IKARIA, also spelled ICARIA lies at the very southern tip of the Aegean group of Greek islands just off the Turkish coast and about 20km south-west of the island of Samos.
Since ancient times, Ikaria has been famous for it's dark red wine, its thermal springs, and for the legend of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, melting his wings of feathers and wax and drowned.
Ikaria is a relatively large island and, until recently, unfairly neglected by holiday tourists as it has no major airport and is not on any main ferry routes from Athens.
Then again, Ikaria is not immediately appealing to many visitors. A long mountain mass catches the full force of the scouring meltemi wind and steep mountain cliffs plunge into the sea along a coastline that has few sheltered bays or good harbours.
Only a handful of good beaches are to be found along the coast and the landscape in the interior of Ikaria is rugged; the small villages unkempt. Larger villages are located on Ikaria's coastal plains.
But the island has its strong adherents among tourists and, although few in number, the best of the Ikaria beaches can be said to compare with any to be found in the Greek islands.
For those looking for a Greek island holiday off the beaten track and who prefer a taste of authentic old world Greece, away from the crowds, Ikaria island could be well worth a visit.
Accommodation on Ikaria ranges from self contained villas to all-inclusive holiday hotels. Expect decent meals too in the many quality traditional tavernas to be found on the island.
Ikaria may be off the usual tourist beat but it is an island blessed with some of the best beaches in the Aegean. The holiday beaches range from long sandy stretches with seasonal tourist attractions to quiet pebble coves where you will be lucky to see a couple of locals. If your idea of a good beach holiday is banana rides and beach music bars then give Ikaria a miss. But if you appreciate peaceful, lovely landscapes and lounging by a freshwater beach lagoon then Ikaria may be the place for you. The best sandy beaches are on the north coast but the south coast offers several beautiful and secluded coves.
AGIOS KIRIKOS is the island's main port and administrative centre. It is found on the north-east coast and, though a pleasant enough town and well provided with trees and gardens, it is not what the casual visitor might call picturesque.
Many of the buildings at Agios Kirikos are relatively new and have a drab utilitarian air about them. Most visitors are here to book ferry tickets or to catch the island bus.
To the east of the ferry quay is a small strip of stone and pebbles used more for beaching fishing boats than for sunbathing or relaxing. In the summer water taxis shuttle visitors to the island's mineral hot springs at nearby Therma.
There is a small archaeological museum that is free to enter and opens daily 10am - 3pm except Monday and Tuesday. It houses many local finds including a well-preserved 500 BC gravestone .
About 1km west of Agios Kirikos, just past a couple of nightclubs, is TSOULKA beach, popular with the local youngsters. The tree-fringed pebble and rock beach is just off the main road beyond the town's nightclubs and a beach cantina serves drinks and snacks.
A little further west is XILOSIRTIS beach, a long, narrow strip of rock and pebble with a small jetty and a beach cantina that opens during the summer. Access is down a stairway path at the lower end of the village. It's popular with the locals but few tourists find there way here.
About 1km east of Agios Kirikos on the coastal road to Therma is the secluded sand and pebble cove at PRIONI. Access to Prioni is down a very steep pebble path
From Agios Kirykos there are regular boat trips to the island of Fourni which has beaches, fish tavernas and some good walking trails.
The resort at THERMA is not much prettier than its neighbour Agios Kirikos which lies to the south-west. Therma resort is set in a narrow rock cove with a row of cafes along the shore shaded by a line of attractive tamarisk trees.
They look out over a small, quiet beach which stretches out from the small jetty in the middle of the stretch of sand and shingle.
There are half a dozen or so hotels in the compact village of Therma which appears totally deserted out of season but gets overrun in the summer with people visiting the hot mineral springs nearby. You pay for a half-hour dip in a stone tub filled with mineral water that is said to help cure everything from arthritis to infertility.
A 10 minute walk east from Therma beach along a waymarked footpath leads to the ruins of ancient Therma. Only the walls of Roman baths remain of the once prosperous Ikarian city that thrived on the reputation of its mineral spring water.
Ancient Therma was destroyed by an earthquake in 205 BC when the city slid into the sea. Swimmers can see the underwater remains just offshore from the Roman baths.
At Therma Lefkadhas, about 3km south-west of the Agios Kirikos, are the thermal waters of a derelict spa that bubble up into the sea between some volcanic rocks. Where the hot water spring flows into the sea it forms a small enclosed pool where you can enjoy a warm dip.
The coastal resort of FANARI, also known as FAROS, lies at the eastern tip of the island and, as a result of a new road having been built to the nearby airport, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.
Fanari is a particular favourite of those living in Agios Kirikos who enjoy it as a weekend retreat and for tourists looking to escape the rather drab surroundings of the island's main port.
The sand and pebble beach at Fanari runs the full length of the village for about 2km and curves around the headland at the eastern tip of the island. There are tamarisks behind for natural shade.
There are a couple of large tavernas on Fanari beach and a cafe bar. Windsurfing is very popular here and there are plenty of rooms for rent behind the beach. There is no road to Fanari beach and visitors must pass through yards of houses and tavernas to reach the sands.
The island airport is nearby but completely invisible from the beach and flights are few enough to be of an interest than a nuisance. Also nearby are the ancient ruins of Drakano (not to be confused with the third largest town on Ikaria) where there is an acropolis and the ruins of ancient walls and houses.
Further east, beyond the ruins of Drakano, is are the impressive coves and beach of AGIOS GIORGIS. The sandy beach sits in a cove below the church and the recently restored Drakano Tower.
Access is along a rough track, a 20min walk from Faros. There are also water taxis in Faros that will drop you off at the beach. There are no facilities here.
A track north from Faros leads to the remote IERO beach. The deep cove has some interesting rock formations making it ideal for snorkeling.
The beach lies at the end of a deep horseshoe bay is mostly stone and shingle but gets sandy underfoot out to sea. Despite having no facilities there it can get surprisingly crowded in the summer.
EVDILOS is the main north coast port of Ikaria, about 40km north-west of Agios Kirikos. Evdilos can be reached from Agios Kirikos along the island's one main road.
The road climbs steeply over the scrub covered mountain ridge to the more attractive terraced slopes of the north coast.
Evdilos is a pleasant enough little port with cafes around the harbour. It is one of the more traditional settlements with simple houses, narrow streets and some old mansions.
Evdilos is also home to the Hellenic Cultural Centre which runs courses for foreigners covering all things Greek, from language, literature and culture to cookery and dancing.
There is a small and quiet sand and stone beach near Evdilos port but it is seldom visited except by the locals. There are no facilities on the beach and much better beaches can be found within walking distance both east and west.
The better beaches are to the west of Evdilos with a series of good sandy stretches but visitors are warned of dangerous currents along this stretch of coast and care must be taken when swimming.
AKAMATRA is a beautiful village, just south of Evdilos, full of attractive houses with a very picturesque square, a folklore museum and several small chapels.
The central square of Akamatra has a 500 year-old oak tree, once used as a gallows. There are also several mansion houses in the village with fine balconies.
Just to the south-east lies the area of Alama, where a stoned paved path leads through a dense woodland of towering plane trees, ancient water mills and the springs that supply water to the village.
At one spring is the Alama cave full of stalactites and stalagmites and at nearby Arethousa is the much photographed Theokepasti chapel which has been carved out of the rock. (see highlights)
Just west of Evdilos is the village and beach of KAMPOS. This was once the ancient capital of Ikaria when the island was known as Oino.
There are ruins nearby of a Roman odeon of Ancient Oenoe. Kampos Archaeological Museum can be found on the hilltop of Agia Irini and is well worth a visit.
Local legend has it that the first vine sprouted here, and today vines are cultivated here to make small amounts of strong black wine according to an ancient Kampos recipe.
The Kampos beach is long and sandy. Bamboo grows right up to the water's edge fed by the fresh water river that runs through the plain at the back of the beach and forms small pools.
There is a snack-bar here in the summer and a popular bar and club behind Kampos sands. The nearby village has an excellent museum with more than 250 exhibits, from Neolithic tools to carved headstones.
There are also rooms for rent, tavernas, a Kampos village mini-market and a cafe.
About 11km on the coast road west of Evdilos are a string of good beach resorts and some of the best sands to be found on Ikaria.
The village of GIALISKARIS, about 55km from Agios Kirikos, is also home to a huge white sand beach with waters at MESSAKTI beach, as clear and as blue as the Caribbean.
The resort is at the junction of two small rivers that form fresh water lagoons at the back of the wide and long beach that is mostly pure sand. Shallow water makes it ideal for families but there are strong currents further offshore.
At the eastern end of the beach, a traditional white and blue chapel sits at the end of an outcrop of rock. There are plenty of tourist facilities here including toilets, changing rooms and sunbeds.
Not surprisingly this is a very popular beach, with ranks of sunbeds, beach cantinas and the usual water sports. But the beach is big enough and deep enough to soak up the visitors with ease.
Several beach volleyball and beach soccer tournaments are held on the sands during August.
Just a little further along the coast from Messakti and basically the other end of the same beach is LIVADI. The setting here, beautiful in itself, is made even more attractive by a freshwater lagoon behind Livadi beach which adds lush vegetation to the scene.
On the beach there are umbrellas and loungers for hire, as well as a waterfront cantina. Above Livadi beach along the main road are a variety of restaurants and rooms to rent.
A picturesque offshore islet makes a challenging target for swimmers, but only if you are a strong swimmer.
The Livadi lagoon offers an interesting change from sunbathing on the beach and there are young turtles to watch and perhaps feed, but not touch, as they can give you a nasty nip.
Just over the headland west of Livadi and below the road as it snakes along the cliff is the tiny cove of AMMOUDAKI. The beach is sand and shingle but the water here is crystal clear so it's an ideal spot for those visitors who enjoy snorkeling.
There are also small underwater caves to investigate but there are no facilities and it is a steep climb down the cliffs to reach the beach.
The small fishing village of Armenistis is one of the more popular tourist resorts on Ikaria, thanks mainly to the necklace of good nearby beaches described above.
Armenistis village consists of clusters of newish and well restored old houses that climb up the hillside and overlook the fishing boats in the harbour and a small patch of beach. It is about 57km from Agios Kirikos and 13km west of Evdilos.
A number of small hotels have been built at Armenistis recently and the resort is a pleasant mix of traditional Greek village and modern tourist resort, though the are only about 70 permanent inhabitants.
There are no cash points here but there is a bakery, mini-market, tavernas and bars. There is also a small museum of Ikarian art in Armenistis village.
Armenistis is surrounded by dense pine woods, mainly thanks to an abundance of fresh water streams and this is the start point for a number of good walks inland.
The beautiful inland village of CHRISTOS RACHES, CHRISTOS RAXES or CHRISTOS RACHON, is about 5km from Armenistis.
It is found about 500m up in the mountains, buried deep in pine and oak woods and dotted with surrounding vineyards.
Christos Raches is the principal village of the region, though it only has abut 350 living there. There is a school, police station and health centre as well as a number of small shops, tavernas and cafes around the central square.
Christos Raches has an imposing church with a marble bellower, some pretty old houses lining narrow cobbled streets and an old ruin of a water mill, hidden in the pines and which is now being restored.
Sleepy and empty during the day Christos Raches 'comes alive' in the evening when the locals come out to wine and dine in the tree-shaded cafes and tavernas.
Also in the evening it's worth seeking out the nearby Litani, a rock with breathtaking sunset views.
South of Christos Raches is the PEZI plateau where a tiny village of the same name sits on a flat, barren upland plain near a huge dam that was built in 1994 to create a reservoir.
It's bit of a change from other Ikarian villages, perched high on mountain sides or along fertile valleys. The Pezi area is more moonscape than landscape.
Apart from creating a refuge for local wildlife the water from the dam irrigates the entire area of Christos Raches. The area around Pezi was once the main hideout for islanders escaping plundering pirates in the 16th century.
Houses, so-called 'girotokamada' were built behind granite rocks, both as shelter and as hiding places. The village of Pezi is a step back in time and the village has notable folklore interest including some traditional stone wine presses.
About 5km west of Armenistis is another of the more popular beaches, known as NAS. The beach can be reached from Armenistis by a very attractive coastal walk.
The small bay is enclosed by outcrops of rock that serves as natural protection from the open sea. It lies at the end of the Chalari Gorge where the river Chalaris flows into the beautiful deep inlet The river ends in a deep pool on the beach which provides several rock pools for a freshwater dips.
The Nas beach of pebble and sand is quite small and the water is prone to heavy swells. As a result a rope has been strung out for swimmers to grab if waves get too big.
There are several tavernas in the nearby Nas village that offer outstanding views over the sea, particularly good at sunset. There are rooms to let in the village and camping nearby.
Near Nas are the ruins of the ancient temple of Tavropolos Artemida and the dock of an ancient harbour, though only the temple foundations and couple of small walls are visible today.
The only other beach of note on Ikaria is on the south coast below the dramatic white cliffs of SEYCHELLES or SEIHELES. This is one of Ikaria's most stunning settings.
The Seychelles beach of brilliant white stones huddles in a picturesque cove surrounded on each side by deeply carved limestone cliffs. It is less often visited as it is far from other resorts but can get quickly crowded as it is quite small.
Seychelles beach is found on the south-west coast about 25km from Agios Kirikos and access is down a very steep path that follows the river bed from the village of MANGANITIS.
You enter the village through a long tunnel that has been cut into the granite bluff. Manganitis is a pretty village of traditional houses and a very fine church with views over the sea and edged by the steep cliffs that drop steeply to Seychelles beach.
The white stones of Seychelles not only make the beach blindingly white but also turn the waters a clear azure turquoise, although swimmers should take care as the drop into the water is quite steep and this is not a beach for children.
A large rock sits just offshore at one end of Seychelles beach and offers a place to paddle out at sea. There are no facilities here but there are tavernas and cafes in Manganitis.