Ikaria is an island that many know of yet few ever get to experience. It's a place that has caught the attention of the media the world over, yet where many of its residents have never travelled away from. It's an island rich in natural resources, inhabited by people who are reluctant to exploit them. Acting as an Aegean Mecca for surfers, mountain climbers and cyclists, while still living life at a snail's pace. If you're searching for the Greece of days past, a milieu of breathtaking landscapes and welcoming locals, Ikaria will not disappoint.
The impeccable health and longevity of its islanders has garnered the island plenty of well-deserved publicity throughout the last decade. It ranks only behind Japan in the percentage of residents aged over 100 years old, and whether or not that is attributed to its healthy cuisine or slow speed of life, is a question asked by many who wish to scratch the surface of this elusive isle.
Named after Icarus, the unlucky son whose father Daedalus had constructed him wings out of feathers and wax and warned him of flying to close to sun. Unfortunately, the young man did not heed his father's warnings, and plunged to his death after his wings melted from the sun's heat. The island of Ikaria stands at the place where the boy supposedly fell, and there is even a spot on the island known as the “blood of Icarus”.
The moral of Icarus' tale can ironically be seen in the way the present-day islanders live out their lives. Too much ambition, to much hurry can be catastrophic, and the slow, leisurely lifestyle of Ikaria's residents surely plays a role in their world-renowned longevity. The island was also a place of exile for several supposed communist sympathizers, the most famous of which was Mikis Theodorakis, one of Greece's most famous composers. This has certainly had an impact on the lifestyle and mentality of the island, where communist candidates often prevail during national elections.
But the island's incomparable beauty could also justifiably be the reason why people take their time here: every corner of Ikaria is filled with immense natural beauty, from the Athera mountain range often covered by a blanket of feathery clouds, to the 200 year-old forest of Ranti, the largest of its kind throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Its also the home of several amazing beaches, many of which look as if they belong to the isles of the south pacific rather than the Aegean. Some of the most noteworthy include windy Messakti and Armenistis, some of the few places where surfing is actually possible within the Aegean. Seychelles beach in the south of the island is also a rare sight in these waters, complete with turquoise waters and volcanic-looking rocks.
Health and fitness enthusiasts will appreciate the dense forests, rivers and mountains of its hinterlands, providing the perfect backdrop for hikers and bikers. Paths leading to villages hidden within hillsides, cliff-top mountain springs and waterfalls challenge and inspire walkers of all ages and abilities. Hydrotherapy is also popular here, with the island's hot springs featuring some of the highest levels of radon and beneficial properties throughout the region. And healthy foodies will relish the pure cheese, olive, oil, herbs, fruits, vegetables and honey used to make a number of delectable dishes.
Fear not, if you're looking for an opportunity to re-tox rather than detox, the large network of villages, each one unique and picturesque, take celebrating to the next level with night-long feasts and festivals. The island's home-made grappa known as “tsipouro” packs a punch, and wine-making here is a revered art, respected and undertaken over millennia.
One of the best things about the island though, is its simplicity. Here, it isn't uncommon to walk into an empty shop, leave whatever money you owe and continue on your way. Locals care enough to help should you run into trouble, not enough to mind who you are or where you come from. It's a place where a meal can go on for hours and include another two or three servings before calling it a night within the wee hours of the morning. With so much beauty and hospitality to offer, the secret to Ikaria's longevity is worth taking a shot at discovering.