Ikaria, Greece: Lessons, and a Couple Caveats, from a ‘Blue Zone’

The small Greek island of Ikaria shot to fame a decade ago, when it was named one of the world’s five Blue Zones — places where people live longer than anywhere else. In Ikaria, a third of the population lives into their 90s, compared with 5 percent in the U.S.

People in these places, the thinking goes, must have The Answers. They must Do Things Right, must have stumbled on the secrets to health and happiness. The islanders have been studied and probed by both scientists and journalists to find out what they know that the rest of the world does not.


The picturesque harbor at Evdilos.

I visited the island in 2017, as part of my honeymoon. My husband Ted is half-Ikarian: His mother emigrated from the island when she was a girl. Several of his aunts, uncles, and cousins still live there, either part- or full-time, in tiny mountain villages accessed by vertical roads traversed more commonly (and easily) by goats than cars.

For the most part, and to its credit, the island doesn’t do much to capitalize on its fame. Only once, in Armenistis, the island’s most touristy town, did we see a business attempting to cash in on the Blue Zone craze. It was offering something billed as “Blue Zone Therapy,” and there were a bunch of aquariums with fish inside. We didn’t investigate further.

But there is much to be learned from being in this place. During our five days on the island, I couldn’t help but act as incidental researcher — noticing the ways people behaved, what they ate, how they interacted with us and each other.

Here are some of my observations — and one caveat.

1. The minute you set foot on Ikaria, the pace…. slows. Way. Down.

We flew to the island from Athens — a 50-minute journey on a small but sturdy propeller plane. From the moment we stepped onto the tarmack, the contrast with the capital city’s bustle could not have been starker.


Touching down on Ikaria.

It was as if someone had hit the pause button on life. The man from our rental car company spent about 45 minutes greeting us, asking about our journey, showing us our car, and cleaning it out. Once he learned Ted had Ikarian roots, it was all over: A 30-minute conversation ensued about towns, surnames, and comparisons of family histories. We finally hit the road about an hour after landing. It might all have been annoying if it weren’t for the fact that it was also so… relaxing.

2. And stays slow.

From the moment we left the airport, we found out that when it comes to driving, you don’t have a choice but to go slowly. Every road on the island is narrow, vertical, and beset by switchbacks.


Are we about to drive off the planet.

Again, potentially annoying (and scary), until you relax into the fact that yeah, you’re just going to have to go 15 miles an hour, all the time. It’s a kind of fractal for life on the island as a whole: “This place is wild and remote, and you can’t go fast anyway, so why not slow down and enjoy?” On Ikaria, there’s a trust that things will get done with time and persistence, a knowledge that rushing and pushing hard can actually be counterproductive, even dangerous. For harried Americans, this commitment — to a little every day rather than a lot all at once — may be the most valuable lesson of all.


The view from our simple apartment in Armenistis.

3. People talk to each other.

It’s become a cliché that “We don’t talk to each other anymore” in the U.S., that we’d rather interact with our devices than with other people. On Ikaria, though, the cliché feels like a fresh, and true, revelation. There are few anonymous encounters here. When you meet someone, there is eye contact and conversation. This became apparent to us at the very first restaurant we visited, Mary Mary in Armenistis, where both the owner of the restaurant and his son (the chef) took time to sit down at our table and talk about their own lives and ask, with genuine curiosity, about who we were and where we were from.


Mary Mary in Armenistis

4. Loneliness is not part of the lifestyle.

For islanders themselves, of course, the socializing goes far deeper. When they’re not working, Ikarians wander next door to visit with their neighbors, or down the road to the nearest taverna — sometimes for hours at a time. There doesn’t always need to be a ton of talking. Older residents, in particular, may simply sit and enjoy the sound of younger folk talking in the background as they think, play cars, or smoke their pipes.

5. A spirit of generosity and sharing pervades.

Ikaria is not a wealthy place. Unlike other Greek islands, it has no gold or silver mines, no booming trade in tourism, marble, or olives. The landscape is mountainous and infertile. Most everyone lives simply, at or near a subsistence level.


The famous “sandwich house,” squished between two rocks, at Theoktistis Monastery.

Maybe that’s why people seem to share their resources so easily — you never know when you’ll be the next person in need. Even as tourists, we were frequent recipients of Ikarian generosity. Our landlord on the island cooked us dinner one night. The chef at Mary Mary made me avgolemono (egg-lemon soup) when I was feeling sick — without being asked. I also visited a doctor free of charge.

6. Connecting to nature isn’t a choice, but a way life.

In the urbanized U.S., many of us view the natural world as an amenity: We may visit parks when we need to restore, but then we hurry back to our cars, houses, and phones. On Ikaria, nature is always front and center. First of all, just about every place on the island has sweeping views of the ocean — a humbling yet comforting reminder of the enormity of the world around you, one that helps put day-to-day troubles in perspective.


Nas Beach.

Most towns are small enough that the sounds of the forest, or waves crashing on the coast, are within earshot. And the subsistence-based lifestyle of many residents means that most have a deep relationship with the land and the ocean — gardening, hunting, fishing, or beekeeping (Ikaria is famous for its honey) not just for leisure but in order to survive. That dependence means people have to cultivate a deep respect for the natural systems around them.

7. Exercise and healthy food are built into the lifestyle.

We Americans tend to focus on this factor because diet and fitness are sold to us as ways to “buy” happiness. While diet and exercise are important, I believe they’re more reflective of the factors above than foundational in themselves. Still, there’s no denying the benefits of the island’s vegetable- and fish-based cuisine, and the fact that having to walk up and down those vertical roads, every day, keeps the heart, lungs and calves in tip-top shape.


Stairs everywheres!

And finally, two caveats.

It’s easy to idealize a place like Ikaria, and undoubtedly the island and its residents have much to teach us. But there are also down sides to life in this remote place.

First, a certain social conservatism pervades life here. Ted and I didn’t feel comfortable being openly gay on Ikaria, in part because of the uneasy reception we received from our first host (we moved after one night).

Second, while no one appears to be starving on Ikaria, and social support is strong, the line between subsistence living and poverty can become narrow indeed. There’s a reason why Ikarians can be found living all over the world today: As idyllic as their oceanic, mountainous corner of the world is, it can also become a tough and unforgiving trap. While, in the words of one Ikarian woman we met, that hint of the “bitter along with the sweet” may partly explain the islanders’ longevity, extra years don’t always add up to extra bliss.

Nowhere, alas, is perfect — not even a Blue Zone.


Ferrying away from Ikaria.

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