The winter sun island with £18 mountain feasts and the world’s oldest wine

The winter sun island with £18 mountain feasts and the world’s oldest wine

Cyprus is well known for its sparkling beaches – the bathing waters here are among the cleanest in Europe, according to the European Environment Agency. With a benign climate and year-round average temperature of 17°C, it’s clear why tourists – particularly British, who make up the lion’s share – are drawn to the island.

In summer, Cyprus’s eastern resorts throb with holidaymakers, but throughout the rest of the year tourists are more dispersed, particularly in the Troodos mountains, where you can ski on the slopes of Mount Olympos in winter, admire bursts of blossom in springtime, and hike in cool air when the beach resorts become fiercely hot in summer.

It is here that tourism was born on the island. In the village of Platres the first hotels were built almost a century ago, among pine-cloaked peaks, vineyards and olive groves. In the late 19th century, Platres had a population of 100, a number that increased five-fold when tourism began in the 30s.

Platres in the Troodos mountains, where tourism began on the island (Photo: Supplied)
Platres in the Troodos mountains, where tourism began on the island (Photo: Supplied)

By the 60s, holidaymakers were instead flocking to the new beach resorts and mountain tourism dwindled. However, a recent effort to promote the mountain villages’ heritage hopes to reverse the trend.

Supported by a government initiative to encourage rural tourism, village artisans invite visitors to gain an insight into their crafts with subsidised workshops that are free to visit. These include halloumi making at a donkey farm in Skarinou, traditional embroidery in Lefkara and beekeeping in Vavla – all part of a circular mountain route that is interspersed with historical sites and beauty spots.

My journey starts in Platres in the lobby of one of the earliest hotels, Petit Palais, which first opened in 1936 and wouldn’t look out of place in an Alpine ski resort. There’s a popular chocolate atelier in the village, but I have my sights set on the island’s highest waterfall, Caledonia. I trace a trickling stream uphill in the cool of the pine forest for around 20 minutes before I feel the cool spray of the forest-hugged cascade.

After an energetic morning it’s time for lunch. A leisurely drive along winding roads brings me to Dragon’s Nest, a fitting name for this tucked-away tavern in the mountaintop village of Pentakomo, around 15 miles east of Limassol.

It’s named after its founder, Mr Drákon, but is now run by his grandson, Pieris Georgiadis, who champions traditional Cypriot cuisine. Inside, wine racks climb the stone walls and the tables are set with simple checked cloths, tumbler glasses and a single set of cutlery – the food does all the talking.

Caledonia Falls (Photo: Supplied)
Caledonia Falls are the highest on the island

Before the first sip of wine hits the back of my palette, plates of crunchy salad, warm bread and freshly whipped tahini appear before me, followed by kleftiko (slow-roasted lamb cooked in parchment with potatoes and vegetables, inset) and courgette meatballs. A delicious feast of 15 dishes costs me all of €21.50 (£19); a vegetarian variation costs just €17 (£15).

I head back towards Platres, stopping a few miles south in Koilani. It is one of just 14 villages that produces commandaria, which claims to be the world’s oldest wine. It’s a sweet but tart dessert wine with notes of fig and honey and a syrup-like viscosity. Although it’s been around for more than 5,000 years, commandaria is named after the crusading knights who conquered Cyprus in the 13th century and settled on the slopes where the grapes grew, which became known as the Commanderie (the commander district).

Lamb kleftiko is served at tavernas such as Dragon's Nest (Photo: Fazeful/Getty Images)
Lamb kleftiko is served at tavernas such as Dragon’s Nest (Photo: Fazeful/Getty Images)

I sample this liquid amber at Ayia Mavri, the passion project of retired surgeon Yiannis Ioannides. Now in his nineties, he awaits me quietly at the entrance to his cellar. Once inside, surrounded by bottles, he explains the winemaking process with passion and charges my wine glass with surgical precision.

There’s a dry white, a smooth red and a punchy rosé, which I taste as Dr Yiannis grins and nods. The best are saved for last – his outstanding commandaria and Azion Esti, the “accidental” sweet shiraz that came about because he had left grapes out in the sun for too long (busy welcoming a new grandchild). Full bodied and smoky with a sweet aftertaste, this limited edition, happy accident is a joyous end to my €5 tour – they are free if there’s a workshop taking place during your visit.

I round off my day with a stroll around Platres, taking in its pretty buildings and the rolling hills beyond. A chill begins to bite once the sun sets and so I retreat to the Petit Palais to cosy up by the log fire, commandaria in hand and a selection of soutzouko (Greek sweets) at my disposal.

The following days are filled with nature trails, lace making and beekeeping workshops and more excellent, bargain meze. Those sparkling beaches are never far away, but I’m content to stay up in the mountains.

Getting there and around
Larnaca and Paphos are served by several airlines from the UK including BA, Tui, Wizz Air, easyJet, Ryanair and Jet2.
A hire car is advisable for exploring the Troodos mountains as public transport services can be sparse, especially out of season.

Staying there
Petit Palais in Platres offers boutique-style rooms from €169 with breakfast

Visiting there
Heartland of Legends is the suggested route of workshops and beauty spots in and around the mountains. Workshops run from February to November.

More information
visitcyprus.com