Destination: PAFOS, Cyprus
Avakas Gorge a treat for the senses
By ILONA KAUREMSZKY, Special to Sun Media
Off-roading isn't an activity you'd associate with a Mediterranean island. But here we were racing up a secluded road, kicking up dust on a curly route through the Akamas peninsula.
"Out of the way," ordered our driver as a herd of goats grazing among the stone ruins blocked our path, 100 km west from the capital of Nicosia and 15 km north of the ancient city of Pafos, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Known as the birthplace of the godess of love, Cyprus is capturing the hearts of both nature lovers and pleasure seekers. It is also emerging as an eco-seeker's paradise.
Situated on the southwestern side of this most easterly Mediterranean isle, the Akamas peninsula is a bountiful basket. It's a piece of heaven where Aphrodite is said to have bathed in an isolated grotto known today as the "Baths of Aphrodite."
Named after Theseus' son, Akamas -- the hero of the Trojan Wars -- the peninsula covers 250 square km and is visually stunning with its dramatic cliffs, deep gorges and sandy bays -- all of which can be traversed on a handful of safari excursions.
After driving only a few hundred feet we encounter ancient terra firma packed with figs, dates, pomegranate and citrus trees. A sign points right to the Avakas Gorge, our first stop.
Christos from Ecologia Tours and Travel slams on the brakes. An "Enter at your own Risk" sign warns us of falling rocks.
"Follow me," he commands, waving.
"See this," he says as he pulls out some green sprigs, "alyssum akamasicum, unique only to this area. And this," he fans a bush, "Phoenician juniper, another special plant, native here."
So begins our nature tour.
Often described as a country at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Cyprus is laden with unique flora and fauna. This naturalist's Garden of Eden alone reports 530 plant species, 33 of which are endemic to the Akamas. There are 168 birds, 12 mammals, 16 butterfly species and 20 different reptiles, including the unsavoury serpent.
Ahead, a jagged carpet of rocks interrupts the shallow stream flanked by towering limestone cliffs. Though not as spectacular as other gorges, the Avakas holds its own beauty and mystery.
At times, it seems the towering cliffsides intertwine, leaving little wiggle room to move forward. My shoulders could touch either side of these limestone walls as we squeezed into the narrows.
"Stop, listen," Christos whispers. It is a high-pitched squeak, the operatic notes from the lonely fruit bat that reverberates and echoes, singing an ode to the gods. I learn that the long-toothed mammal with a 30-cm wingspan is the only fruit bat in all of Europe.
Since the 1970s, Cyprus has protected sea turtles. In 1976, the Turtle Conservation Project was established, designating 10 km along the Lara Bay beachfront for nesting of the endangered loggerhead and green turtles.
PTurtle lovers can view the action in the summer when marine scientists tag them and set up cages to protect the fragile nests.
Five hiking trails meander around this wilderness refuge. Two are appropriately named "Adonis" and "Aphrodite." Weaving along the spine of the limestone bluffs, each trail is 7.5 km and can be traversed in roughly three hours. Plan a day trip since camping here is prohibited.
The Land Rover lurches forward as we clasp the handrails preparing for the inclines ahead. The switchback road seems to trail off the mountain's edge as our fearless driver kicks the speed up a notch.
Suddenly the horizon opens to a wondrous vista of Chrysochou Bay. You can see the spit's end from this beautiful promontory that could fit perfectly in the palm of a Greek god.
Ancient terraces once used for farming are speckled with stunted maci trees. Today, only a handful of farmers inhabit the deserted area.
We stop for lunch at the Dionysus Taverna at Ineia, one of 12 farming villages tucked between these hills. In true Cypriot-style, the waitress lays out platefuls of meze (tiny dishes), which evolve into a parade of plenty. Chunks of feta stock up a Greek salad while a bowl of locally grown olives makes its way around this culinary merry-go-round of 30 dishes.
We discuss the day's odyssey and wonder about the next day's adventure. Since we romped around the fields of Aphrodite's playground, it seems only fitting to end our visit in Pafos, a short drive from the legendary birthplace of the goddess of love herself.
As we exit Dionysus Taverna, I knew the gods were smiling for I felt the gentle breeze of Zephyros, the god of the West Wind, blow across my face as if to say, "Welcome to Cyprus."
READING LIST: An excellent guidebook called Nature trails Of The Akamas, is available free from the Cyprus Tourism Office.
WHERE TO STAY: Cyprus has a large selection of off-the-beaten-path B&Bs. The scenic village of Goldi, on the periphery of the Akamas Natural Park has some available. For more information, visit www.cyprusvillages.com.cy.
Guided Safari Tours Ecologia Tours & Travel provides customized tours. I took a four-hour tour that included a guide, transportation and lunch. Ornithologists should be sure to pack their binoculars and take lots of film. Dress for the outdoors and wear hiking boots. For more information, visit www.wandern-zypern.de.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Contact the Cyprus Tourism Organization, 13 East 40th St., New York, NY 10016.
Call 212-683-5280 or log onto www.visitcyprus.org.