Vacation planning should be completed months before the journey. Thus, my friend Susan and I agreed that we would not complain when our last-minute plans to visit one or more Greek islands went awry. How bad could it be? The entire country is historic. Being in the euro-zone, our credit and ATM cards would open doors to all amenities.
We were locked into the last week of August, because Susan was extending a business trip. I told her it was not auspicious that my frequent flier program had many openings for Athens that week. As far as accommodations, anything remotely affordable was booked for every island we had ever heard of. Forget Santorini, Rhodes, Crete, and any island that merited at least a page in the guide book. Boldly, we selected an island glossed in one paragraph: Ikaria, site of Icarus’s burial. Was the Greek god’s flaming finale a metaphor for our tardy planning? Every hotel and guest house had ample room. Why didn’t anyone else want to go to Ikaria? “They booked early,” we groaned, “and are joining the beautiful people on Santorini.”
Missing in Athens
Susan and I agreed to meet in theAthens’ airport boarding area for our 40-minute flight to Ikaria. With just one flight a day, we were fortunate to obtain the last two tickets. I decided to surprise her and meet her earlier. She must be dawdling, I thought, so I moved from the baggage claim area to a café where I would be sure to see her walking down the concourse. She must be shopping, I thought, so I moved to the departures gate. The plane took off without Susan, and I strained to recall how we were supposed to get from the airport to our hotel. She had said something about a bus.
The airport, open a few hours for the daily flight, is a barn with a luggage belt. I could have carried all the luggage from plane to belt in the time it took luggage to arrive for forty passengers. In that time, I ascertained there was no bus. As Susan had the phrase book, I searched for an English speaker. The car rental man found a taxi driver who was willing to take me to the village of Armenistis for “just” 70 euros. “Sixty,” I sputtered feeling as fleeced as the sheep on the surrounding, barren hills. The setting was Biblical; my mood was not.
Wild ride to the Aegean Sea
After a hundred or so hairpin turns on gravel, mountain roads, I realized that 60 euros was a deal. Every village of four or more houses has a tire repair shop. Approaching Armenistis, the only clue I had to our hotel was a photo on the website. And there it was, Atschas Livadi Beach Hotel. Our room, clean and simple, was forty feet above crashing waves. We had read about the deadly surf, but we were there for wading. It was difficult to leave my balcony view of the turbulent ocean to stroll twenty feet to the restaurant.
The hotel’s terrace restaurant has a similar ocean view. John (pronounced I-o-an-nis) who grew up on the island is prepared to cook to order from 6 a.m. until midnight. The moussaka was splendid, and I learned to pay 2 euros extra for tzatziki to slather on bread. This is the cucumber sauce used on gyros. John’s recipes, handed down through the generations, take full advantage of Ikaria’s bounty. He uses produce from his farm, locally made cheese, locally baked bread, and locally slaughtered goat. For 10 euros, I feasted above the salty sea spray. Fortunately, I was too full for dessert, for John does not serve dessert. He offers melon for what he calls a “finish.”
Arrival of an adventuress
In bed, I had a passing thought about Susan, but was too quickly in the arms of Morphes to fret. I woke about 4 a.m. surfing on the sound of waves and feeling more relaxed than I had in years. I woke again at noon and ambled to the terrace for my morning coffee. Susan appeared looking refreshed and unencumbered. A delayed flight out of O’Hare put her in Athens 30 minutes after the plane to Ikaria departed. Being in an island mood, she flew to another obscure island,Samos, had a lovely fish dinner and no problems finding an inexpensive, clean room. She enjoyed a four-hour ferry ride from Samos and caught a bus to the hotel.
She ordered white beans with a spicy tomato and vegetable sauce and laughed about her luggage, somewhere between Chicago, Newark, Munich, Athens, and Ikaria. She had her bathing suit in her backpack and I loaned her a tee-shirt.
We were on the beach by 1 p.m., just a forty steps down from our room. For 5 euros a day, we could rent two beach chairs and a thatched umbrella. A beach bar offered cold drinks and snacks. The weather was perfect for swimming, or in our case, wading, and we did not see a cloud. We were happy that the beautiful people were on Santorini, whose beaches were undoubtedly more crowded and with bodies that would make us feel we should jog instead of eat, read, and yawn.
Back to basics
That evening our conversation drifted regrettably to finances. John told us that the closest town had two ATMs. One was broken and the other was out of money. Therefore, we should go when the bank was open. The hotel does not accept credit cards. For 40 euros a night for both of us, we were not inclined to complain. It was a 20 euro taxi ride to the bank. One way. Susan was short on euros, but I had enough for us both if we adhered to our main objectives: sunbathe, wade, read, eat. We had a little refrigerator in our room, so we decided to dine on the terrace only for morning coffee and our evening meal.
The next day, a kindly taxi driver delivered her suitcase for no charge. We hiked ten minutes to a micro-mini mart for crackers, cheese, olives, yogurt, Nutella, and peaches. Two days later we hiked twenty minutes in the opposite direction to the picturesque village of Armenistis for similar provisions and postcards. We learned that Nutella and yogurt make a fine breakfast, and that there is something delightfully Grecian about eating cheese, olives, and peaches on a beach Homer would have immortalized in verse.
We could have hired a car for 50 euros a day and seen Ikaria’s other attractions: ruins of ancient baths, radioactive mineral springs, a castle, an archeological museum, more idyllic beaches and flat tires. Another option would be to spend a few nights in a remote cottage owned by the hotel. It was just an hour and a half hike, John explained and required a guide. He looked us over. “Make that a three-hour hike.”
We settled for doing what we had come to Ikaria to do: relax. We agreed that we have never relaxed so completely. Perhaps the relaxation factor contributes to the Ikarian’s unusually long life-span. Ikaria is one of the world’s few “blue zones” according to New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner. He discovered that Ikaria has the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet – nearly 1 out of 3 Ikarians live to their 90s. They have 20 percent less cancer, 50 percent less heart disease, and almost no dementia.
Ferry to Athens
After six cloudless days and more than ten books crossed off our reading list, our luck ran out on the ferry. Our only option for returning to Athens were deck seats on a six-hour evening sail. While Susan struggled with mal de mer on a cold and windy deck, I passed through the passenger lounge with longing. Carpeting, comfortable seats, a lovely lounge – all for people who planned ahead. Despite the gift shop and other amenities of a hotel, the ferry had no Dramamine. Susan turned greener. We arrived in Athens after midnight and, no, the hotel was not within walking distance as advertised. The taxi line was shorter than we had feared, and we were soon settled in the ancient city with a real tourist agenda.
“I want to see the Acropolis,” Susan said, “but I’d skip it for another day on Livadi Beach.”
Amused at first at her cultural blasphemy, I realized I agreed. After Ikaria,Greece will always be a beach surrounded by mythic cliffs and majestic waves.