Ikapia Ypni

area 255 sq km

It will be a long time before Ikaria is paved over and packaged, and the locals seem to like it that way. Yet with therapeutic hot springs as radioactive as the communist sympathisers once exiled here, this laid-back island of stark ravines, windswept desert trees and shimmering waters lapping on white-pebbled beaches is starting to be discovered. Not to worry: most of the roads are still made of dirt, the bus service is almost nonexistent and no one wakes before noon.

Ikaria (pronouncedih-kah-ree-ah) is shrouded in myth. It was named after Icarus, the son of Daedalus, the mythical architect of the Cretan labyrinth of King Minos. When the two tried to escape from Minos' prison on wings of wax, Icarus ignored his father's warning, flew too close to the sun and crashed down into the sea, creating Ikaria - a rocky reminder of the dangers of overweening ambition, which the dozing locals appear to have taken to heart.

More happily, the island was also celebrated by the ancients as the birthplace of Dionysos, the god of wine, fruitfulness and foliage; the poetry of Homer attests that the Ikarians were the first wine-makers. Unfortunately, a phylloxera outbreak in the mid-1960s decimated Ikaria's wine industry, but visitors can still sample the island's signature cloudy red locally.

History records littie about Ikaria between ancient times, when it was an ally of Athens, and the Byzantine period, when it was a safe haven for pirates and a place of exile. The latter function was reprised during the three-year Greek Civil War that raged following WWII, when the right-wing government exiled some 15,000 suspected communists to Ikaria. Today the comrades from Greece's Communist Party are still in power; travellers seeking refuge from a typical island's package tourism can thank them and their ambivalence to enterprise for Ikaria's timeless air.

Ikaria is full of pristine beaches, healing hot springs and bohemian attitude, and much more, too. Panigyria (festivals; the ritual annual celebrations of saints' days) are veritable events involving copious amounts of food, drink, music and dance that would do Dionysos proud. In spring Ikaria's meadows are ablaze with wildflowers, their range of colour complemented by an endlessly varied interplay of light and shadow on the island's boulder-strewn scrub-land interior - making it a perfect place for photographers and painters. Sculptors, too, are impressed by Ikaria's unusual abundance of different types of stone.

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