Hot Springs and Exiles: Exploring the Greek Island of Ikaria

Hot Springs and Exiles: Exploring the Greek Island of Ikaria

With secluded beaches, thermal waters, wine from the
gods and a life expectancy that tops 90, the isolated island of
Ikaria epitomises Greek life at its purest. No wonder Icarus chose
this spot to fall.

Slipping over the final few seaweed-wrapped boulders on the
beach, I half jumped, half tumbled into the bubbling sapphire
water, scalding my leg. “Próseche!” a group of young Ikarians
chorused through the steam, urging me to be careful. While it was
perhaps not the most graceful entry, I hoped my initial discomfort
would be outweighed by the lauded therapeutic properties of
Ikaria’s hot springs.

Since antiquity, people have sailed to the isolated island of
Ikaria to bathe in its thermal springs, said to ease all manner of
ailments. The springs are ranked amongst the most radioactive in
the world, and are classified as superheated, with temperatures
ranging from 31 to 58°C. And it seems Ikaria’s bathers could be
onto something. Alongside
, Okinawa, Loma Linda in California, and Costa Rica’s
Nicoya Peninsula, the island is one of the world’s five Blue Zones
– places where people live longer, healthier lives than anywhere
else. Indeed, one-third of Ikaria’s population lives past the age
of 90. You’ll likely see many older people wandering the
supermarket aisles and drinking long past midnight in its

Yet health concerns weren’t the reason I’d decided to make the
uncomfortable 11-hour overnight ferry journey from
to Ikaria. Seeking a more authentic experience, away
from the tourist hordes on
, I’d been seduced by the mythology surrounding this
island. The well-known Greek myth goes that Icarus and his father
escaped from the palace of King Minos of Crete
using wings they’d attached with wax. Icarus, thrilled by the
flight, soared too close to the sun, and plummeted into the sea
around Ikaria, lending the island its name. The island is also
believed by many to be the birthplace of the Greek god Dionysus –
and therefore the motherland of wine – with many place names on the
island related to his boozy legend.

In the mid-20th century, Ikaria housed some 13,000 communist
exiles during the Greek War of Independence, among them many
prodigious poets, writers, composers and academics who would reside
on the island for several years. One of these exiles was Mikis
Theodorakis, who composed the film score for Zorba the Greek, and
later spoke fondly about his experience on Ikaria. Many of the
exiles remained on the island, and their descendants live there to
this day.

Even before the exiles landed, Ikaria had a reputation for
self-sufficiency. In the 1700s, seafarers who docked at Ikaria
would have laid eyes on the same crumbling golden-grey cliffs and
olive shrubbery we see today – though to the untrained eye, there
was scant evidence that any humans inhabited the mountainous
terrain. Yet they did live on the steep mountainsides, and spent
their days in fear of pirate attacks. During this dark age,
residents constructed anti-pirate hideaways to blend in with their
homeland’s dramatic scenery. They built windowless, chimneyless
houses camouflaged with giant boulders and sprawling trees. Some
residences were even partially dug into the ground and roofed with
large slate slabs.

Getting there

In comparison to the days of fearsome pirates, the island’s two
ports of Evdilos and Agios Kirykos are now relatively thriving,
with a smattering of shops, bars, restaurants and hotels clustered
around the harbours. By today’s standards though, they remain
pleasantly sleepy.

If you want to get off the beaten track in
Greece’s islands
, you have to work for it. This means longer
ferry crossings at sometimes inconvenient times. Book tickets ahead
of time and you should be able to secure a relatively painless
6.5-hour ferry from Athens that sets off at 7.15am, and arrives
into Ikaria’s Evdilos port around lunchtime. Overnight ferries,
meanwhile, take over 11 hours, and will deliver you to the Agios
Kirykos port around 4am. If you opt for the second, seats are often
in short supply, so booking a cabin is worth it.

While choosing the ferry enables you to stop off at other
islands along the way and is generally cheaper, if it’s not for you
a handful of direct flights jet to Ikaria from Athens each day.

Where to stay

Much of Ikaria’s accommodation is clustered around its ports,
and there are advantages to staying here. The island is extremely
hilly, and inland amenities are few and far between; staying in
Evdilos or Agios Kirykos allows you to visit shops and restaurants
without first enduring an intense hike.

Picturesque Agios Kirkos is the island’s most bustling centre;
there are plenty of shops, bars, and restaurants set along the
seafront. Evdilos is a quieter option, with a comparatively upscale
vibe. From these ports it’s relatively simple to get a taxi or hire
a car to enjoy other parts of the island.

If you choose to stay inland or in seaside villages, it’s vital
to hire a car before heading to your accommodation, as public
transport is extremely limited. Yet leaving the port behind offers
a more authentic Greek experience, including local culinary
traditions and surly waiters. It’s here that you’ll discover the
island’s magic too: endlessly spellbinding scenery from the
precipitous mountains contrast with an abundance of brightly
coloured flowers, beaches are dotted with gargantuan boulders, and
the waters of the radioactive spas bubble. The glimmering sea is
never out of sight.

Armenistis is a quaint fishing village on the north of Ikaria,
perfect for heady days spent on the beach and invigorating hikes
through pine forests. Fanari (also known as Faros) is flecked with
historical monuments, has the largest southern beach on the island
and, according to Greek legend, was the birthplace of Dionysus.
Meanwhile, fishing village Gialiskari has a seriously
off-the-beaten track vibe and is close to the golden sandy beaches
of Messakti and Livadi.

What to do

Ikaria’s thermal spas are a must and there’s quite a few to try
out. Approaching Lefkada spring across the boulder-filled beach,
you won’t be able to tell where the chilly Aegean Sea stops and the
hot water begins, but upon closer inspection, bubbling waters and
spiralling steam give it away. There’s no fee to get into this
spring, but there’s also nobody lifeguarding, so watch your step,
particularly if you’re the only one around.

Spilaio Spa is sequestered inside a natural cave on the beach of
Therma, and has been thoroughly renovated with swimming pools and
jacuzzis added to the complex. Entrance costs a couple of euros. If
you prefer a more traditional spa experience, try the equally cheap
Apollon municipal thermal spa in Therma’s village square. This
includes a sauna and jacuzzi, as well as 26 large tubs for
treatment, and is accessible for people with disabilities.

These thermal spas are intensely hot. Remember to stay hydrated,
and don’t spend too long in the waters or you could end up feeling

Ikaria’s sparkling coastline boasts 29 beaches, pebbled and
sandy, vibrant and secluded. Pack a picnic and head to the popular
Kampos or Kyparissi beaches if you’re looking for a traditional
family day spent on the sand. Seychelles beach, created several
years ago by a landslide, is known as one of the island’s most
beautiful thanks to its white sand, aquamarine waters and craggy
cliffs. If serenity tops your itinerary, try Iero beach; until
recently there was no access to this pebble beach, so it’s still
frequently deserted.

You don’t need an excuse for a glass of wine on holiday, but if
you did, surely visiting Dionysus’ mythical birthplace is the best
you’ve ever had. Fittingly, Ikaria has been famous for its wine for
thousands of years, with the island’s strong, deep red wine
“Pramneios Oinos” even getting a nod in Homer’s Odyssey. Highly
valuable in the ancient world, this beverage was said to have
magical powers that helped to prepare the Iliad heroes for battle,
strengthening their military fury. The wine on Ikaria is often
drunk young, making it taste sweeter and stronger than your usual
vintage, so be prepared. True wine connoisseurs should motor to the
Ikarianwine Club in the village of Piyi to learn more about this
noble tradition, and try a few glasses along the way. Drink deep,
but try not to be overcome with military fury.

One of the best things to do on Ikaria is to hire a car and
simply follow the highway etched into the mountains around the
island. Purple, blue and yellow flowers line the roads, and steep,
jagged cliffs dotted with olive-green vegetation provide a dramatic
backdrop. It’s hard to tear your eyes away. Every so often you’ll
come across a small settlement of whitewashed homes or fishing
villages where you can stop for fresh seafood and saganaki (fried
cheese) as crystalline water laps at the harbour and cats gather
round, ready to snatch your lunch.

Verdict: Is Ikaria for you?

So, is Ikaria worth the long slog on the ferry, when you could
get to other, more popular Greek islands more easily?

Granted, Ikaria doesn’t necessarily have the glamour of
Santorini, or the party atmosphere of Mykonos, but if you’re
looking to immerse yourself in unspoiled Greek culture, thrilling
mythology and history – and to escape the international tourist
crowds – it’s hard to beat. For such an isolated island, the impact
it’s had on Greek culture is unparalleled. Secluded beaches, wine
straight from the Greek Gods and a shot at living past 90 doesn’t
sound bad does it? No wonder Icarus chose this spot to fall.