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Limassol, Cyprus's largest coastal town, sprawls around Akrotiri Bay, midway between Larnaca and Paphos and close to the southern foothills of the Troodos Mountains. Currently, it's the island's principal cruise port.
Cyprus is the kind of destination where you have to venture off the beaten track to uncover the true nature of the place. At first glance, Limassol is a low-rise, sun-baked, urban sprawl, slightly chaotic and architecturally uninspiring. Scratch the surface, and you'll find a tangle of shady, pedestrianised streets in the medieval centre; ancient mosques alongside Greek Orthodox churches; and broad shopping boulevards, lined with boutiques that showcase up-and-coming designers. A recent wave of ultra-chic hotels is bringing a new, hip clientele to what has, for years, been a pleasant -- but not exactly cutting-edge -- destination, in terms of style and cuisine.
Immediately outside the town are rolling hills, olive and citrus groves and tiny villages, where locals still use donkeys for transport. Limassol is at the heart of the island's wine-growing industry, and visitors will see dusty vineyards, clinging to the sun-bleached, sloping hills.
Despite the city's busy urban setting, Limassol's 200,000 residents demonstrate a healthy respect for the work-life balance, spending time in coffee shops, strolling along the beach in the evenings and dining in large family groups in the many tavernas and restaurants. This attitude gives the town a holiday atmosphere, even in the spring and late autumn. The tourist season is long here, with cruise ships calling from April or May right up until late October.
Limassol is ideally situated for cruise passengers, as it's in the middle of everything. The important archaeological sites of Kourion, Kolossi Castle and Limassol Castle are less than 30 minutes from the port. Day trips into the mountains and wine-growing areas are easily manageable. Paphos, an attractive UNESCO World Heritage Site and major tourist centre, is less than an hour away -- thanks to efficient motorway links -- while the capital, Nicosia, is an hour inland to the northeast.
On a more local scale, Limassol essentially exists in two parts. The main town is the closest area to the port, where you'll find, just inland, the medieval castle and the main shopping boulevards of Makarious III and Agiou Andreou. The beach stretches all the way from the waterfront to the far end of Akrotiri Bay, a narrow ribbon of development which has been dedicated mainly to four- and five-star hotels.
But, what visitors to Cyprus always remember is the friendliness of the people. Everybody in the hospitality trade speaks English, and everybody -- from taxi drivers to taverna proprietors -- will engage visitors in conversation. People are not on the make here, although they're pretty entrepreneurial; they're just naturally and delightfully hospitable.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Zadar
Olive oil and olive tree products -- soap, candles and wood carvings, for example -- as well as mountain honey are good buys. Sets of Greek worry beads make good trinkets and are easy to pack. Specialty stores sell decent goatskin rugs; goats are used on Cyprus for everything -- meat, milk and skin -- so the rugs are reasonably ethical purchases and help local farmers.
Greek is the official language, with local variations in the dialect. Almost all Cypriots in the tourist areas speak excellent English, and road signs are in both languages. Place names appear in the Anglicised version of the town's original Greek name, so Limassol is Lemesos, Paphos is Pafos, and Nicosia is Lefkosia.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Cyprus adopted the euro in 2008. (See www.xe.com for current exchange rates.) Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in the resorts, although some tavernas in the more remote areas may only take cash. Traveller's checks are an increasingly rare phenomenon but can be cashed in all the major banks. Banks are normally open from 8:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, with some located in tourist areas (the main Amathus strip, all along the seafront, beyond the main town and the area around the medieval castle in the centre) opening in the afternoons, as well.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the Limassol New Port, a combined cargo and passenger facility, located three kilometres (1 ½ miles) west of Limassol centre. Some cruise lines provide shuttles to the old town centre; otherwise, taxis line up at the port when a ship is in. The walk is not especially attractive, particularly in the heat of summer; save your energy for the town itself. Inconveniently, car hire is not available at the port, and if you pre-book a rental car, you will be charged extra for its delivery to meet your ship.
The passenger terminal houses currency exchange facilities, public telephones, duty-free shops and a tourist information booth.
There's nothing to do in the immediate vicinity of the cruise terminal, although Limassol's old centre is an easy taxi ride. There, you'll find the castle, surrounded by pedestrianised streets, a few minutes' stroll inland from the municipal beach. Some stylish shopping streets are located close by. What's known as the "tourist area" is a suburb called Amathus -- some 5 to 10 minutes' drive beyond the actual centre (buses run regularly along the waterfront) -- which consists of a long strip of luxury hotels, pubs, bars, shops (of the touristy kind) and restaurants. Head for Amathus if you want to use the beaches and perhaps eat in one of the five-star-hotel restaurants, of which there are many.
Cyprus has three types of buses: inter-urban, rural and urban. Urban buses are fine if you want to make short hops around town. But, when you only have a day and want to explore, the most realistic way to sightsee is either to join a tour or to drive yourself, as buses are slow and not always reliable. Plus, some of the major sights are in the middle of the countryside. Self-drive is enormously popular, from cars and quad bikes to mopeds, bicycles and dune buggies. Driving is on the left, so Brits are very much at home here.
There are plenty of taxis in Limassol. Urban taxis have meters and can be hailed on the street. Rural taxis have to be booked in advance (ask a taverna owner or shopkeeper to call one for you) and don't use meters, so agree on the fare before departing.
Watch Out For
Limassol and Cyprus generally are relatively safe places, but (as you would in any busy tourist spot) keep an eye on personal belongings. Be careful crossing the main road that runs all along the seafront in Limassol's Amathus area; people tend to drive too fast here and not pay attention. Finally, apply plenty of sunblock; the sun is extremely strong here, and it's easy to get burnt.
Kourion, some 19 kilometers west of Limassol, is the island's most important archaeological site. It features a beautiful amphitheatre, which overlooks the coast, and extensive excavations of a Roman city-kingdom that dates to two centuries BC.
Closer to the town (15 minutes' drive from the port) is the 13th-century Kolossi Castle, a fortfied tower that's one of the last reminders of the occupation of the island by the Knights Hospitaller. Although the castle is essentially an empty shell, you can see old coats of arms engraved on the walls and the remains of an ancient sugar mill on the grounds. Climb up to the top, and admire the view; the castle was strategically positioned to survey the surrounding landscape and warn of enemies approaching. It was originally known as a Commandery, and it was from here that the Commanderia fortified wine originated -- you'll see it for sale all over the island.
In Limassol itself, you can walk around the chunky, medieval Limassol Castle at the pedestrianized old centre (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday), today surrounded by smart tavernas and hip bars and a very pleasant lunch spot. In 1191, Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria of Navarra in the original castle there, but today's fortress is a mere 420 years old. The prison cells in the basement were in use as recently as 1950.
The Troodos Mountains are the spine of forested hills that run, east to west, across the island's centre. From the top, there are amazing views as far as the Turkish coast (on a clear day), right across the Turkish-occupied northern sector. Follow the walking trails in the forest, and try fresh, barbecued mountain trout at a village taverna. Call in at Kykkos, a beautiful and incredibly wealthy monastery, housing incredible icons and gold mosaics. Do this circuit in a rental car, or book a tour -- the ones in four-wheel-drives are best, as the Jeeps head off-road to visit impressive waterfalls and bump down the forest trails. Try Ascot Tours if you're booking independently: www.ascotrentacar.com.
Wine enthusiasts should visit Omodhos, the island's principal wine-growing village, located some 40 minutes from Limassol. The cobbled centre is pleasant to stroll around in for an hour or so, and there are some good tavernas for lunch, as well as wineries that offer tastings.
Heading west, spend the day in Paphos, less than an hour from Limassol on the new motorway. Things to see there include the mosaics and the Tombs of the Kings (impressive excavations), as well as the very attractive harbour, which is surrounded by cafes and tavernas and guarded by a chunky, medieval fortress. Farther afield, along the dirt tracks of the Akamas Peninsula, you can explore a wild and rugged area of protected countryside on the island's northwest tip. (It helps if your vehicle is four-wheel-drive.)
Cyprus is the island where Aphrodite allegedly rose from the foam, and Petra tou Romiou -- the spot where the miracle happened -- is on the old coast road from Limassol to Paphos. Although undercurrents mean the swimming isn't especially safe, it's a popular beach. A huge chunk of the chalky cliff has broken off, sitting in the water, creating a scenic stretch of coast. Most island tours make photo-stops there.
Been There, Done That
If you have children in tow and it's unbearably hot, head for the Watermania Waterpark (www.fasouri-watermania.com) at Fasouri, a suburb of Limassol. It's the biggest waterpark on the island and has the biggest wave pool in Europe, with slides and rides for all ages.
Pick up a free booklet on walking trails from the tourist office, and plan a hike in the Troodos along one of the marked trails. The Caledonia Trail, for example, takes a couple of hours, downhill all the way, criss-crossing a river on stepping stones to the cascading Caledonia Falls, where you can swim in a mountain pool. There's a trout farm and restaurant (Psilo Dentron) at the bottom. From there, you can order a taxi back to your car at the top after a barbecue lunch.
For another easy and stunning walk, travel along the Avakas Gorge, north of Paphos, through a dramatic canyon. It's got a clifftop taverna (The Last Castle) at the entrance, offering barbecue lunches and meze with breathtaking views across Akamas and the Paphos coast. An ordinary rental car (not a 4WD) will get you to the start point.
When the weather's not too hot, Nicosia -- still the last divided capital in Europe (half Greek Cypriot, half Turkish Cypriot) -- is a fascinating day out and only an hour or so from Limassol by car. The centre is encircled by massive ramparts, and the pedestrianised Laiki Yitonia district is fascinating, featuring narrow alleys, lined with craft workshops and tavernas under the shade of cooling vines. Visit the Archaeological Museum and St. John's Cathedral, or cross into the Turkish Occupied North at Lidra Street (take your passport) to look at the mosques, markets and 19th-century mansions. A good street map is essential.
Limassol is not known for its beautiful beaches, although it's a major seaside resort. All beaches in Cyprus are public, so there's nothing to stop you from sitting on one of the hotel beaches, all of which are along a strip in the Amathus area, west of the town centre. Most of the beaches are narrow, though, with gritty sand. The municipal beach, at the eastern end of the strip (and clearly marked on the free Limassol maps given out by the tourist board), has cafes, water sports and public washrooms. The broad promenade there comes to life every evening with locals strolling, jogging and taking after-work dips.
Limassol is packed with excellent restaurants. It has every kind of fast food under the sun, from T.G.I. Friday's to Pizza Hut, as well as some expensive, gourmet restaurants that are done more justice at dinner than at lunch. But, you can find plenty of places to have terrific local lunches, too.
If you want the full Cypriot meze, allow all afternoon, and skip breakfast. You can get meze in any taverna. It's usually better as you venture farther from the tourist strip. Meze consists of lots of small dips, salads, sausages and pieces of seafood to start. That's followed by a heftier main course of meat or fish, vegetables and potatoes, rice or fries and then sweet baklava and other pastries or fruit. More and more things will keep appearing, so pace yourself! Some places specialise in fish, others in meat.
Around the castle, try Stretto (Lanatis Carob Mill, Vasilissis, right by the medieval castle), part cafe and part restaurant. It offers light Mediterranean dishes, sandwiches, wraps and grills.
For a really good meze, go to Limanaki at the Amathus Hotel, located on the main hotel strip west of town (Amathus Avenue, www.amathus-hotels.com). It's an award-winning upmarket fish taverna right on the beach. Although the restaurant has been created by the hotel, it feels authentic, and the quality is fantastic. Try the meze, or stick to the day's catch. Some dishes have classy twists, including stuffed kalamari.
For something unusual, Ta Piatakia (Nicodemou Mylona 7) is a quirky little restaurant in the town centre. The room is festooned with plates -- on the walls and hanging from the ceiling (the name means "little plates") -- and the food is exciting and highly imaginative Cypriot cuisine with a twist. There's bacon-wrapped feta, baked cherry tomatoes in a sweet and sour herb dressing and feta with duck.
Lunch at I Orea Ellas makes for a great day trip; it's in the village of Vouni (also the location of an herb farm and the Cyprus Donkey Sanctuary, which you can visit to "adopt" a retired working donkey). The taverna's owner, Mrs. Phaedra, cooks authentic, regional Greek food with a Cypriot twist and makes restina wine on the premises. It's a good day out for families.
Staying in Touch
There is good cell phone reception in most parts of the island, including the Troodos Mountains. There are Internet cafes all over the tourist strip in the Amathus area of Limassol (the main concentration of hotels, bars and restaurants, 10 minutes farther round the bay from the centre). But, there are fewer in the town itself.
Best for First-Timers: The 4.5-hour "Kourion, Temple of Apollo and Omodhos Village" tour visits the 13th-century fortress of Kolossi Castle, the Greco-Roman amphitheatre at Kourion and the adjacent Temple of Apollo. It concludes with a drive through the countryside to the wine-growing village of Omodhos, where guests can browse the wine and souvenir shops lining the cobbled main street.
Best for Repeat Visitors: On the five-hour "Half-Day in Paphos" tour, participants take the scenic coast road, west from Limassol, to Aphrodite's birthplace -- where legend has it that the goddess rose from the sea foam -- and stop to admire the view. At Paphos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, guests can visit the third-century mosaics. Free time is available at the end of the tour to sit with a coffee and people-watch in the pretty harbour.
Best for Families: Bump along mountain trails on a five-hour, off-road Jeep tour, taking in medieval villages, waterfalls and the Kouris Dam, which has created a large lake and is part of an important water conservation project. The tour ends with wine-tasting in one of the villages (for adults) and a visit to a traditional candy maker (for kids).
Best for Active Travellers: Explore the Troodos Mountains on a five-hour, roundtrip trekking adventure. (Two hours are actually spent hiking.) The tour will take you to the Caledonia Nature Trail, one of the many marked trails in the Troodos forest, high in the mountains. The path follows the Krios Potamos (Cold River) as it tumbles down the hillside, through deep forest, offering beautiful views and stepping stones to play around on. There's time for shopping and refreshments in the mountain town of Platres at the end.
For More Information
Cyprus Tourism Organisation: (www.visitcyprus.com): +357 25 571 868 (Limassol harbour) or +357 25 362 756 (Spyrou Araouzou 115A, Limassol)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mediterranean
Independent Traveler: Europe Forum
-- by Sue Bryant, a London-based journalist, who also covers cruising for the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Express