James Clark shares his top ten things to see and do in one of the Mediterranean’s more off the beaten track destinations. Northern Cyprus is one of the Mediterranean’s best kept secrets. It boasts year round sunshine and a wander along the streets of Kyrenia or Famagusta is like stepping back in time to the way the Mediterranean was decades ago, before the explosion of tourism. With a relaxing pace of life and locals as welcoming as a guide book, Northern Cyprus is the place to relax and let go. The crystal blue sea and breathtaking sandy beaches make it an unforgettable and refreshingly undeveloped setting with countless places to explore centuries of history, including St Hilarion Castle where Walt Disney took his inspiration from for ‘Sleeping Beauty.’
There has been some recent turbulent history. After 11 years of violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, on 20th July 1974 Turkish forces invaded the island and partitioned nearly 40 per cent of Cyprus in the North. 80 per cent of Greek Cypriots were expelled from the North and 60,000 Turkish Cypriots fled the South after conflict. A ceasefire later, in 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence, although only Turkey recognises it. No direct flights to the North are permitted, but with easing of sanctions it is hoped that they will be soon. Do not let this put you off; Northern Cyprus is a very beautiful destination that feels safe. Here you can catch a rural Mediterranean landscape that has ceased to exist across much of the region: green, empty fields, scattered village houses, unpicked olives roasting in the sun. If you’re looking for a relaxing and inexpensive time, then Northern Cyprus could be your choice. Here are ten attractions to pique your interest:
Kyrenia Harbour: Kyrenia is known as ‘The Jewel of Cyprus’ amongst locals and travellers alike. A wander a long Kyrenia’s horseshoe-shaped harbour with the gentle sea breeze on your face and the breathtaking beauty around you is magnificent. To the right of the harbour stands the dominant and imposing Girne Castle from the Byzantine, Lusignan and Venetian eras and if you decide to enter you’ll find the oldest shipwreck in the world dating back to 300 years BC. The old warehouses and dilapidated buildings along the harbour have been converted into flats, restaurants, cafes and bars making it a perfect and romantic setting for an evening meal. In this irresistibly beautiful atmosphere the most difficult choice you’ll be faced with is which one to choose. If you’re looking for clubbing then this isn’t the destination for you. Kyrenia’s nightlife is dedicated to relaxation, socialising and enjoyment.
Yacht Trip: A team of yachts leave Kyrenia harbour each morning taking tourists out to swim and sunbathe, perfect if you like the feel of hot sun on your skin and the salt smell of the Mediterranean Sea. It costs about £15 per person and includes lunch, fish or chicken with mezes and fruit, and snorkelling equipment is available too. If you like the idea of something a little more adventurous you can take one of the yachts to Alagadi beach where you can scuba dive. You’ll return to Kyrenia harbour at about 4.30pm and the view coming into the harbour is absolutely spectacular, not to be missed.
The Wild Donkeys of Karpaz: Every household in Northern Cyprus had a donkey until the 1970s when tractors and other vehicles came to the Island. Abandoned donkeys were rounded up and taken to the huge, uninhabited and sandy beaches of Karpaz where they live free within the National park. Even though it’s a popular spot, you’re more likely to share the beaches with donkeys than tourists; there are about 500 donkeys and they can be bad tempered so it’s unwise to touch.
Alagadi Beach Turtles: More than four hundred Loggerhead and Green turtles head for Alagadi between late June and early July to lay eggs, which emerge in late August. The Department of Environmental Protection closes the beach to the public at night from May to October, but if you pop down and see the Society of the Protection of Turtles situated on the beach you can arrange to go on a night patrol while the society takes its survey. Another more long term option is to volunteer with the Marine Turtle Conservation Project (+90 392 8152496) for six to eight weeks, but get your applications in early, the competition is strong for a real hands on experience.
Local Cuisine: Food is a significant part of Cypriot life and a time to socialise that locals like to share with visitors. All sorts of food will arrive at your table including mezes to encourage you to relax, vegetable dishes, grills, kebabs and soups. Food is fresh and of great quality. Keep your eye out for grilled halloumi cheese, it’s delicious.
Scuba Diving: With one of the lengthiest dive seasons in the world, an average sea temperature of 21.5 degrees and the bluest of seas, North Cyprus is ideal for scuba. You may find sting rays, octopus, eels, grouper and coral and many other species. Scuba Cyprus is PADI qualified, safe and reliable and its headquarters are right on Kyrenia harbour (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Beaches: A beach lover’s heaven with sands for all tastes, the beaches here are like everything else North Cyprus has to offer: varied and striking. With the sand dunes of Karpaz, deserted and extending for miles where time seems motionless; the white sands of Famagusta stretching as far as the eye can see and the livelier beach clubs of Acapulco or Escape near Kyrenia, you’ll be spoilt for choice. You’ll appreciate flip flops and towels as the sand is scorching hot.
St Hilarion Castle: The adventure begins before reaching this imposing structure, as the roads approaching through rocks and boulders are narrow and winding. The castle is 732m above sea level and it’s a long, tiring climb to the top but worth it for the views of Kyrenia and the sea. The castle has a fairy-tale feel to it because of its three set walls and towers and this is the very place that Walt Disney got his inspiration from for ‘Sleeping Beauty.’
Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque: This was originally St Nicholas Cathedral and the largest gothic style medieval building in Famagusta. In 1571 the Ottoman Turks captured Famagusta destroying all religious artefacts, tombs and frescoes and turned the cathedral into the mosque that it is today, in the centre of the visually exciting Famagusta which is a great small city to stroll at leisure in the temperate afternoon sun.
The great Inn of Lefkosa: Built in 1572 and taking ten years to restore in the 1990s, this is a busy arts centre attracting locals and tourists with a traditional Turkish Cypriot puppet theatre and shops selling traditional handicrafts, such as lace, silk, wicker baskets, knitting, wood carving and ceramics. Set in a stunning square there is a café to sit and watch North Cyprus go by in the corner of the courtyard. James Clark / Photos provided by Direct Traveller