Exploring Ikaria, Greece's island of immortals

Remote and savagely beautiful, Ikaria is one of the world’s five Blue Zones. Locals believe it’s blessed by the gods, but what else contributes to its remarkable association with long life?

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

In the golden haze of a September afternoon, my pulse races as I scramble over wind-scarred granite rocks and drop into lichen-draped holm oak woods in Magganitis on Ikaria’s southwest coast. Above me, ragged, cloud-wisped mountains punch nearly 3,500ft from sea to summit and huge boulders litter the landscape — as if the Greek gods have dropped their marbles. 

The faint, overgrown trail isn’t easy to follow, throwing up many dead-ends, but I’m in good company. Alexandros, my host where I’m staying at Ikaria Studios, bounds ahead, sometimes stopping to pick a ripe fig or point out an endemic wild herb with no English translation. In his seventies, he’s as fast and nimble as one of the island’s wild goats.

“When I was young, we had to climb these monopátia (old footpaths) to visit friends and family, swap homegrown produce and buy groceries,” he says. “Before the roads were finished in the mid-1990s, these tracks were the only way up to hamlets in the mountains; the only way home. And you know what? It kept us fit, both in body and up here” he chuckles, tapping his head.

In The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer, The New York Times bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner zooms in on the world’s five Blue Zones, places with inhabitants of remarkable longevity, with incredibly high percentages of centenarians. Ikaria, which is just 30 miles off the coast of Turkey, in the eastern Aegean, is one of them — alongside Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Costa Rica) and Loma Linda (California). More than 30% of Ikarians live into their nineties, generally free from chronic illness and dementia, and many hit 100. 

One possible reason for this is genes. But Ikarians also benefit from an outdoor lifestyle in tune with nature, a plant-based diet rich in wild herbs, vegetables, pulses, olive oil and natural wine, a lack of stress and tight-knit communities. Today’s centenarians have had tough, self-sufficient lives, working in the fields and tending vines and olive groves, often without roads, phones or convenience foods. In short, the opposite of what the western world perceives as progress. 

In Ikaria, no one looks at the clock and time moves in a slow, dreamlike way — but that suits me just fine. My days slip into an intuitive rhythm. In the mornings, I swim off white-pebble coves, licked by a glassy turquoise sea. In the afternoon, Alexandros serves fish fresh from his boat, which we eat with our fingers. If the mood takes me, I head out along treacherously twisty, cliff-skimming roads, past blue-domed orthodox churches and olive groves droning with cicadas, rarely meeting another car. 

Bathing in the south coast’s hot springs — superheated at temperatures between 31C and 58C and among the world’s most radioactive — is cited as another contributing factor to the islanders’ longevity. The town of Therma, with its ruined Roman baths, has free public hot springs that are a popular choice for a dip, but Lefkada — a couple of bays over — is quieter. I slip straight from the rocks to drift in piping-hot healing waters, rich in radon, iron and sulphur, and smelling faintly of rotten eggs.

Of gods and mountains

The coast is ravishing but, as all Ikarians say, you feel the island’s true heartbeat in the mountains of the north. Here Ikaria’s otherness is most apparent; forged by a period of reclusiveness born out of conflict in the ‘century of obscurity’ (1521 to 1601). During this time, Turkish pirates drove islanders into the hills, where they hid in chimney-less, windowless ‘anti-pirate’ houses, capped off by giant rocks that were the only thing visible from a distance.

I follow a zigzagging road through a pine forest, past vineyards and rugged, heather-clad slopes to the most impressive example of this architectural legacy: Theoktistis monastery, wedged between boulders, like something from a Stone Age fairytale. When I arrive at dusk, the sun’s last rays are illuminating the chapel’s faded icons and silhouetting the forested mountains, which dip to the sea, as if touched by a celestial hand.

Ikaria’s past is intertwined with stories of the gods. Legend has it the most hedonistic of the lot, Dionysus, god of wine, revelry, ecstasy, fertility and grape harvests, was born here and worshipped in a cave above the remote and lovely cove of Lero in the island’s northeast. One of the first written mentions of wine is in Homer’s epic Odyssey, extolling the Ikarian red wine Pramneios Oinos, which supposedly made the heroes of the Trojan War superpowered.

From Theoktistis monastery, I go in search of the island’s famed wine. The road snakes west to the tiny hamlet of Profitis Ilias and family-run Afianes Winery. Here I meet wine-maker Eftychia Afianes, the daughter of the family, who gives me an insight into biodynamic wine-making. Grapes are picked here according to the lunar cycle, crushed by foot in a granite press, left to ferment in pitharia (underground clay pots) and extracted with a gourd — a process little changed since antiquity. One of their flagship natural wines is Pithari, a resveratrol-rich, reddish-brown wine made with the native fokiano grape. Slightly astringent and cloudy, it tastes profoundly of the island — ripe forest fruits, minerals and wet granite. I sip a glass as the sun creeps behind the mountains, and get Eftychia onto the subject of longevity. Is wine the answer? 

“Wine and diet play a part, but there’s also something in the air,” enthuses Eftychia. “Science has shown that when the sun hits the granite, it releases magnesium, which is like a natural antidepressant. Breathing this air keeps us happy. Stress and loneliness are almost non-existent and families stay close together — and this helps people stay youthful. You’ll see people in their eighties and nineties climbing fruit trees, joking about sex and dancing at panigyria (village parties). We don’t count the years here.”

On my final day in Ikaria, I stop in Vaoni on the south coast to follow a rough path skidding through gnarled olive groves, with the midday sun beating down mercilessly. I almost give up, thinking I’m on the wrong track, when I spot it: a little fang of rock. It’s one of the most underwhelming rocks on an already very rocky island, but it’s special. Legend has it that when Icarus flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, this is where he fell, bumped his head and drowned, thereby giving Ikaria its name. Sitting transfixed by the lapping of the brilliant blue Aegean Sea on this island of gods and immortals, I think, what a way to go. 

How to do it: There are no direct flights to Ikaria, but there are flights from the UK via Athens with Aegean Airlines. Or, fly to Mykonos or Kos and then catch a connecting ferry. Hellenic Seaways run several ferry services a week between Mykonos and Évdhilos in the north of the island (two hours). Dodekanisos Seaways ferries go weekly from Kos to Agios Kirykos in the south (3½ hours). Kerame Studios (from £45) in the north is a good base with sea-view apartments.

9 Lessons for Living Longer author Dan Buettner on Ikarian longevity

What’s special about the Ikarian diet?
The Ikarians have around 80 different kinds of wild greens and herbs in their diet, some with 10 times the antioxidant levels of red wine. These lower inflammation and blood pressure. As well as oregano, mint, rosemary and sage tea, they drink natural, sulphite-free red wine in moderation.

Do you think Ikarians also have a unique psyche?
During the war many communists were exiled to Ikaria and it has left them with a communal mentality. People here take care of each other and their ageing parents. Old people still tend their gardens and play an active role in family life. They’re loved and needed, and it’s this strong sense of purpose that keeps them physically fit and mentally sharp.

Are there any other secrets to Ikaria’s Blue Zone?
Because the island is so mountainous, people constantly have to walk up and downhill. But here it’s not exercise, it’s life — a life wired for longevity. The Ikarians are nearly always outdoors, whether working or socialising, breathing clean air or eating the food they grow. It’s important to understand that Ikarians don’t just live long, they remain happy and healthy right into their old age.

Published in the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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