Does the term "Blue Zone" ring a bell? That's probably because, after 20 years of research, it's been in the news quite a bit lately. The term Blue Zone was first coined by Dan Buettner in 2004 after he began investigating why inhabitants of the Japanese island of Okinawa lived significantly longer than people elsewhere. Working with scientists and demographers, he found that longevity is directly related to a good diet and balanced lifestyle, and he began demarcating regions that demonstrate these traits as Blue Zones. He's currently identified five Blue Zones around the world, one of which is Ikaria, a tiny island in Greece that should be your next vacation destination.
Ikaria boasts 102 miles of coastline, perched among the Northern Aegean islands. It has clear blue waters as well as rocky mountains covered in forests. It's generally a quiet, rural sort of place — until the parties called Panagiria on saints’ days take place in the summer.
The island is named after Icarus. In Greek mythology, Daedalus created a pair of wings from feathers and wax so he and his son Icarus could escape from Crete. Although his dad warned him not to fly too high, Icarus didn’t listen and fell to his death in the Aegean Sea. Most people read this as a warning not to be overconfident and ignore advice, but the inhabitants of Ikaria interpret it differently. They value Icarus' independence and bravery, seeing it as a reflection of their history.
Today one in three residents lives into their 90s, making it a certified Blue Zone.
What Makes Ikaria a Blue Zone?
Rates of dementia and chronic illnesses are very low on Ikaria, which scientists link to the fact that locals consume large quantities of organic legumes, vegetables, and olive oil, but little red meat or dairy (they also choose goat milk over cow milk). Locals also get lots of incidental exercise through gardening and walking the area’s steep hills, but, most importantly, they have a healthy attitude to life, owning their time rather than allowing themselves to be ordered by the clock: Ikarians live at their own, relaxed pace, surrounded by good friends and family. Ikaria is also surrounded by water, and you don’t need to be a scientist to know how calming that is. Finally, the island contains health-giving radioactive and sulfurous springs, which probably also contribute to a low-stress, healthy lifestyle.
What Are the Health Benefits of Ikaria's Thermal Waters?
Knowledge of Ikaria’s thermal waters dates back to antiquity, and a thriving thermal center was developed in the 1920s. However, if you’re envisioning a Roman-style spa resort such as Bath in the U.K. or the chic Blue Lagoon in Iceland, think again. Until only a few decades ago, Greeks suffering from various ailments were medically prescribed treatments at the Municipal Hydrotherapy Apollon in the Ikarian town of Therma, which accounts for its no-nonsense utilitarian facilities. It’s still quite normal to see people shuffling along the streets in their bathrobe and slippers, on their way to or from the baths.
There’s something special about immersing yourself in water deemed very radioactive and classified as “superheated” for 20 minutes. Don’t be alarmed though, these waters are scientifically tested, and the water’s saline radium and radonium content have been proven to combat swelling in the joints, gout, skin, and respiratory complaints, and be beneficial for the nervous system.
What Else Is There to See and Do in Ikaria?
Therma is also home to a small hamam and two pools in the Spilaio Spa, tucked away at the south end of the beach. It’s right next to a natural outdoor cave where steaming hot water flows into the cold sea. We recommend wearing rubber-soled swim shoes to make wading around to the deeper pools inside the cave easier.
There’s also Therma Lefkada a few miles further along the coast. A well-marked path leads down to a beach strewn with white rocks of assorted sizes. Wear sneakers rather than sandals here. At the point where the rocks change color from white to a glistening coppery red and orange, hot mineral springs feed into the sea. Large boulders in the water form a pool big enough for a dozen people, with room to stretch. Remember to limit yourself to a maximum of 20 minutes in the water.
It’s possible to swim as late as October in Ikaria, and there are a lot of beaches to choose from. Seychelles Beach, where clear turquoise waters lap along a stretch of pebble beach guarded by craggy cliffs, is undoubtedly the best-known. If you prefer sand between your toes, head for Livadi, where a beach café and bar that hires out umbrellas and sun loungers appeals particularly to families.
Like all Greek islands, Ikaria is packed with history and culture, both past and present. The Archaeological Museum of Agios Kirykos contains objects from excavations around the island while the Folklore Museum of Agios Kirikos displays traditional costumes and household and other items from the 18th century right up to the 1970s.
In Evdilos on the north coast, join Greek families drinking coffee at tables lining the horseshoe-shaped harbor. Sailboats bob on crystal clear water to a backdrop of three-story houses on a hill. Take in the backstreets before heading west and inland to the Archaeological Site of Kambos, up in the mountains among cool pine trees and olive groves. Continue on to the hobbit-hole-style Theoktistis monastery. Natural stone treads hug the rockface, leading to a tiny space filled with colorfully painted hand-carved wooden altar panels ornamented with faded pictures of saints and Virgin Mary icon postcards stuck to whitewashed walls by the faithful.
From May through October, sleepy hamlets erupt into a frequent frenzy of feasting and dancing known as Panagiria, held to celebrate Saints’ name days and other religious occasions. On these feast days, locals tuck into goat and strong red wine made from indigenous Fokiano grapes, and passersby are encouraged to join in. There are a number of wineries on the island, so leave room in your luggage for a bottle or two.
Goat cooked in lemon is an island specialty and on Sundays some restaurants roast whole lamb on the spit. Service starts mid-afternoon and continues into the night, accompanied by music and dancing.
How to Get to Ikaria
Ikaria is home to a small airport with relatively frequent flights to/from Athens. It also has two busy ferry ports with routes to/from the mainland ports of Piraeus and Kavala, as well as to the Dodecanese Islands.
Hire a car or motor scooter to get around. Public transport options, especially outside the summer, are minimal.
The Best Time to Visit Ikaria
Tourist season runs from May to October but July and August are peak times for mainland Greeks and those living elsewhere to visit since it's prime beach-going and Panagiria time. However, spring and fall bring milder temperatures, cheaper rates, and fewer crowds, and are the ideal time to explore the island's many hiking trails.
What to Know Before You Go
- Thermal waters can be harsh on flimsy fabrics so take an old bathing suit to wear (though people usually bathe naked in the private rooms at the Apollon). Bring your own towel and flip-flops.
- People with pre-existing conditions such as acute cases of rheumatism, and heart or cerebral diseases are forbidden to bathe at the Apollon thermal center.
- If you plan to visit smaller villages around the island bring cash as not everywhere accepts credit cards.