Easily overlooked on the northern edge of the Aegean Sea, the island of Ikaria – which takes its name from the Greek myth of Icarus, the young man who flew too close to the sun and plunged into the sea close to the island – is slowly edging its way onto the tourist radar, with a heady mix of village fiestas, hot springs and a deep love of wine.
To get to grips with this mountainous island you’ll really need to hire a car. A spectacular road straddles its central ridge, taking you through a landscape flecked with wild flowers and strewn with granite boulders, while birds of prey such as Eleanora’s falcon and Bonelli’s eagle soar overhead.
Head west for some of the best walking, especially around remote villages such as Manganitis and Karkinagri, or in the north you can descend the beautiful Halaris canyon to the picturesque village of Nas. As well as a naturist beach, you’ll find the crumbling remains of the Temple of Artemis here, which dates from the sixth-century BC.
People have been taking advantage of the curative powers of the radium-rich waters of Ikaria’s hot springs for centuries. Many are within easy reach of Agios Kirykos, the island’s main town, including Therma Lefkada, a beachside pool where the waters mix with the sea, while the Spilaio Spa is inside a cave in Therma town centre.
Many other wellness offerings have sprung up on the back of the therapeutic waters, from chilled yoga retreats to walking tours and detox workshops. This emphasis on mental and physical wellbeing, as well as a healthy diet and exercise, is one of the reasons why Ikaria is one of the so-called “Blue Zones”, a name given to five regions in the world where the inhabitants surpass the average global life expectancy.
Ikarians love to party and panigyria are village festivals that celebrate local saints. They take place all year round across the island, often on a daily basis between May and October, and are a great way to discover some local specialties too, such as soufiko, a pan-fried Ikarian take on ratatouille, and kathoura, a type of goat cheese.
Fittingly, wine plays an important part in the festivals too, as legend has it that Ikaria was the birthplace of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Much of it is drunk young and fresh, poured straight from the barrel, including strong reds made from the fokiano vines, and the more delicate chilled whites from the begleri grapes.
Ikaria is a story of two coasts. In the south it’s dominated by steep cliffs, where the beaches are smaller and more secluded, such as Seychelles Beach, one of the most beautiful on the island, with turquoise waters perfect for swimming.
On the north coast you’ll find much larger arcs of sandy shore, many buffeted by seasonal surf. Close to the fishing village of Armenistis are the popular beaches of Livadhi and Messakti, both with obligatory sun loungers and umbrellas for hire, and served by a clutch of decent tavernas.