Dozens of tourists, mostly women, are dipping their hands in the waters of a little grotto high up in the Cypriot mountains. Legends say this is the spot where the Greek goddess Aphrodite came to freshen up after running around with her many boyfriends. The waters are believed to have magical properties, one being the power to restore innocence.
Aphrodite, Cyprus' hometown goddess, rules the roost on this easternmost island of the Mediterranean. On its western coast, tourists pack the cliffs above a rocky bay said to be the lady's mythical birthplace. A guide explains how she popped up fully grown out of the ocean foam there. Inland, bus loads of tourists are scampering around her palaces, shrines and sanctuaries.
"Between Aphrodite (or Venus, as the Romans called her), her boyfriends (including the Greek hunk Adonis), her son (Eros, called Cupid by the Romans) and her father (the super-god Zeus), there's something here for everyone," a local saying goes.
After a day or two of trailing the haunts of the fabled icon of love and beauty, the tour buses move on to other historical sites around the island. And there's plenty of them, remnants of centuries of rulers. First on the scene were the Mycenaean Greeks, then the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Germans, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and -- until 50 years ago -- the British.
"Our whole island is like an outdoor history museum," says Tasoula Manaridis, North American spokeswoman for the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO).
In one place, she points out the remains of prehistoric settlements. In others, Crusader castles, Venetian fortresses and a classic Greek theater. Along the way she tells how Mark Antony gave the island to Cleopatra as a gift... and how England's King Richard the Lionheart dropped in to tie the knot with his French sweetheart -- after which he sold the island to the Knights Templar (who in turn sold it to a French knight)... and how the Apostles Paul and Barnabus came by in 45 A.D. to convert the Roman governor to Christianity.
Among the island's most-visited sites are the spectacular mosaic floors of Roman villas at the Kato Pafos Archaeological Park. Other eye-poppers include a hillside cave famous for its Byzantine wall paintings at the Agios Neofytos Monastery. Elsewhere on Cyprus' must-see list are attractions such as the Sanctuary of Apollo, the ancient city-kingdoms of Kourion and Amathous, the modern-day resort cities of Limassol, Larnaka, Pafos and Ayia Napa, and the museum-packed capital city of Nicosia.
All of these sites are on the southern two-thirds of the island, below a "green line" drawn by the United Nations in 1974 to separate the predominantly Greek south -- called the Republic of Cyprus -- from the predominantly Turkish north. The line, manned by UN troops, was set up as a buffer zone after a dispute that lead to an invasion of the northern area by the Turkish army. Talks between Cyprus and Turkey to resolve the issue looked promising when a new, pro-unification Cypriot president took office in 2008. So far, though, there's been no deal.
The Turkish invasion came just 14 years after Cyprus won its independence from Great Britain, which had governed the island since 1878. The Republic of Cyprus remains a favorite destination for British visitors, as shown in the dual Greek-English signage around the island. Many Greek Cypriots speak English as a second language.
It's a long trip to Cyprus, typically around 20 hours. Expect to first fly to a U.S. hub terminal, then to make at least one connection at an overseas terminal such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
About a year ago the country's aging international airport at Larnaka was shut down at the same time a new, $773 million airport opened, also at Larnaka. The state-of-the-art terminal (coded LCA) is designed to handle 7.5 million passengers a year, 50% more than the old terminal. Officials hope the new facility will encourage direct flights from the U.S.
Besides flying to Cyprus, a growing number of U.S. tourists drop in for day-visits during cruise stops at the island's chief port at Limassol. A number of the world's most popular cruise lines regularly stop there.
Ashore, besides traipsing through long lines of shops selling local handicrafts and trinkets, tourists pack dozens of tavernas offering traditional Cypriot "meze" dishes -- seafood or meat plates with vegetables, Halloumi cheese, pita breads and olives on the side, typically washed down with a local spirit known as Zivania. Meze servings can involve up to 20 dishes, so it's wise to nibble rather than finish everything on the plates.
There are some 80 tourist-class hotels on Cyprus, mostly clustered in the Pafos, Limassol and Ayia Napa resort areas, plus hundreds of lesser-rated hotels, inns, rental villas, guest houses and the like.
More info: You'll find a complete list of accommodations along with additional information on things to do and see on the island on the Cyprus Tourism Organisation's website, www.visitcyprus.com.
All four photos by Bob Schulman.