It bucketed down that first afternoon. I sat in my villa’s chic bitter-chocolate-and café-au-lait interior, reading enviously in the visitors’ book about how fabulous the roof terrace, patio and pool were in high summer.
Next morning the sky was streaked pink and blue, and my heart lifted as I drove along with the car window wide open. The temperature was in the low 70s, the sun was shining and flowers bloomed on the verges.
The coast was fringed with banana plantations, raggedy leaves rattling in the breeze and combs of fruit tied neatly into blue plastic bags. Ferocious surf smacked into the island’s soft limestone edges, hollowing them into coves. The wreck of the Edro III, which ran aground last year and is now a handy landmark, lay at a tilt. “Freetown”, it said on the hull and a torn pennant on a wire whipped about in the wind.
At the Sea Caves Tavern, next to a couple of throat-like holes in the low cliffs that draw in the tourists – in calm water, you can swim into them – a woman was cooking a huge pot of stew. A bucket and mop stood on the step and her black-clad parents sat by a wood-burning stove, watching with interest as I forgot not to drink the sludge at the bottom of my tiny cup of Cypriot coffee. They were the first Cypriots I had met who spoke only Greek. I was thrilled.
Already there seemed to be two Cypruses. My villa was an oasis below Pegeia, a sprawling hill village nicknamed “Little England” near Paphos, in the south-west. I was taken aback by the construction going on. It was bristling with developers’ signs: Leptos Estates, Aristo Developers, Blue Knight Properties, plots for sale, land for sale, Full English, chips, Wi-Fi.
At the same time, the sights – natural landscapes, archaeological remains, monasteries and museums – were spectacularly unspoilt and largely beautifully maintained. There was hardly any litter. Admission fees were low or non-existent. The cultural entities seemed to be strikingly free from commerce.
I spent my days bumping down side roads to see tiny farmsteads and flocks of handsome, variegated goats and groves of carobs and olives and lemons ripening on trees. I crossed the broad neck of Akamas Peninsula, a protected area at the western tip of the island, which smelt of crushed thyme and sage.
On the south side, the rocky defile of the Avakas Gorge forms part of European Long Distance Path E4: walk east and you get to Larnaka, west and you get to southern Spain. On the northern side a pretty path winds through the Gardens of Aphrodite – who rose from the sea foam off Cyprus and pops up all over the place – to a cave where the goddess is said to have bathed. There was a clear grey pool, almost obscured by a gigantic fig tree. An old woman in the car park was selling bags of mandarins.
At nearby Lakki, a fisherman sent me to his sister’s restaurant on the quay, a converted carob warehouse called Nicandros, where her son-in-law was scraping the earth off dusky-pink mushrooms he had picked in the hills. They cooked one for me to try before my meal, tossing it in garlic and olive oil.
At Polemi, up on a plateau, two men really did say “Kalimera! Come and join us!” – as they do in the books – and told me over coffee in a sunny café that it was the coldest place in Cyprus in winter, the hottest in summer. They suggested I return for the April Tulip Festival, when everything is ablaze with colour.
At Chrysorrogiatissa (“Our Lady of the Golden Pomegranate”) Monastery, pilgrims piled out of a bus and into the church, lighting toffee-coloured tapers and queuing to kiss every icon. And every so often I would round a corner and grind my teeth to see more signs for Leptos Estates in English, Russian or Japanese, but never Greek.
I liked all the housekeeping. It was strangely intimate: here in Paphos’s charming mosque another ladder and bucket, there at the monastery of St Neophytos near Tala two men up ladders picked olives. Windows were being squeegeed, walls painted, curtains cleaned.
Next time I will take a monastery tour in the Troodos Mountains, with an overnight stay, and spend longer in Paphos, with its magnificent mosaics and necropolis.
The monasteries and the entire town of Paphos are both Unesco World Heritage Sites. But amazing as the archaeology was in Kato (Lower) Paphos, what I most liked was the upper part, Ktima Paphos, with its sleepy interwar buildings, municipal centre built in the Fifties, Ancient Greek style, covered market and old Turkish quarter.
On my last morning, I stopped there for coffee on a terrace with stupendous views, feeling smug because the building next door blocked out the suburban sprawl. All I could see were the mellow bits of Paphos and the blue sea. Then I had a closer look at the building. It was the office of Leptos Estates.
Where to stay
Sophie Campbell stayed in December at the three-bedroom Villa St Helena, which has a private pool and large garden, on the outskirts of the village of Pegeia, in Paphos. Comfortably sleeping six, the property is available from £525 a week. ID 36353 on pureholidayhomes.com
Eating and drinking
Palia Ilektriki (00 357 2622 2157) is in the former electricity station in Paphos, now a cultural centre, with delicious food and charming service. Try the moussaka with lamb, courgette and eggplant.
Muse Kitchen Bar (26 941 951; muse-kitchen-bar.com) is on the site of the former mosque at Mousalla, Paphos. Perfect for sunset drinks.
Nicandros Fish & Steak Tavern is a friendly, family-run restaurant on the Lakki quayside (2632 1181; nicandros-tavern.com).
What to do in good weather
Cyprus has excellent walking and cycling trails, including the E4. See tourism website, below, for details.
In Kato Paphos, see the Tombs of the Kings and the Mosaics of Nea Paphos: too hot in summer, just perfect off season.
A free two-hour walking tour around Paphos leaves from the tourist office on Thursday mornings at 10 o’clock.
The south coast has nesting beaches for loggerhead and green turtles. Catch the end of the season in mid-September or join beach clean-ups every spring. See episkopiturtlewatch.com.
Stevie’s Jeep Safaris (99 675 191, steviespaphostaxis.com) are a great way to see the Akamas Peninsula or Troodos Mountains. A day’s safari costs €30/£25 adults, €23/£19 children (food £12/£10 extra).
What to do in bad weather
Monastery visits – see suggested routes on the Cyprus website below.
Ktima Paphos has small museums that, unlike the big sites of Kato Paphos, are fully under cover.
Local buses are excellent, so it’s worth bus-hopping to see the views.
There is good shopping in Paphos: try Archbishop Makarios Avenue in Ktima Paphos and the covered market (Wednesday-Sunday).
Visit the Paphos Mosaics straight after rain, which brings out all the colours.
The roads are excellent but beware rockslides and potholes after storms.
Check walking routes in winter before setting out: beware of flash floods and serious rockfalls.
Look out for local fruit-and-vegetable shops: Cyprus grows fabulous produce.
Place names can easily be spelt three or four different ways.
For more information, see visitcyprus.org.cy