The River Danube might be one of Europe’s busiest waterways, but its vast delta, spanning the Black Sea boundaries of Romania and the Ukraine, remains one of the continent’s last frontiers. Tourist barges have finally begun chugging along the wildlife rich banks of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, but smart travelers still kayak between secret shores on their way through Europe’s Okavango.
Waterbugs begin their journey in the port of Tulcea in Romania’s in eastern wilderness, where tour operators offer day trips and week-long safaris. Kitted and kayaked, paddlers head down the largest of the delta’s three channels, the Saint George, before branching off into the heart of the maze-like wetland.
After the Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef, the Danube Delta is the most biodiverse system on the planet, so expect a host of animals to react to every stroke. Shady creeks, where kingfishers dart through lianas, give way to crystal lakes, where pygmy cormorants dive and bullrushes wave in unison. At 3,210 square miles, this amphibious wilderness is larger than Delaware – and growing at a rate of 80 square feet per year. Kayakers on longer tours paddle for a six hours per day through calm water before setting up tent camps at riparian rest stops and refueling with bowls of hearty Balkan borscht. Outfitters favor a diet of perch and carp.
Eerily ramshackled fishermens’ huts and curious settlements punctuate the journey through Europe’s emptiest corner. Baltenii de Sus, a one-horse hamlet flanked by sunflower meadows, makes a good pit stop and offers Ursus beers. The water-locked port of Sulina, Romania’s only town not accessible by road, marks the end of the flooded forest.
For the more intrepid of explorers, there is the option to venture on a self-guided kayak trip or even to rent a motorboat from a local fisherman. This might sound like a good time – and be one for a while – but having a guide is worth the extra money: It’s a lily-pad labyrinth out there.
More information: Tulcea can be reached via capital city Bucharest aboard Romania’s cheap and efficient minibus service Autogari (expect to pay about $15 to get cross-country). A seven day all-inclusive Delta tour with RentaKayak costs $83 while go-it-alone kayak rentals start from $16 per day. Baltenii de Sus’ Hotel Wels makes a great base for the independent kayaker with rooms from $48.