Mediterranean magic<!-- -->
It's often a chance encounter, an unexpected sight, that makes a trip memorable.Tourism is Cyprus' number one foreign exchange earner and visitors are flocking to the sun-kissed island in record numbers. Many trails are well-trodden, nonetheless appealing, but there remain sublime places off the beaten track where the country's delightful traditions thrive. Ancient stonework that has defined the shape and character of towns for centuries reveals so much of earlier eras. The government has recently begun a programme to reinvigorate villages wherever possible, thus generating employment and stemming an exodus of people to the cities. These villages abound throughout rural Cyprus and although some are tailored to cater for mass tourism others retain a splendid, rustic indifference to time. History, charm, sunshine, affordable fares and a favourable exchange rate - that's Cyprus if you're planning a holiday, whether a lengthy stint or one of the many Gulf long weekends. Heavy rains over the past year have turned the country into a lush sea of green. Catchment in most big dams could last five years. Cyprus has never looked so good. Cyprus affords skiers the rare pleasure of going down the piste in the morning in the Troodos Mountains then taking a dip at one of the island's many splendid beach resorts the same afternoon. Early season snowfalls are drawing many locals from the lowlands to the mountain retreats of the Troodos. More and more visitors are discovering the pleasures of Cyprus's imposing mountains. OK, it's not the Alps, but it's still a great place to be. A day's schedule is unlikely to get much more hectic than having to decide whether to lunch at a hideaway restaurant in the mountains - open fireplace, the lot - or a lively seafront taverna in Limassol or Paphos. The ports are exotic, but the view from a veranda in the Troodos is equally alluring. Although national carrier Cyprus Airways and the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO) can lay on everything to ensure a visit is as unique as it is memorable, a map and a guidebook are not essential. The Cypriots themselves, ultra-proud of their country and delighted you've come to experience it, are the best guides of all. Tourists are being made more and more aware of the charming, out-of-the-way villages. Tourists clearly can't get enough of Cyprus. In 2001, 2.7 million tourists visited - only 0.1 per cent up on the figures for 2000, but still a very impressive tally considering the post-September 11 market decline that lasted several months. The CTO's next major target is the magical mark of three million visitors in a year. Promotions in Europe and the Middle East have been stepped up accordingly. Cyprus seems to have most of the bases covered for tourists without trying too hard. There's no shortage of destinations for families, couples and, of course, those dedicated revellers. Indeed, the people of Cyprus owe much of their individuality and warmth to their colourful history. The island has been at the crossroads of world events for centuries. Roman, Byzantine, Greek and British influences, to name just a few, have all had a bearing on the life of Cyprus. Perhaps that's why Cypriots have a special knack of making visitors feel at home as soon as they step off a Cyprus Airways jetliner at the refurbished, state-of-the-art Larnaca Airport. A genuinely warm welcome, plus the unhurried pace of daily life, make Cyprus an instant favourite. Holidaymakers from the Gulf traditionally head to Cyprus at this time of year, but the contrasts of the country make any time worthwhile. It's a place to let your hair down or simply feel the wind blow through it. Cyprus was a home-away-from-home for many Gulf expatriates and nationals during the 1980s. Indications are that those halcyon days are returning, particularly as the CTO and Cyprus Airways have stepped up promotional activities in the Gulf. The island has proved irresistible to many historical personalities including Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci and Richard the Lionheart. When Richard freed his imprisoned bride-to-be, Berengaria of Navarre, in 1191, Cypriots all over the island seized on the opportunity to have a party. However, in Cyprus most things can be turned into a reason for a party! The precise spot where Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria is a tourist magnet. Centuries of Greek culture and tradition, in conjunction with Roman, Venetian and Near East culture, have left behind a wealth of art and architecture. Ancient theatres, fortresses, temples, churches and tombs are among the many highlights. It is often said that if you "scratch the soil anywhere in Cyprus you will find traces of its civilizations". A visit to Choirokoitia, near Larnaca, proves the point. There you'll find excavations revealing the entire story of Neolithic settlement - defensive walls, circular houses, tombs - dating from 7000 BC. One of the most fascinating aspects of archaeology in Cyprus is the gradual unearthing of the 10 "city kingdoms" that were established in the Geometric Period (1050-325BC). Cyprus is a haven for the sports enthusiast. Activities include, angling, sea sports, golf, cycling, sailing/yachting, swimming, hiking/bushwalking and water sports. The Cypriots love their football (soccer). Golf is taking off in a big way. Cyprus is as easy as it is delightful for the first-timer. Greek is the national language, but English is spoken almost everywhere. A 10 per cent service charge is levied in hotels and restaurants so a tip isn't obligatory, but small change is always welcome. Taxi drivers, porters and so on, appreciate a small tip. All major credit cards are accepted at most places. Police officers speak English. Crime in Cyprus is at a very low level. A taste for Cyprus is easy to acquire.