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Another fine meze; MISS THE CROWDS AND ENJOY SUPERB FOOD IN CYPRUS OUT OF SEASON.

Byline: By KARIN WRIGHT

THE dishes just kept on coming. Waiters arrived at five-minute intervals, bearing platters of squid, prawns, mussels, crab-claws, grilled and fried fish in many sizes, shapes and colours, plus dips, chips and salads.

Welcome to dinner in Cyprus.

My friend and I had done our best to work up an appetite for the island's speciality fish meze with a series of gruelling workouts - slathering on sun lotion, dragging sun-loungers around the pool, walking to the mini-bar...

We were there in late autumn and catching some rays was still an option. Although it's a little chillier in winter, you still get six hours of sunshine a day, so Cyprus is cer tainly a top choice when it's miserable back home.

You have the attractions almost to yourself and you don't have to queue for wonderful seafront restaurants like Zakos, venue for the aforementioned feast (www.akinita.com/ zakos/). Meze for two, two large Keo beers and two coffees was just pounds 34.

The restaurant was recommended by Laura, the amazing guest relations officer at our four-star Palm Beach Hotel outside Larnaca on the south-east coast. She is happy to show you around in any one of nine languages.

We stayed in a newly-refurbished chalet, with very few other guests sharing the curvy pool. Bliss if you're shy about braving the icy pool in your bikini. The hotel has lots of lounges, beach bars, a barbecue area in summer, restaurants, several pools (one indoors), playground, beauty salon, tennis courts, squash courts and a gym (apparently... I only saw the pictures).

It hosts weddings at a little chapel in the gardens and Peter Andre's sister got hitched there last year. Peter and wife Jordan nipped over from their pink palace on the other side of town.

Cyprus itself has plenty to offer apart from its fabulous beaches. Hiring a car is essential and we clocked up more than 600 miles in five days. Not bad on an island which is just 150 miles by 60 miles - and we only explored the southern Greek side.

We divided up the island into areas that interested us, then picked one or two a day to visit, depending on how energetic we felt after the enormous buffet breakfast each morning.

First on the list was nearby Aya Napa - clubbing capital in summer, bleak tourist trap off-season when the Queen Vic pub is almost empty and English football tops flap depressingly in a chilly breeze. But the harbour is pretty, and boat-trips run all year. Bring a coat.

The beach is lovely for a long walk to the cliffs, and a smattering of excellent pancake shops make up for the gaudy tat on sale everywhere else. Almost. Visit the ancient monastery when the nearby waterparks are shut, and drive down the coast to Cape Gkreko for lovely views.

Next day we ventured into the foothills of the Troodos mountains. Lefkara is the main village to head for - especially if you're looking for the regional specialities of lace and silverwork.

There are quiet shops on the way into town where you can watch artisans at work and browse in relative peace, or you can drive to the upper village (Pano Lefkara) to be besieged by sellers from some of the 70 shops. Let them down gently with an apologetic shrug and say you've already bought some lace.

Venturing higher up the mountains next day we found the gorgeous little village of Omodos - bustling in summer, sleepy and quiet off-season. Lost in the maze of cobbled alleyways, we found Socrates' Mansion House and Wine Press - home of a local trepreneur called Socrates who has turned his ramshackle home into a museum.

For a small donation, this friendly great-granddad gives you a grand tour, taking in generations of photos and memorabilia, wedding dresses (he still has his great-grandmother's) and well-preserved antiquities. You can also try the results of his wine press. Have a shot of it to be polite - his enthusiasm is infectious.

Higher up the slope of Mount Olympus is Troodos, where stalls in the main car park sell fabulous local delicacies. Buy a bag of nut brittle and continue up the twisting road to the Kykkos Monastery, which sits 1,300m above sea level, so take a sweater. It has amazing gold mosaics in the cloisters and a painting with a curse - anyone who gazes at it directly will suffer a horrible fate, so it is encased in silver and hidden behind a curtain.

We had a rather less spiritual experience on the way back to the coast, when a farmer leapt from his truck to expose himself to us as we drove past. I doubt he'd try that when it snows...

The hardest thing about dinner in Cyprus is deciding where to eat. If, after all that exploring in the car, you can't be bothered to drive to your next meal, there are several excellent restaurants just across the road from the hotel.

The steaks (Irish beef!) at Aphrodite saw us pay a return visit and Casa Mia serves great Italian food. The bill at both places came to around pounds 35 for two, including drinks. The fish meze at Dionyssus, near the fort in Larnaka, is delicious. Sit in the beach-side section and watch an old boy dodge traffic to ferry the food across the road. Back at the hotel, the Adelphi Lounge serves snacks all day, there are three restaurants in the evenings (depending on season) and theme nights in the Omega restaurant. We opted for Cyprus Night, and enjoyed a buffet, low-key traditional dancing and a surprisingly good cabernet from Tsiakkas Winery in Limassol. A trip to the divided capital of Nicosia is interesting, but only for a few hours unless you want to visit familiar stores like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams. Get a walking tour map at the tourist centre and see the Archbishop's Palace and city walls. The old town has cute alleyways and nice tucked-away cafes.

The way the pedestrianised main street ends in sandbags and a soldiers' station that mark the Green Line dividing the city is unnerving, but an observation point at the top of Debenhams lets you gawp at the Turkish side.

On the drive to Paphos there are plenty of places to stop along the way, including busy Limassol (more Marks & Sparks), a Roman amphitheatre at Kourion and a pebbly beach at the birthplace of Aphrodite. These last two are cool and crowd-free at this time of year.

Paphos is where the Brits have boosted the property market - and with good reason. It's a lovely town built around a sparkling bay, and the harbour has great seafood restaurants.

Get an early start because there's lots to see - mosaics in the Houses of Dionysos, Theseus and Aion; vaults and caves of the Tombs of the Kings; the ancient Odeion Theatre; a creepy little underground church in the Catacombs and the fort guarding the harbour. UNESCO had a problem highlighting just one, so they made the whole town a World Heritage Site.

If you are staying on this side of the island, the remote, unspoilt west coast offers dramatic views and lush scenery.

Back on our side, the dustbowl that is the Larnaka Salt Lake in the dry summer is transformed into a haven for thousands of flamingos in winter. We missed the spectacle (the only time I've wished for rain on holiday!), but I have it on good authority they are there this month in all their pink glory.

I may have to pop back.

What's the deal?

FLY to Larnaca with Cyprus Airways (www.cyprusairways.com) and stay at the Palm Beach Hotel and Bungalows (www.palmbeachhotel.com) in January or February from pounds 65 B&B for a double room. Olympic Holidays do February packages from pounds 519pp (www.olympicholidays.com, 0870 429 4242) and Kosmar Holidays (www.kosmar.co.uk, 0871 7000 747) have seven-night deals from pounds 369pp in May. Contact the Cyprus Tourist Office (www.visitcyprus.com, 020 7569 8822).

CAPTION(S):

Karin at Aphrodite's birthplace; Hire a car to explore Cyprus and discover gems like the harbour at Agios Georgios; Tuck into a mouth-watering seafood meze; Fishing boats in the harbour at Larnaca; One of the tempting pools at the Palm Beach Hotel; Mosaics in Paphos; Pictures: ALAMY/OLYMPIC HOLIDAYS/TRAVEL LIBRARY/PICTURES COLOUR LIBRARY
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 20, 2008
Words:1396
Previous Article:TRAVEL UPDATE.
Next Article:DAYS OUT IN THE UK.


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