The Bluest Zone of them All

Ikaria is the fourth Blue Zone we have visited in this year of travel, and so far we can confidently declare it to be the most intact and unspoiled longevity hotspot that we’ve experienced.

Ikaria is one of Greece’s 6,000 islands, and one which most people seem not to have heard of. Although it’s not far from the mainland of Turkey, it’s still fairly remote and has a relatively small population of about 7,000 people.

Getting there

One has to be very intentional about reaching Ikaria. There are no day-trips from Athens (or Turkey), and flights in and out of the island only operate in peak tourist season. The fastest ferry journey takes 6 hours from Athens and, as we found out, weather often means ferries sometimes don’t sail or are delayed.

About to board the ferry from Athens to Ikaria

And it’s likely this remoteness which has allowed the island to hang on to its cultural heritage. Also, the small population means it’s simply not profitable for the likes of McDonalds to set up shop. Fast food has invaded all the other Blue Zones, but is really nowhere to be found on Ikaria.

Hills (again)

A common geographical feature of all 5 of the Blue Zones is that they are all near the sea and all have varying degrees of rugged (hilly or mountaneous) terrain. This may be largely coincidence, but there does seem to be a potential scientific benefit. Hills result in regular cardio exercise, at least in the past when people had to walk from town to town, or up and down the hillsides to get goods or fish from the sea.

Walking down (and up) to the sea on ancient roads from our home in the hills

But beyond this geographical aspect, we experienced a few other elements of life on Ikaria which, according to the Blue Zone experts, make up the secret of Ikarian longevity.

Our hosts for most of our two-week stay were George and Eleni Karamelis.  Over 20 years ago, after having lived for a number of years in Athens, George and Eleni decided to move back to their native island, together with their young children,  for a life living closer to nature.

In-house goats!

They built a home on their family land and are, for the most part, self-sufficient in terms of what they grow. Chickens give them meat and eggs, goats give them milk (for cheese) and more meat, and a vegatable garden provides lots of greens. Most of their land is covered with grape vines, and the wine they produce from their own on-site winery is their main product. They can host up to 10 guests at a time, so they are a working winery, farm and hotel wrapped into one. We ate breakfast and dinner with them each day, along with some other guests, and after 10 days we can honestly say we did not want to leave.

A typical dinner with George and Eleni and guests from all over the world

And it was through George and Eleni that we experienced several key elements of Ikarian longevity.

Eleni’s grandmother lived to be exactly 100 years of age so we felt we had come to a good place to learn something. George is a fountain of knowledge related to almost any topic you can think of, and he is clearly passionate about wellness and eating (and drinking) for longevity.

Religion

We were fortunate in that the timing of our two-week stay in Ikaria corresponded with Orthodox Easter. And even though we were guests not coming from a Greek Orthodox background, we felt very welcomed attending two Easter services in the local churches with George and Eleni.

Churches in Ikaria are almost as common a site as in Texas, the only difference being size (no mega-churches in Ikaria). We nonetheless experienced how community comes to together for regular services, and especially on a special occasion like Easter, and saw how religious identity and beliefs play a big role in the social fabric.

And beyond the cultural and social aspects of being part of a religion, my belief is that having belief in God, or a higher power, can help reduce some of the stress we create for ourselves in life. When one has the knowledge that there is more at play in life than just what we do for a living or what (or who) we identify ourselves as, life can be a bit easier, and less stress is a good thing!

Social gathering with a strong cultural identity

We were pleasantly surprised to see how seriously the Ikarians take dancing and community get-togethers (i.e., parties). Some are held within a religious context, but many are held in different towns and dates across the island, especially in summer, with people gathering in a community center/hall (even the smallest of towns have some sort of community gathering space) for food, drink and some seriously long dancing sessions.  Going around in circles for half an hour at a time is a “normal” dance here, although I have to admit I needed a break after about 15 minutes. Food and homemade wine was for sale and we could see this was a great mechanism for Ikarians to fellowship together, very much in the same way their ancestors have been doing for centuries.

Plant-based diet with a focus on real, local food

Most people tend to first and foremost assume that a key longevity factor in the Blue Zones is the local diet. And this is certainly a key factor presented in the Blue Zones book, which highlights that people in the Blue Zones “tend to eat a plant-based diet”.  While this point is often used to promote a vegan lifestyle (one that I have adopted of late for personal health reasons), to be honest, we did not note a strong emphasis on plant-based (vegan) diets in the four locations we have visited.

Beans, of different varieties, appear to be a significant protein source for Ikarians, but so is fish (including octopus) and meat (mostly lamb/goat and chicken). All of these sources, including beans, are locally raised and this factor, I believe, is more important from a health, and even environmental, perspective than whether one is eating a strict vegan diet or not.

In Ikaria, we did eat a lot of plant-based foods, in addition to being served some local fish and meat. But the main point, and a point which I believe we can ALL put into action is to improve our own longevity is to eat real, local foods prepared at home. Keep processed foods to a minimum (i.e., anything in a package) and we can all have a diet which is close to that of Ikarians.

We saved the best for last

Ikaria is a jewel of an island in the Aegean Sea and it is the only Blue Zone we’ve visited where we left feeling like we weren’t yet ready to go. We felt happy and at peace on this island.

We might well be inclined to call the place home if it wasn’t so difficult to reach, but I believe that is a key factor in what makes Ikaria such a special place. In retrospect, we without a doubt “saved the best for last”, although this was not intentional or expected.  We came to Ikaria with no expectations of what we would find, but left inspired and in love with this magical island. 

We have now completed our one-year Blue Zone adventure. Although in the end we opted not to spend any time in Loma Linda, California (where we have been before, but not this year), we were still able to experience life, albeit modern-day life, in four parts of the world with a documented history of longevity. The Loma Linda Blue Zone is a relatively modern example of longevity in America, as opposed to the four other locations we visited which have a long history (centuries) of old-age. 

Visit these places while you still can. Ironically, many negative health aspects from America are now impacting the cultures of Okinawa, Nicoya, Sardinia and, even Ikaria, where, for example, Coca-Cola is available at every festival, bar and convenience store.

We are grateful for what have learned in each of the Blue Zones, and this trip has most certainly changed our outlook on life.  Galina and I both turned 50 in this year of travel so we are now both looking at the second half of 100. Lots of inspirations have come from all the people we met and experiences we’ve had along the way. Still lots of time to go!

And finally, thanks to Dan Buettner, author of the Blue Zones books, for the inspiration to do this amazing year of traveling to visit these inspirational places around the world.

 

 

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