of the divide and converted to a mosque with twin minarets and renamed Selimiye Mosque.
So, a holiday in North Cyprus can be whatever you want it to be, from relaxation on a warm, sunny Mediterranean beach to an exploration of the past. To get there, flights from the UK and elsewhere to Ercan airport involve a short stop in Turkey – a legal requirement now handled with speed and efficiency – with just a 30-40 minutes transfer to the resort areas around Kyrenia. The alternative is a direct flight to Larnaca airport in South Cyprus, followed by a journey of about 90-minutes.
The peak months for visiting the island are May, June, September and October – it can reach around 40C in the hottest months of July and August. During the winter months of January and February, the Cyprus weather is similar to the UK, with temperatures around 10C – but with an average, 300 days of sunshine per year, a holiday in North Cyprus is an ideal destination.