By Marianna Hunt, journalist for The Times
Feature in The Times on 13 September 2023. Copy written by Marianna Hunt, holiday ideas provided by Sunvil.
Could the secret to eternal life be stuffed in a filo parcel? As one week on a rugged pile of rock in the middle of the Aegean taught me, quite possibly. That’s because Ikaria, an easterly Greek island close to Turkey, is home to one of the longest-living communities on the planet.
It is one of five regions — dubbed “blue zones” — that have confounded researchers by the number and vitality of their centenarians. Other of these longevity hotspots include the Okinawa Islands in Japan and some mountain villages in Sardinia.
“Ikarians live about eight years longer than the average American,” said Dan Buettner, a writer and explorer who helped to identify the areas and wrote The Blue Zones: Secrets for Living Longer. “What’s really extraordinary is the quality of life that they enjoy in their older years. They have almost no type 2 diabetes, almost no dementia, and half the rate of heart disease.”
Long cut off from the rest of Greece by its dangerous waters and lack of natural ports, Ikaria has so far escaped the overtourism that has commercialised nearby islands such as Mykonos. A 55-minute flight from Athens, it would be hard to call the landscape beautiful — in parts it looked more like a quarry chewed up by cacti than a holiday destination. But there are some attractive beaches, such as the south coast’s Seychelles Beach, and when you have the ultramarine Aegean rolled out in front of you, who’s looking inland?
On landing at the airport — a three-room affair — I was greeted by the bleating of goats (Ikaria is said to have 30,000 of them, and just 8,000 people), open mountainside, and an overwhelming fragrance of sweet pine and wild herbs.
Since the research around local longevity came out, there has been increased interest in the island, said Diane Kochilas, a cookbook author raised in Queens, New York, but Ikarian by descent. Noticing the demand, Kochilas launched a cooking school centred on teaching the principles of the Ikarian blue zone. It has been so popular that she now runs nine week-long courses a year. On day one of the school it turned out I wasn’t the only one seeking the secrets of longevity. The other students included two retired sisters from Canada and two former foreign aid workers from America — all of whom had signed up after reading about Buettner’s research — plus a woman who was already running blue zone-themed supper clubs in Seattle and wanted to refine her skills.
Ikaria has only a smattering of hotels and some self-catering apartments, most of which are clustered in the whitewashed seaside town of Armenistis. Here we stayed at the Cavos Bay Hotel, with its seaview pool and yayas (grandmothers) dishing up never-ending cheese pastries at breakfast.
Each day we would career up winding tracks in a minibus to Kochilas’s home kitchen. As we scooped the bulbous bellies of grilled aubergines and learnt to swaddle chubby pieces of feta in filo, Kochilas explained that Ikaria’s is essentially a peasant cuisine that’s heavily reliant on vegetables, potatoes and legumes with little meat or fish. “Foraging is an important part of the culture too. We use local plants and herbs not just for food but for their medicinal properties,” she added. The next day we were sent out into the olive and oak forests to search for St John’s wort, rockrose and other fragrant treasures, learning how they’re used to treat wounds, alleviate coughs and more.
Roaming the rugged, rocky landscape in search of herbs was tiring work in the 25C heat of early evening. Tiring but necessary, because this “passive exercise” is, according to Kochilas, another key tenet of the Ikarian lifestyle. “Our older people are moving slowly but constantly,” she said. We witnessed this one morning on a visit to Yanni, a local goatherd. In his late seventies, he explained how he roves the mountainside every morning and evening with his herd as I squeezed the velvety teat of a nanny goat (the milk was destined for our cheesemaking workshop that afternoon).
A good diet, exercise . . . all nice, but surely there are people on other remote islands who eat beans and walk a lot? “No one has proved exactly why [we live longer], but I think a key part is the isolation of Ikaria and how that’s meant we’ve evolved as a civilisation,” Kochilas said. “Because we were so cut off, Ikarians developed a very strong sense of solidarity.”
For centuries used as a place to exile political prisoners, after the Second World War Ikaria received an influx of more than 10,000 communist personae non gratae (more than doubling the local population at the time), Rania Mytika, a local guide, told me. “This helped to cement the communal spirit that is part of our island’s DNA,” she added. Today you can still spy scarlet hammer-and-sickles graffitied on the cliffs. And loneliness — which research is starting to suggest could have negative health impacts — is close to zero, I was told.
By the end of our stay our motley crew of cooks had developed our own kind of community — swapping stories and discussing what we’d take home from Ikaria — chief among them a slow-cooked goat recipe. But if travelling in a group (or mincing garlic all week) isn’t your jam, it’s still possible to get the real Ikarian experience. The travel company Sunvil Holidays has good local connections and can organise bespoke itineraries including hikes along the ancient trails and winery visits — locals drink a lot of wine (importantly, though, always watered down).
Wellness tourism is no new phenomenon here. It has been known as a health destination since antiquity, when people from across Greece and Asia Minor would come to bathe in its hot and supposedly healing springs. You still can — at no cost — under an open cave in the seaside town of Therma. I paddled out to the source of the spring, less than a minute from the shore, and floated about, the sea water feeling like someone had forgotten to turn the hot tap off in my bath. Even better? No sulphuric eggy smell.
Unsurprisingly for an island so steeped in immortality, Ikaria is the cradle of many myths. Some say it was the birthplace of Dionysus, Greek god of winemaking. And there’s the name — derived from Icarus, who supposedly used a pair of man-made wings to fly too close to the sun and was brought crashing to his death in the sea off Ikaria. It’s not hard to draw the parallel with humans racing to beat mortality through science, which has given rise to millionaires freezing their bodies via cryonics and “longevity clinics” charging fortunes for a session. Fitting, then, that it’s Ikaria — this jut of rock impervious to time and tide — where the misguidedness of such efforts is being shown up.
“The philosophy here is to be happy with what you’ve got. Stop looking for more and you’ve got more room to enjoy what you have,” Mytika said. A mantra from which we could all benefit.
Other blue zones to visit
Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica
The peninsula is famed for its ivory beaches, long dry season and laid-back lifestyle. But for elderly locals, it’s their plan de vida (reason for living) that gets them up in the morning. Communities are very sociable and tend to live off simple diets of corn, beans and squash. Nantipa, a beachfront hotel in the popular surf village of Santa Teresa, recently launched a Blue Zone-inspired experience — guests eat, drink and live like the locals, from breakfasting on gallo pinto (beans and rice) to hanging out with elderly Nicoyans at the local sodas (traditional open-air cafés).
Details: Experience Classic Costa Rica from £3,599pp (two sharing) on a 12 night holiday including accommodation, meals, excursions and flights.