Walks, our group, our hotel
So run that by me again he’d said. You’re married. Going on holiday with a group of single people. I’m not coming. Is there something we need to talk about? Yes, can I borrow the small rucksack – it’s a walking holiday so it’ll be very handy. No need for dramas.
Spoiler alert: 25% of people who holiday on their own are not single. In fact, it’s a refreshing change travelling by yourself, but within an organised group, as everyone makes much more effort to chat. You can also dip in and out whenever you want to, which is not so easy when travelling with the other-half, family or friends. Quite liberating, actually. How often do we get to please ourselves? Turned out to be one of the friendliest, inclusive and genuinely enjoyable holidays I have had for some time.
I’d joined a Solos walking holiday in Northern Cyprus as part of a small group for four days of organised walks with a couple of free days and optional excursions. As someone who begins most days with a 40-minute walk around the local park, I was hopeful I would manage the walking – 8/10 miles easy to medium level – without too much difficulty.
When travelling to Northern Cyprus (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), unless via Istanbul, all flights go to the south portion of the island which is the Republic of Cyprus. We flew into Larnaca and travelled by mini-bus across the border and arrived at Lapida Garden Hotel in Lapta, near Kyrenia about 1.5 hours later. Cyprus, a country still divided with no resolution in sight after 46 years, more of which later.
The Lapida is a small 3-star family-run hotel. It’s spotlessly clean with comfortable rooms, all with balconies and good bathrooms, and, on the ground floor, an open-plan dining room, bar and seating area around a log fire, very rustic. There’s a lovely rambling garden with plenty of seating areas and sun loungers surrounding an inviting pool, trees laden with oranges, lemons and other fruits. For warmer months there’s an outdoor bar, bbq area and table tennis. A recent addition at the hotel is a fabulous, spacious, hammam. However, it’s quite unlike anywhere I’ve ever stayed before. To say the hotel is quirky is rather an understatement. The owner, Feti, himself of Silver Traveller vintage, has been collecting ‘stuff’ since he was 10 years old and displays his ‘treasures’ all around the hotel. To say it is an eclectic collection doesn’t really do justice to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of genuine antiques and bric’a’brac or, as some would say, tat, he has accumulated. A veritable museum of curiosity, which made the hotel all the more interesting!
My Solos companions were a friendly group from a wide variety of backgrounds. Ranging in age from 42 to 76 years old, 8 women (including me) and 6 men, many had been on walking holidays with Solos or other specialist operators previously. Our male guide Merrek, a local Turkish Cypriot, who has worked as a guide for over 20 years, was very sociable, knowledgeable and stayed with us throughout the week. He was everything you want in a guide, receptive to the group’s needs and a mine of information about everything from wild flowers, history and politics – of which there is aplenty on this island.
The first day, Sunday, was a free day with walking planned for Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and another free day with optional excursion on Wednesday. After breakfast and our introductory meeting we set off in glorious sunshine to a nearby beachside fish restaurant where we enjoyed our first delicious Cypriot meal: meze, fresh sea bass, fruit plate and almond cake washed down with a glass of local Efes beer. And the grand total for this pretty spectacular feast – 70TL, about £10. Excellent value.
An afternoon rest before meeting in the bar around 6.30 for a pre-dinner drink set a pattern for the rest of the week. Family-run, the home-cooked food offered a good choice both at breakfast and supper with a daily changing set menu: hot soup; large selection of cold meze and salads (mostly vegetable based); two or three hot mezes; a main course, such as roast chicken and potatoes, sea bream, meatballs, moussaka, chicken stew and, on the final night, barbecued meats and halloumi. It has to be said, for anyone with a sweet tooth, desserts were not the star of the show, though there was always fresh fruit, cake or a light pudding. I was the only non-meat eater in the group and there was always a good selection for me to choose from and enjoy.
Two drinks – your choice – were included each evening with anything extra on top chargeable. A couple of the guys (mentioning no names Peter and Mike) it’s probably fair to say, over the week, had quite a few ‘additional’ drinks. They were both surprised and delighted to find at the end of the week their extras bills were 49E and 52E, around £45 – what a bargain! Also, the Turkish house wine was delicious – both white and red – and served in very large glasses, so no skimping on that front.
On walking days we collected our picnic lunch, which included: a piece of fruit; carton of juice; sweet cake or biscuit; and a large Borek (filo pastry with fillings such as feta cheese, spinach, olives etc., topped with sesame seeds). Delicious, substantial – just what was needed.
Ah, yes, walking. Let’s not forget the purpose of the holiday and why I borrowed my husband’s rucksack!
We set off from the hotel at 9am each day, mostly by small mini-bus, to reach the area for the day’s walk, returning to the hotel about 5 hours later. Due to the hotel’s location, with the backdrop of the impressive Five Finger Kyrenia mountain range close by, the mini-bus transfers were relatively short and on Thursday we set off directly from the hotel. The itinerary included walks around the impressive Gecitkoy water reservoir, through ancient olive groves, pretty countryside carpeted with wild flowers and pine forests to the ruins of the Byzantine Sinai Monastery. Interestingly, our very own Lord Kitchener, tasked with the cartography of the island between 1881-3, held a birthday picnic in this beautiful spot. I’m guessing he didn’t have to carry the food and equipment up the rather steep path to the monastery! Sadly, Friday’s plans to hillside vineyards, followed by wine-tasting, had to be abandoned due to storms of almost biblical dimensions.
For those interested in stats, the walks ranged from 8-10 miles, averaging between 21-25,000 steps – enough not to worry about extra calories from the previous night’s supper. I have to admit, though, I found myself getting a bit out of puff with aching limbs climbing up some of the inclines, especially on Thursday to the Sinai monastery, done in pretty torrential rain which made for quite difficult walking. However, I think that’s more to do with my fitness than anything else, as the eldest member of the group (76) always seemed to be at the front and joyfully scampered up the inclines like an elegant mountain goat – an inspiration to us all Sarah!
The group consisted of many people who were Solo regulars – always a good sign – some regular hill walkers and not-so-serious amblers like me. It must be a challenge to grade and assess the level of ease or difficulty. On chatting to the group, some thought the walking was moderate rather than easy, whereas others thought, in comparison to previous experiences, the grading was accurate. I’d nothing to compare it with so don’t feel qualified to express an opinion. It’s worth mentioning, though, to enjoy the holiday a reasonable level of fitness is required. What I can reveal, however, is that each day I set off and returned with no serious aches, pains or blisters – result!
I’m not a ‘twitcher’ but given Cyprus is one of the major migration routes across the Mediterranean for over 300 different birds, with 46 species native to the island, I was rather surprised to see so few birds or hear birdsong as we ambled along. Maybe, unlike living under the Heathrow flight-path (on which I am an expert), we were not directly under their migratory flyway, though, like some other areas of Europe this may be due (in part) to illegal hunting and poaching. The island is also known for its fantastic flora, particularly the beautiful Cyprus Bee Orchid. Home to many wild flowers, with about 30 species of orchids only found on the island, not surprisingly there were a few keen botanists amongst the group. Although we were a couple of weeks early to see many of the rare orchids in full bloom, we saw quite a few different species, including the Cyprus Bee and fields carpeted with spring flowers across the landscape.
For me, the walking was hugely enjoyable and I felt a tremendous sense of achievement. Ok it wasn’t Everest or Kilimanjaro, but still. Small steps. I also loved the ambience amongst the group as we mingled and chatted – you can learn a lot about people on a long walk! However, a huge and unexpected bonus of the trip was the fascinating insight we gained into the island’s history and politics during the excursions. With Merrek’s unique knowledge and commentary promoting much debate and discussion, particularly over supper and late into the night. So pour yourself a glass of wine and read on.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Solos Holidays.