If you think all Greek islands are the same, think again.
Ikaria, in Greece’s eastern Aegean, is one of the world’s five ‘blue zones’, places where inhabitants live longer than average and more people than usual live to 100.
Centuries of isolated life, cut off from the outside world because of the threat of pirates and foreign invaders, have given the small Greek island of Ikaria a character all of its own. The island’s ‘century of obscurity’ from 1521 to 1601 drove the inhabitants of the island into the hills to live in hiding.
When you visit Ikaria today, you’ll find a rugged island with small sandy bays and a sprightly older generation. The need for self-sufficiency and survival might have helped forge a path to Ikarian’s longevity, but it doesn’t explain it entirely.
There are many possible reasons why Ikaria is a blue zone - the plant-based diet, the slow pace of life, the sense of community, and daily exercise. And, possibly, the island’s radioactive hot springs.
The radioactive waters on the island are said to help with back pain, kidney diseases, respiratory diseases, skin ailments, bladder issues, circulation, fertility, and anxiety. In fact, the hot springs near the village of Xylosyrtis have been named ‘immortal water’ by locals because they are said to heal so many ailments.
An easy place to visit the hot springs is near the town of Therma, on the northeast coast of the island. Therma was once a thriving spa town and you can still see the remains of this Roman spa on the hill today. Nowadays, it’s more low-key, and there’s very little to tell you there are hot springs here.
The beach is backed by restaurants and bars where smatterings of tourists hover. Walk along the promenade, past the beach, to the end, where the rocks form a semi-cave. Here, you can take the stone steps down into the thermal waters. There are no facilities here at all, so most people come prepared and change behind towels after their dip.
Due to the radioactivity, you shouldn’t stay in the water for more than 20 minutes. Besides, the Garru Rufa fish nipping at your feet does become annoying after around 15 minutes in there. But a little of these relaxing warm waters each day, for free, certainly could be doing something to boost longevity here.
You can also experience the hot springs at Agios Kyrikos, Therma, Lefkada, and the Springs of Agia Kyriaki. Spas on the island have good facilities, and spa hotels offer treatments to accompany your dip in the waters, but of course, they do come with a fee.
While a few dips in the warm healing waters could help you live to 100, that’s not all Ikaria has to offer.
There are two wineries on the island, and both produce wine in traditional way, same as they always have here. This organic wine is important to Ikarians, and you’ll find most of the locals drink it almost every day.
Karimalis winery runs tours of the family-owned wine estate, along with tastings. They also run cookery classes, which is a great way to better understand the diet of Ikarians.
Because of the century of isolation, foraging is a big deal here. The people know what each plant on the island is and what its benefits are. The local dishes are mostly plant-based and feature a combination of vegetables and herbs, some of which do have medicinal properties. They also use these herbs to treat some ailments.
The other activity you can take part in at Karimalis is farm work. If you want to see how Ikarians stay so fit, get your hands dirty on the farm and find out just how hard this work is.
Speaking of exercise, if you want to visit one of the island’s monasteries or the ruined castle, you’ll need to be prepared for a good walk. The 10th-century castle of Koskina is found at the peak of a mountain, and it’s no easy feat to reach it. The island’s archaeology museum is also on the site.
The first capital of Ikaria is high up on a hill and gives you some idea of how people here used to live at such heights. There are also three monasteries on the island, each of which requires an uphill walk.
Near the Osias Theoktistis Monastery, you'll find the Theoskepasti Chapel. Known for its somewhat whimsical appearance, the chapel is built into a cave underneath a large, flat rock and resembles a mushroom house. The chapel's interior is adorned with icons, so it's well worth taking a peek inside.
These historical sights are fascinating to visit and offer a lot of historical context to the island and its people. They also show you how Ikarians have traditionally lived with the heights of the island’s hills and mountains. Even today, the locals here think nothing of walking up and down these hills on a daily basis.
The island of Ikaria also holds a unique place in Greek mythology. It's said that this is where Icarus tragically plunged into the sea after flying too close to the sun, leading to the melting of the wax in his wings.
The island takes its name from the myth, and in the town of Agios Kiryko, you can see a statue of Icarus. The statue shows his wings melting from flying too close to the sun.
The legendary point where he fell into the sea is marked by the Rock of Icarus on the south side of the island, close to the beach of Vaoni. While the rock is in the water, it's visible from the shore.
In honour of this myth, a small outdoor amphitheatre and a statue have been constructed nearby, just a few steps from Vaoni Beach. The site is not only a tribute to the legend but also a place where various festivals and events are held, making it an interesting spot for visitors to experience both the island's cultural heritage and its natural beauty.
The small towns and picturesque villages of Ikaria is where you’ll find local life. When you visit these pretty places you’ll see Ikarian life at its most relaxed..
Spend some time in Evdilos, Armenistis, Christos Rachon, and Akamatra, and you’ll see older members of the community - probably older than you realise - tending to their plants, walking to the taverna, doing their shopping, and socialising in the town squares.
The sense of community here is strong, and no one, no matter how old they are, feels left out or unimportant.
There is an airport in Ikaria, with flights to and from Athens, or you can take a ferry from Mykonos, which takes just over two hours. Ferries are also available from Athens's Piraeus Port, but take around 11 hours.
It's easiest to get around Ikaria by car or scooter. There is a public bus network, which mainly services the larger towns. If you plan to use the bus, you can get a taxi to visit more remote places.
There are some good hotels and holiday rentals available in the towns and villages, many with lovely views:
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