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The good, the bad and the beautiful on the Greek island of Icaria

click here to view images of Icaria

February 2012

Drawn by an enthusiastic description in The Lonely Planet, we took a ferry to the so-called Red Island, Icaria. Many Greek communists were exiled there after the Greek civil war, which followed the Second World War.

We were nearing the home stretch of our Greek island hop last summer and we decided to take a chance on this lesser-known North Aegean destination. Remember, our travelling mantra is as much “why not?” as “why?”

We took a cab to the Dionysus Hotel in the hamlet of Kambos (100 inhabitants) up a winding road three kilometres from the secondary port, Evdilos (about 500 inhabitants), and met the reputedly effusive Vassilis, who runs the establishment. Although the location was uphill, our stay was downhill and a reminder that you can’t always go by the guidebook. For one thing, Vassilis had told us jokingly over the phone that the room would be “45 degrees,” but the room at that price had no window. The better room was 55 euro and we took it. We then trekked downhill 500 metres to the beach, a trial for Barbara and her (in)famous weak knees. The waves were so strong that she couldn’t venture in, although Irwin battled the waves for a short time before giving up.

We walked back to Vassilis’, and then another 500 metres or so to Kampos for a moderately interesting dinner at the only restaurant, which overlooked the terraced hills—stunning. This island is a photographer’s dream even if all we did is point and shoot.

Sights included two mules on the way from Vassilis’ to the town and—for the ear—the never-ending and overwhelming cicadas created a fitting soundscape for the early evening walk.

As it turns out, all that walking is among the reasons residents have unusually long lifespans.

A National Geographic crew looking at Blue Zones, where residents tend to live longest, found that Icaria has the highest percentage of 90-year-olds anywhere on the planet—nearly one-third of people make it to their 90s.

They also have about 20 per cent lower rates of cancer, 50 per cent lower rates of heart disease and almost no dementia. While lifespans are about 20 per cent dictated by our genes, locals who live in mountain villages burn a lot more energy by carrying out their daily activities. Their diet is high in olive oil, fruits and vegetables, and very high in greens. About 150 kinds of veggies grow wild on the island and they have about 10 times the level of antioxidants in red wine, the magazine reported. Similar longevity rates are found in Okinawa, Costa Rica and Sardinia.

We had planned to stay four nights at the Dionysus, but realized one night would be more than sufficient. In the morning, Vassilis made us a delightful breakfast of yogurt with honey, fruit and “fritters,” which we had thought was included in the price but turned out to cost 5 euro each. Okay.

He called us a cab, which arrived an hour later, and we returned to Evdilos, where we had docked. There we spent the next 18 hours, after booking a ferry, which left at 4:30 am and would take us back to Samos Island and its capital, Vathie. Had we known then that Evdilos would prove to be such a charming little place, we would have perhaps stayed another couple of days.

We took a room in a nice little modern hotel with a pool, right in the heart of the village. We dined twice at a fabulous little fish restaurant overlooking the harbour and watched children swim in the clear, still waters that run deep.

We ordered a huge seafood plate with grilled vegetables and ended up meeting a group of former revolutionaries who dined with us. They were the friendliest group of Greek tourists we had met. There to attend the wedding of their children, they regaled us with stories of the history of Icaria.

The huge plates of fresh seafood, the silence, broken only by laughter among fellow diners and the splish-splash of the children frolicking in the harbour made for an unforgettable evening.

Evdilos is the first village we’ve visited where there is virtually no English spoken or written on menus and tourists are a tiny minority. No hustling either.

At 4:30 am, we took the ferry back to the Samos capital, Vathie, for two nights and then to the last island on our five-week escapade, Limnos.

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