Ikaria, which is not often visited by tourists, is a haven of tranquillity, beautiful landscapes and delicious food
It is one of National Geographic’s five Blue Zone destinations, where people live the longest.
An April 2009 study of Ikaria showed it had the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet – nearly one in three people make it to their 90s. They also have about 20 per cent lower rate of cancer, 50 per cent lower rate of heart disease and almost no dementia.
It is a very special place that is not on the typical tourist trail. It has a population of about 8,000 people in the summer and they have a deep local culture and a strong sense of being Ikariotes.
Life there is simple and uncluttered. I go there once a year and have promised myself I will keep going until I can no longer travel.
One of my favourite places is the Monastery of Osias Theoktisti, which dates back to 1688 and is near the small village of Pigi.
A little further up the path is the chapel of Theoskepasti, which is tucked into the rocks and has a roof formed by a huge slab of granite rock. It is a hidden gem that offers quiet reflection and breathtaking views of the island.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Ikaria was under constant attack from pirates and the locals protected themselves by withdrawing into the mountains and building their homes among the rocks to avoid being seen. These little rock houses can be found all over the island – just look up the hillsides.
Christos Raches, the oldest village on Ikaria, is the best place to hang out in the evening and socialise. This impressive village on the Raches plateau is built amphitheatrically amid pines, oaks, fruit-bearing trees and vineyards.
The centre of the village is a very traditional pedestrian courtyard, full of local cafes and restaurants. It is a quaint area and absolutely buzzing at night when people sit around to play guitars or chess, read or just talk the night away.
Visit the cafe Rachati stou Pouriezi (www.facebook.com/rahati.stou.pouriezi.ikaria). It is easy to meet people there. We have had memorable nights when we went home as the sun was rising after hours of honest conversation.
The curative spa-therapy town of Therma is another place I love. The coastal town has beautiful views of the nearby Samos and Fourni islands and I often enjoy a 20-minute thermal bath (€5 or S$8) at the Apollon Spa (www.island-ikaria.com/activities/Apollon-Spring).
Scientists say Ikariotes’ longevity may also be due to the abundance of radio-energised springs on the island, which have been identified as being among the best in the world in terms of healing qualities.
After you leave the spa, walk to nearby Kritikos (bit.ly/2mWI37R) for the perfect lunch of biodynamic rose wine, fresh fried calamari, sardines and stuffed squid.
There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Ikaria. The simple and authentic cuisine follows the seasons, and features the catch of the day or the butcher’s daily arrivals from the local farms.
Most restaurants in Greece will serve the dishes most popular with the locals and tourists such as taramosalata (fish roe dip), cheese saganaki (grilled cheese with herbs), the ubiquitous Greek salad, grilled meats and fries.
But in Ikaria, where there are fewer tourists, more local eateries have kept their family recipes on the front page. Local wild herbs, garden vegetables and roots are the mainstay of the Ikarian diet.
My favourite restaurant is the table of local legend Eleni Karimali at Ikarian Winery (www.ikarianwine.gr), who has made a name in the last decade by appearing in several television programmes worldwide and featuring in several cookbooks.
Not only is her farm the best place to stay in Ikaria, but she also makes everything at home – bread, cheese, pickles, jams – and she makes the best pastry dough in the world. I love her Greek salad with kathoura (the local goat cheese) and pickled sea fennel. Her greens, or horta (boiled chard and amaranth leaves seasoned with lemon juice and olive oil), are the most scrumptious and refreshing side dish I have ever had.
To say her grilled sardines or her yemista (stuffed vegetables) are perfection is an understatement. Her homemade noodles with yogurt and herbs and her katsikaki (young goat’s stew) with herbs and molasses are legendary.
Her long farm table accommodates up to 20 guests, often a mix of people who are staying the night or who have booked by 10am the same day. Her husband George is usually at the table offering his biodynamic wines and sharing his perspectives on politics and philosophy well into the night. A dinner here costs less than €20 with wine.
In Ikaria, you must try the Ikarian green pancake, the spanakorizo (spinach rice) and the loukoumades (honeyed dough puffs) accompanied with mastic ice cream (made from Arabic gum tree and typical of this region).
The island is famous for its Panagiria festivals, all-night parties to celebrate Christian saints. They take place in different villages all the time, especially in the summer.
For the schedules, go to www.discoverikaria.com or ask the locals.
Try to arrive early so you can get a place at a table and enjoy the village food. Goat and lamb, beautiful oven-baked breads, tzatziki (a yogurt and cucumber sauce) and other delicacies are prepared by the villagers, with sales proceeds often donated to the villages’ charity. You can easily have an amazing feast, wine included, for under €40 for four people.
These festivals usually start in the mid-afternoon or early evening and often run through the night and to the next day.
They are also a celebration of traditional Ikarian music and Greek and Ikarian dance. The dance is a sight as participants form a circle which wraps smoothly into a spiral of dancers swaying, skipping and moving in unison.
In the south of the island, near the small port town of Magganitis, is a different landscape – softly rounded boulders, fewer trees, a drier climate and rugged cliffs. You will see goats as they look out at the views. The radioactivity is highest here and you can feel the temperature rise a couple of degrees. I love it.
There are two amazing local spots worth mentioning.
Seychelles Beach is one of Ikaria’s most beautiful beaches and locals prefer to keep it their secret for good reason. The pebble-rock beach is located in a stunning and intimate cove and the colour of the crystal-clear water is unmatched anywhere else on the island. If you cannot handle the walk down the steep cliff to get there, take a small fishing boat taxi from Magganitis.
The other gem is the cafe Sto Gialo Kanei 9 (bit.ly/2EVAcOy), above the harbour of Magganitis. Built to respect the environment and in traditional stone and wood architecture, the cafe is one of the best chill-out spots on the island. In the backgroundis great lounge music from top DJs, but it is also quiet enough for one to read.
A meal here with tender seafood costs less than €15 a person. This is also the place for the island’s best Full Moon Party.
There are no stores peddling cheap knick-knacks for tourists. The best souvenir is a shirt printed with the Ikarian flag, a symbol of the island’s independent identity. It is coveted by tourists – if you can find one.
Other than that, agricultural products, wine, honey and wild herbs are my favourite things to takehome. There are also a few potters on the island who make cute and usable ceramics. They can be found at the upper entrance of the pedestrian street in Christos Raches, next to the post office.
The family-run Ikarian Winery in Pigi-Evdilos is my favourite place to stay on the island. It has 10 rural accommodations of real character on an organic farm and winery at 450m altitude, with amazing views over the mountains, the Mediterranean sea and the nearby island of Mykonos.
For a little luxury, Toxotis Villas in Armenistis (www.toxotis-ikaria.gr/e) has seven traditional villas by the sea, overlooking the islands of Chios and Samos.
I also recommend Ktima Spanou in Christos Raches (ktimaspanou-ikaria.gr/index.php/en), a small hotel with 10 modern rooms in an old stone building with views across a 20ha park of dense vegetation, vineyards and gardens from the terrace, and a 23m-long outdoor pool.
Ikaria has an airport and two sea ports which make it accessible every day from the continent in the summer and at least every other day during the off-peak season.
Ferry company Hellenic Seaways connects Ikaria with Athens (Piraeus Port) and the surrounding islands. It has two ferryboats serving Ikaria, but for tourists, most boats will come daily from Mykonos, which is a hub in the Cyclades. The ferry ride costs about €20 (S$32) a passenger and can accommodate cars (about €60 a car) in case you rent one at Athens International Airport.
Ikaria’s airport is on the island’s south-eastern tip, 1km from Faros, a 15-minute drive from the capital Agios Kirykos, a 70-minute drive from Evdilos port in the north and a 11/2-hour drive from Armenistis.
There are direct flights by Aegean, Olympic and Sky Express Airlines from Athens International Airport and Heraklion Airport. Flights from Athens are about 45 minutes and fly twice a day in the summer from June 1 to Sept 30, and thrice weekly in the off-peak season.
Scoot flies directly to Athens twice a week. The flight takes about 12 hours and 20 minutes.
• Ikaria is a relatively big island. Travelling from one end to the other on the most rapid coastal road takes over an hour. Many people of all ages hitchhike as it is a very safe way to travel around the island, but most people rent cars. The island also offers a great variety of landscapes and natural attractions, so it would be a pity not to explore, and one needs a car for that. It is advisable to rent a jeep as it is more suitable for the numerous dirt roads. Car rentals are usually 30 per cent less expensive in Ikaria than in the more touristy islands. Scooters are also an option, but they are not safe on the dirt roads.
• Ikaria is a small community with deep orthodox Christian values of respect and honesty. It is so safe that I never lock my car and often keep the key in for people to move it if they need to. Honesty boxes are a common feature in Ikaria, where bakers or produce vendors will leave their stall open for people to serve themselves and leave payment.