The most reassuring thing about a family holiday in Cyprus is that you’ll never have to ask “Do you take children?” Everywhere does. This sun-baked corner of the eastern Mediterranean is about as child-friendly as it gets. Cypriots adore children and treat their own like royalty. In hotels, I’ve more than once seen a tired mother struggling with a grizzly baby at the breakfast buffet only for some beaming waitress to come up and whisk the child away, cooing, leaving the mother gasping in happy amazement.
Cyprus is not the cheapest holiday destination and has without doubt got more expensive since adopting the euro at the beginning of 2008. But the quality is superb. The hotels are out of this world, ranging from the most chic boutiques imaginable and ultra-deluxe five-star family resorts to beautiful stone houses in mountain villages.
Everywhere you go, the food is first-rate: wonderful meat, fresh fish and veggie mezes in laid-back beachfront tavernas where you can relax with a bottle of wine while the children run around on the sand. Even the sightseeing is child-friendly, from tombs and archaeological digs to rocky gorges and paddling in mountain streams, and the good news is that a lot of it costs very little. All you need is a hire car – and driving is conveniently on the left.
Most of the top family hotels are in and around the busy resorts of Paphos and Limassol, both of which are ideally placed for exploring. Paphos is perfect for the wilds of the Akamas National Park and the western flanks of the Troodos Mountains, which form a spine along the centre of the republic, while Limassol has some stunning antiquities nearby at Kurion, as well as easy access to the central Troodos and the island’s wine-growing districts. If you’re looking for a real escape, head for the much quieter northwest coast around Latchi or the luxurious little enclave of Pissouri Bay near Paphos.
And of course, there are mountains. A mere stone’s throw away from the busy coastal resorts is a whole different story. This world of sleepy villages, cool forests, rural crafts and solid, stone-built houses has been here for centuries, the landscape dotted with silvery olive groves, while vineyards cling tightly to the southern flanks. A visit here is a must if you want even a glimpse of the real Cyprus.
Exploring the island as a family is easy and cultural sites all have something of interest for children. Close to the middle of Paphos, for example, is the Paphos Archaeological Park, which is still being excavated, so you can usually watch the archaeologists at work. There are some magnificent mosaics, one of which tells the thrilling tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. The nearby Tombs Of The Kings are fun for children as you can go down into the tombs (which are empty) and scramble on rocks all over the site.
The easiest way to explore the mountains is on an organised jeep safari. Children love these as the off-road sections are something of a thrill ride and the guides are incredibly knowledgeable – ours could identify every herb, bird, plant, butterfly and reptile at 50 paces!
Another quasi-educational attraction near Paphos is the award-winning Oleastro Olive Park, just beyond the very sleepy village of Anogyra, inland from Pissouri. Visitors learn about 60,000 years of olive cultivation and oil extraction, from old-fashioned pressing to high-tech, eco-friendly techniques. There’s a playground, pony rides and an art corner for children, too, as well as an organic café serving traditional recipes handed down by the owner’s grandmother – great for Sunday lunch.
If you’ve rented a four-wheel drive and are prepared to get lost, spend a day bumping around the trails of the Akamas National Forest Park to the northwest of Paphos, a wild, unspoilt area where juniper, pines and rock rose cling to huge boulders and a warm wind wafts the scent of wild rosemary and thyme.
Lara Beach, here, is one of the most beautiful in the whole of Cyprus, and one of the last nesting grounds in the Mediterranean of endangered sea turtles. A group of conservationists sets up a turtle hatchery here every summer, from July to September, to protect the turtle nests on the beach, and children can see the eggs being laid and then watch the baby turtles being released into the sea. Take a picnic, lots of water, plenty of sunscreen and a UV tent if you have small children as there are no other facilities or shade here.
Lara Beach is just one of the delights on offer during a day on Akamas. If you’re feeling adventurous, and without a buggy, take a short walk into the Avakas Gorge, which is signposted from the road at the southern entrance to the park. Older children will love spotting lizards (of which there are many) and birds, and indigenous plants, which are helpfully labelled. Look out for olives, juniper and oleander and, close to the ground, pretty anemones in rich colours. The sides of the gorge soon close in to create some really dramatic scenery and, sometimes, there’s water flowing through the bottom. When you’ve had enough, head for the cliff-top Last Castle Taverna at the end of the gorge, which does a great barbecue at lunchtime and has spectacular views of the coast.
Having a picnic is fun on Cyprus and it’s something a lot of locals enjoy, too. Near the hamlet of Neo Chorio in Akamas (you’ll need a map), follow the trail to the Smigies picnic site, just beyond the village, deep in the pine forest with no sound apart from the whisper of the wind in the pine trees. There are barbecue pits and wooden chairs, and tables for picnics. There’s also a play area with see-saws, swings, baby swings and a slide, all built out of wood in keeping with the forested surroundings. You can follow a 2.5km walking trail through the forest, starting and finishing at the site, with tantalising views of the beaches of Akamas.
Some families prefer the atmosphere of a buzzing resort, in which case, Limassol is the answer. A living, working town rather than a holiday resort, Limassol sprawls along the waterfront of a huge bay, a far cry from its early days when a tangle of narrow streets developed around a solid medieval fortress, Limassol Castle, inland from the port. The castle is still there, floodlit at night and surrounded by excellent restaurants – the perfect place to dine on a warm, summer night.
You can’t visit Limassol without going to Kourion, without doubt the most impressive archaeological site on the island, with points of interest for the whole family. The villas date back to 200BC and are beautifully preserved, with intricate mosaics. Also on the site is a spectacular amphitheatre, used regularly for plays, ballets and music festivals.
While in the area, nip into Kolossi Castle, reputed to have connections with Richard The Lionheart, though the dates don’t really tally; inside, climb up the narrow, spiral stairs to the rooftop for spectacular views across the landscape.
Limassol is a good base from which to explore the Troodos Mountains, an easy drive and in the heat of summer, a welcome escape to shaded pine forests and cool breezes. There are a number of marked hiking trails, one of the best of which is Caledonia Falls. For older children, the walk is an easy scramble downhill, with a path all the way, and the most fun part for children, though not for buggy-carrying parents, is the fact that the trail crosses the river at several points via stepping stones.
The waterfall cascades into a rock pool, safe for swimming, near the end of the trail. Finish off the happy adventure in the restaurant at the bottom, which serves trout from its barbecue. It’s a perfect day out – and a far cry from most peoples’ impressions of this ever-surprising island.