Cyprus: Where Sun, Sea and Skiing Merge Into One

Cyprus –In our days, when people hear of the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean
Sea, the usual /images that enter their minds revolve around golden sandy beaches
with warm turquoise waters, high-end hotels, hot sun, and perhaps a few might
even think of the Cyprus Problem, one of the few remaining unresolved conflicts
in the world. But few, very few people would conjure up /images of skiing on
this most southerly ouskirt of Europe. Yet, skiing – snow skiing, that is –
adds the sparking diamond to this island gem of the Mediterranean. n

Before we delve further into skiing, though, it might be a good idea to say
a few words about the island of Cyprus itself. Cyprus is the third largest island
of the Mediterranean Sea, with an area slightly less than half that of Vermont.
Despite its small size, it  has a total population (without counting the
tourists) quickly approaching one million. The largest city is the capital,
Nicosia, with a population of 250,000, while the other cities are all located
on the coast and have been developed into major tourist resorts. The island
is pretty mountainous. The northern mountain range, Pentadactylos, is a long,
narrow  range, but the highest peak barely reaches 3359 feet and offers
no skiing.  It is, however, a premier area for rock-climbing.  Unfortunately,
the whole range is currently inaccessible due to occupation by the Turkish Army
since 1974.

The second mountain range, the Troodos mountains, is really a series of mountains
which occupies most of the southern half of the island, at times reaching down
all the way to the sea. The center of this area is occupied by the Mt. Olympus
massif, where the island’s highest peak of 6402 feet is located. The Mt. Olympus massif, as seen from the plainsIt
is easily distinguished by the huge radar domes that look like golf balls ready
to be used by some giant of the Greek mythology. Several other peaks in this
area reach or exceed 5,000 feet, and it is here that skiing on the island can
be found. Surrounding this massif are many small villages scattered among the
pine and vine covered slopes, offering ideal starting points for explorations
of the mountains which also offer hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and
in the last few years paragliding.

But since skiing is really our subject here, let’s concentrate on this aspect
of the Troodos mountains. Some people, especially if they have heard of the
extreme heat that affected Cyprus this past summer, may really wonder: “How
can someone ski there? Does it ever snow?” The answer of course is yes. The
bad news is that snow (and weather in general) is rather unpredictable. Yes,
it does always snow. The big question is how much, and for how long will the
skiing be decent. Cyprus does enjoy a much warmer climate than most areas around
it, actually very similar to that of Southern California. But what Cyprus lacks
in latitude, it does somewhat make up for in altitude. From mid-December onwards,
any storms that pass over Cyprus will usually result in a dump above 4,500 feet.
The generally mild climate means that most south-facing  slopes will quickly
lose their white coat. But the mountains are rather steep – so the north faces
retain practically every snowflake they get until the temperatures start to
soar in April.

Depending on the weather patterns, the season usually starts sometime in January
(when enough snow has accumulated to cover the rocky pistes – the Cyprus mountains
are not exactly tame), and usually lasts through the end of March, though in
some rare occasions it has lasted well into April or even May (in 1993, there
was still patchy snow remaining on north facing slopes well into June). Unfortunately,
there are quite frequent droughts, and sometimes the season is short – in 1997
the lifts were open only between early February and early March.

The center of interest for Cyprus skiing is the Troodos Skiing Center, located
in a col between the two highest peaks of the range. The Cyprus Ski Club runs
and maintains the facilities, while at the same time, the Cyprus Ski Federation,
which includes four regional skiing clubs, uses the facilities for the training
of the various Cypriot (and occasionally foreign) ski racing teams. Obviously,
the small size of the island, coupled with the fact that snow rarely occurs
below 4,000 feet, means that Troodos is not Courchevel, Aspen, or Stowe. The
resort would seem really tiny compared to the traditional destination resorts
of the west – four T-bar lifts, X trails, and a tiny 600-foot vertical drop.
But for the thirsty skiing community of Cyprus and the neighboring countries,
plus the thousands of northern European tourists that flock to Cyprus to enjoy
some warm sun even in the middle if February, it offers a very welcome skiing

Atop Mt. Olympus, at 6402 feet it's the highest point in CyprusThe
resort is divided into two major parts that are interconnected, each served
by two lifts. The official center of skiing activity is the base lodge at Sun
Valley where along with the traditional cafeteria, the ski rental shops and
other amenities are located. This is the area where most Cypriot skiers make
their first tentative turns on the white stuff, for here the beginner slopes
and some more exciting ones are located. The first lift, Sun Valley 1 or “Aphrodite”
serves the beginner trails. The vertical is small – barely 150 feet, but for
someone who has never before edged a ski it can be quite an experience. Three
trails are served by this lift: The Sun Valley trail itself (a very wide slope);
a twisty, slightly steeper trail to the east of the lift; and the so-called
“Family Run”, a rather long, winding trail with a very slight pitch that snakes
its way through the thick black pine forest, and is usually full of families
with young children – hence the name.

From of the top of the “Aphrodite” T-bar a fourth trail can clearly be seen,
exactly following the flat, pine-covered  ridgeline and disappearing into
the woods. If you follow this trail, you suddenly end up looking at a cafeteria
that seems to lie almost below your feet, whilSun Valley 2, or Hermese
the unloading area of yet another T-bar is to your left. This is the “Sun
Valley 2” or “Hermes” area. Although the vertical is still low at 300 feet,
the trails here bear no resemblance to the easy stuff of “Aphrodite”. Three
trails follow some steep fall lines to the base of the lift. In one of the trails,
a 30+ degree pitch for about 25 vertical feet gives you an extra adrenaline
rush, though it is really too short to last. The westernmost trail of this area
has quite a pitch as well, and is narrow enough to make it exciting – provided
that one or another of the children’s ski teams are not using it for training.

After playing at “Hermes” for a while though it gets boring – so you get pulled
up by the lift, follow the flat trail that brought you here, and return to the
“Aphrodite” area. After a hot chocolate or a cold beer (depending on whether
or not the sun is shining!) you decide to follow those skiers that remove their
skis, cross the tarmac of the parking lot, put on their skis again, and disappear
into the trees to the north. Pretty soon you are into a very narrow trail, 3
or 4 feet wide, with some steep rocks to your left and a view to the end of
the world on your right (provided you are not immersed in clouds). The coastline
is visible 25 miles away and 6000 feet below your feet, while about 300 feet
below you a windy mountain road will “welcome” you if you accidentally ski off
to the right (no safety nets here!). It seems that you are moving into some
serious skiing. And indeed you are. Suddenly, the narrow trail disappears into
the woods, and as if by magic, yet another T-bar appears on your left. You are
now in the “Hera” area – you have reached the North Face area of the highest
peak of the massif. If you decide to get on the lift, you will see that only
one trail leaves from its top – the Hera trail. This is a nice, smooth cruiser,
what would be a nice blue square trail in most US resorts. The vertical drop
is not much – perhaps 350 feet – but at least this trail has some length, and
surprisingly light traffic. What’s more, huge pines line both its sides, so
the snow is deep and quite powdery even though it has stopped snowing more than
three hours ago. Something fishy is going on: you can hear howling and yells
of exhilaration. These voices seem to come from every which way – yet you see

On returning to the base of the lift, you notice that some more skiers are
coming from where you came. But instead of getting on the lift, they choose
to let the lift attendant smoke his cigarette and they go straight past, seemingly
into the woods. You choose to follow them, and all of a sudden, voila! At the North Face lodgeYou
reach a new brick building, full of balconies with people absorbing sun, and
some trails that seem to be out of proportion with everything else you have
experienced to this moment. You have just arrived at “Zeus”, or the North Face
proper of Mt. Olympus.

The most striking feature of this area is that the first 400 of the 600 total
vertical feet are exposed, for they lie in the only part of the mountains to
be above the tree line. The trails here are acceptably long and steep – they
would certainly earn a black diamond. The easternmost trail has a rather flat
top section, a steep and rather narrow middle section, and a flat outrun. The
center trail is the official FIS-rated piste, and it is on this trail that both
local and international competitions are held each year. The official FIS rating
is a good indicator of its level of difficulty. Finally, the westernmost trail,
known as the “Jubilee”, is the only trail that would warrant a double-black
diamond. It is a narrow, twisty, very steep trail over very jagged terrain that
is of course left ungroomed. This trail needs a deep snowcover for it to be
safely skiable, as the rocky ground (most of which is above treeline) is a certain
killer without a deep base. Unfortunately, less than normal snowfall in the
last four years has prevented me from skiing that trail myself – it has been
opened only twice in the last three years, and on both occasions I unfortunately
had other committments.

The view from the Zeus liftIn
order to reach the top, you have to take a T-bar that rises very steeply over
those 600 vertical feet. I had some of my scariest falls while riding that lift,
but the ride certainly prepares you for the various descents to follow. On clear
days, the views from atop Mt. Olympus – the highest point on the island – can
be stupendous.


You can practically see the whole island lying below your feet, the sparkling
waters of the Mediterranean glittering below a brilliant warm sun, while on
very clear days the peaks of the snow-capped Taurus mountains of Turkey are
also visible 70 miles to the north. But during fierce Mediterranean storms,
this tranquillity is replaced by howling winds, blizzards with lightning, and
temperatures well below freezing – conditions that on occasion can dump 5 feet
of powder in less than a day. Usual storms last about 6 to 12 hours, though,
and perhaps 6 to 12 inches are more reasonable snow amounts to be left behind.
Then there are epic storms – like in 1993, when a storm raged for several days
and left a snow blanket that covered all areas above 2,500 feet, and after which
the depth of snow was such that all the lift towers were buried and the ski
lifts could thus not operate! (Not that they would be of much use – for quite
a few days, the only way to get to Troodos, or to any village above 4,000 feet
was by helicopter!). The North Face trails

The quality of the snow that falls varies greatly with each storm. More often
than not the snow is a bit wet, especially in the lower Sun Valley areas. But
if the temperatures are cold enough, and they often drop to below 15 degrees
Fahrenheit on the top, the moisture laden clouds release some quite fine powder
that swiftly gets deposited by the wind on the northern slopes,  especially
below the trees.  And here is a major clue: remember the “Yeeha!”s that
you heard around the Hera lift? There, in the heart of the Mediterranean forest,
lie some of the best powder stashes imaginable. The steep pitch of the area,
the thick pines, and the northwesterly winds create a perfect combination that
ensures plentiful untouched powder and some of the most exciting tree skiing
imaginable. By skiing from the Zeus lift to the trees directly above the top
of the Hera lift you enter another world, a separate divine kingdom of powder
known only to the few. The tree lines open everywhere, and the occasional clearings
often give you the impression that you will ski straight to the sea! And what’s
more, few people know – or care – about off-piste powder or tree skiing here. 
Most of the skiers are content enough with high speed descents of the groomed.

So where’s the catch? Well, unless you are really familiar with the area it
is best to ski in the company of someone who knows his whereabouts as there
are quite a few dead-ends, and what from a distance may look like an inviting
chute might transform into impassable jagged rock outcrops when viewed up close.
The snowpack has to be deep enough so that the undergrowth  and bushes
are covered – otherwise the tips of the skis will continuously catch in the
top of juniper and peony brushes, and your yard sales will be spectacular –
and dangerous. But if the conditions are good – say, a foot and a half of fresh,
on top of three feet of packed snow, temperatures in the 20s, and trustful company,
you could be happy forever (well, sort of).

There is a lot of tree skiing on the northwestern slopes as well, but there
the trees are thicker, the slopes steeper, and the unskiable chutes more frequent.
Few dare to enter that world, which starts to the right of the Jubilee trail
– but the thrill is always there.

The day goes on. You have skied every trail, you even found your own playground
in the trees above Hera, you got some huge air, but also some spectacular falls,
and your legs have started to complain.  So you head up the Zeus lift and
you follow another easy trail that lands you again in the Sun Valley parking
lot. Within minutes you are back in your cozy hotel room, in one of the many
hotels that dot the Troodos area where you have a huge dinner of Cypriot meze
(Cypriots are well known about their food habits!) along with some of the excellent
local wine, or for the more hardy ones “zivania” – a warmth-giving local spirit. 
Do not try to ski after drinking zivania!  You sit with your
beloved one in front of the fireplace, watching the first flurries of another
fast approaching storm, contemplating another day of excitement.

Despite the insufficient snowfall of the last few years, expansion plans are
well under way. The Zeus cafeteria has been transformed into a modern building
capable to satisfy the needs of the most demanding skier, and is also full of
advanced computer equipment to be used in the skiing competitions from February
1999 onwards. A new trail system, from the top of the Zeus lift down the forested
northwestern slopes has been designed, with a vertical drop of more than 1000
feet – a major improvement over the existing terrain. And while snowmaking is
being considered, the main problem is the general lack of water that unfortunately
troubles the island. But if snowmaking on the North Face and the new trails
is finally installed, the skiing season will be easily extended more than a
month each side, as during the night temps are into the 20s or lower from the
end of November through the beginning of April. Finally, a chair lift is contemplated
to replace the steep and scary Zeus T-bar, and also to increase the uphill capacity.
The next few years will see quite a few changes at Europe’s southernmost ski
resort.  Hopefully all will be for the best!

Earlier I mentioned that in addition to the Mt. Olympus massif, there are several
other peaks that exceed 5,000 feet. Someone may rightly wonder wether there
are other, backcountry skiing possibilities as well. Unfortunately, with a single
exception, the answer is no. The morphology of the other mountains is such that
no real routes are offered, nor is there usually snow deep enough to provide
for safe skiing. The only possible exception is Mt. Papoutsa,Papoutsa, early December 1998
a twin-peaked massif reaching 5,098 feet and situated about 15 miles to the
east of Mt. Olympus. Despite being much lower than Mt. Olympus, this massif
seems to be so located as to generate its own microclimate, usually resulting
as the snowiest mountain on the island after Mt. Olympus even though there are
several other peaks between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. As if the snow was not enough,
the mountain has steep north-facing slopes that hold no forest, only bushy undergrowth,
and are so situated as to create a 40-degree north facing bowl with a vertical
drop of nearly 1000 feet. I have not skied this area myself, and I have met
no one who actually did, but the rumours about its fabulous skiing are always
circulating. I did hike up its rugged terrain, a very tough and exhilarating
hike (I can only imagine its difficulty in deep snow), and tried to descent 
its north face.  Even on foot it was hairy. Unfortunately, the snow has
to be deep to be safely skiable, and such conditions have not occured since

So, what is the conclusion? Obviously small scale, but certainly well worth
its while if you are on the island at the right time.   The extent
of skiing on this Mediterranean island is certainly not such as to make a vacation
solely for skiing really attractive. But, when the exotic qualities of this
little skiing gem are taken into account, and in addition the other year ’round
activities that Cyprus offers are considered (ranging from scuba-diving to windsurfing
to rock-climbing to biking to sky-diving), then definitely Cyprus is a superb
winter destination for someone to consider.  After all, do you know of
many places where in the morning you can ski fresh powder in a blizzard, then
half an hour later be swimming in a 75-degree warm sea under a brilliant sun,
and in the evening party like there is no tomorrow?



How to get there: At the time there are no direct flights from North
America to Larnaca (LCA) airport in Cyprus, but there are frequent and direct
flights from all major European cities by most European airlines. There are
daily flights from London LHR, Zurich, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Athens, or Tel-Aviv,
for example by airlines such as British Airways, Swissair, KLM, Lufthansa or
El Al.

Where to stay: If you plan your vacation to revolve around mountain-related
activities, then you should choose a hotel situated in a mountain village such
as Platres, Kakopetria, or Saittas. In addition, two hotels – the Troodos Sunotel
and Jubilee Hotel are located very near to the Troodos Skiing Resort. Expect
something like $50 US per night for bed and breakfast. If on the other hand
you would like to sample the rest of the exciting activities that Cyprus has
to offer, then you should plan to stay near the beach. The city of Limassol
is the one nearest to the Troodos (about half an hour away by car), and in addition
it is the partying capital of the island, especially in late February when it
hosts the third largest carnival of Europe. Accomodation can vary a lot, from
youth hostels for the budget minded to 5-star exquisite hotels that charge more
than $300 US per night.

Driving: A system of 4- or 6- lane highways of US interstate standards
connects all the major cities. Driving is on the left hand side of the road.
The mountain roads are very good, but after heavy snowfalls expect long-lasting
road closures, as the highway crews are underequipped and no salt is used. Snow-chains
or four-wheel drive cars are frequently needed for the last 5-6 miles to the

Food and Drink and Party: Cyprus is well known for all of the above.
There’s excellent local food, a huge variety of international restaurants from
Italian and French to Chinese and Thai, and of course MacDonalds for those on
a budget. Cyprus produces excellent local wine (heavily exported to Europe),
some tasty liqours, great beer, and the local strong specialty known as Zivania.
There are apres-dinner places to suit every taste, from the quiet and romantic
to Greek bouzouki taverns to modern Clubs and Discos.

Cost of Life: Pretty much similar to most of Europe. Expect $25-30 US
for a decent dinner in a nice restaurant for two persons. A 36-exposure film
costs $5. A pint of local beer costs $2. You get the idea.

Weather: During the winter months, Fahrenheit temperatures near the
coast rise to the 70s with lows near 45 to 50. On the mountains it can be much
colder. In sunny conditions, temperatures can reach 40 to 45, but in clouds
or snow they may drop to 15 or lower.

When to go: February and March are the best bets for powder, while from
mid-March through the end of season corn snow predominates. Very rarely is the
snow cover enough for decent skiing before February.

The Cyprus Problem: A final word, regarding the Cyprus Problem. The
Republic of  Cyprus has been in a ceasefire with Turkey since the latter
invaded the island in July 1974. As a result of the invasion, the Turkish Army
illegally occupies the northern 37% of the Republic, which is thus inaccessible.
Nicosia, the capital, has been divided since 1974 and represents the last divided
capital in the world. Despite the military presence on the island, the place
is extremely safe to visit, as is well illustrated by the fact that about 2.5
million European tourists holiday here, so there’s no need to worry from this

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