Ikaria used to be a well-kept secret, but the cat is out of the bag now. Beyond the rocky ramparts of this Greek island, you'll find verdant valleys and fine beaches
No wonder it took the outside world a long time to discover the Greek island of Ikaria. This isn’t an island that welcomes you with open arms. Its south coast is an imposing, seemingly impregnable, wall of almost sheer cliffs. The only landing place on this barren shore is the little port of Agios Kirikos, which huddles beneath rocky crags. There’s not a beach in sight.
Ikaria keeps its secrets well. It always has. For centuries, its shores were harried by corsairs, and the islanders lived in hidden villages in the hills. You’ll still hear tales of buried pirate gold. Ikaria is a quirky island. Its politics are deepest red, a legacy of the decades when left-wing activists from the mainland were exiled here and spread word to the islanders – some villages still have streets named after heroes of the Bolshevik revolution. It’s famed for its powerful home-brewed wine (they’ve only recently started bottling and labelling it) and – perhaps not coincidentally – for its summer village festivals or panagyries, the biggest and liveliest of which is on August 15, the Feast of the Dormition or Apokimisis.
Until the 1980s, only a handful of determined island hoppers who had heard rumours of perfect, undiscovered beaches made their way to Armenistis, a tiny village on a headland on the remote northwest coast, at the end of a winding jeep track. Those who made the journey discovered two long crescent-shaped stretches of fabulous coarse white sand, where streams flowing down from the highlands form small freshwater lagoons that are home to fish, frogs and terrapins.
Armenistis was on its way to becoming a ghost village, where roofless ruins outnumbered the few homes that were still lived in. But the building of a new ferry quay at Evdilos, a tarred round-the-island road, and a miniature airport, finally put Ikaria on the tourism map.
Ikaria is long and thin, almost 50 miles from west to east, and the airport is at its eastern tip, on one of the island’s few stretches of flat land. Even so, Greek army engineers spent several years blasting away rocky obstacles to create the runway, which is just barely long enough to accommodate the twin-engined Olympic Airlines puddle-jumpers that fly between Ikaria and Athens. The airport was built for the convenience of local people (and the army, which maintains an observation post on a nearby mountain top). It’s conveniently close to Agios Kyrikos, the island capital, but a 90-minute, nerve-shredding drive, on a winding corniche with giddying drops on the seaward side, from Armenistis and its beaches. Alternatives include taking the ferry to Evdilos from Piraeus (the port of Athens), or flying from the UK to Mykonos or Samos and carrying on to Evdilos by ferry.
Car rental is available at the airport and at Armenistis, but taxis are a good alternative – the fare from the airport to Armenistis is around €60, and you can ask your hotel to arrange a taxi to meet your flight. For impromptu exploring, you can also rent cars and motorbikes by the day from two travel agencies in Armenistis (they can also sort out flights and ferry tickets).
If you’re planning to visit in June, July or August, booking a room is pretty much essential, but from April to mid-June and September to late October you can always find a room if you’re prepared to take pot luck. Top of the range options include the friendly Cavos Bay, with splendid sea views, plain but bright and comfortable rooms (and some self-catering studios) and a saltwater pool. Rates here start at around €65. Going up a notch, the Erofili is the best hotel on the island, with 34 bright rooms in pale wood and marble (all with balcony or patio overlooking bright blue water and white sands) and a seawater pool. A room here will cost from around €75. At the other end of the scale, Armenistis has at least a dozen smaller guesthouses with rooms from as little as €25.
Local kids and grannies swim from the tiny beach next to the village pier, beside a stream-fed pool which is infested by dozens of greedy terrapins – the old lady who lives above throws them lumps of stale bread, setting off a feeding frenzy that is fun to watch. But the best beaches are Livadi – a couple of hundred yards west of the village – and Messakti, separated from it by a rocky headland. A couple of miles east, at Nas, a handful of excellent tavernas and a few small guesthouses perch high above a narrow cove of dazzling turquoise water and a small pebble beach favoured by nude sunbathers.
From Nas and from Armenistis, you can follow rocky trails through miniature canyons where small streams cascade into clear pools, deep into Ikaria’s rocky hinterland – keeping a careful lookout for the irregular dots of red paint that mark the trail. Back on the coast, sitting at a taverna table at sunset, you’ll find the rough home-made rosé wine of the island is an excellent restorative for tired legs.
How to get there
Olympic Airlines flies to Ikaria from Athens six times a week (not Tuesdays). Flight time is 55 minutes, but the 9am departure means there are no good connections with flights from the UK. Thomson Airlines flies to Samos from Gatwick and several other UK airports, and easyJet flies to Mykonos from Gatwick.