One day, during a weeklong visit to the Danube Delta, I found myself clinging to a launch piloted by a Romanian captain, speeding along canals that crisscross a vast wetland of narrow backwaters and lakes. Reed beds flashed past as surprised herons and egrets, flapping from willows, escorted us on our way. Our destination was but a speck of an island, where we found a local fisherman tossing fillets of freshly caught catfish, pike, and Danube mackerel into a bubbling cauldron.
A delta lunch was in the works. Soon, we were tucking into bowls of hearty bor, the area’s specialty: fish simmered in reed-filtered water, infused with wild mint, tarragon, and rosemary, and eaten with mujdei, a wild-garlic paste that guarantees a lifelong inoculation against vampires. We paired it with Romanian white wine and shots of palinca—a local plum brandy so high in alcohol it doubles as a disinfectant.
Until two years ago, such experiences were the province of adventure-seekers used to roughing it. Tucked away at the dovetail of Europe’s longest river and wedged between Romania and Ukraine 186 miles northeast of Bucharest, the Danube Delta is among the Continent’s last frontiers, an untamed tropical land that almost doesn’t seem like Europe. In 1998, it was designated a unesco Biosphere Reserve thanks to the hundreds of wildlife species that live among its wetlands. Though there are a smattering of villages, monasteries, and vineyards, there were practically no modern-style accommodations.
All that changed with the arrival of the Delta Nature Resort, a low-impact, 32-acre eco-lodge that overlooks the apex of the Danube. Its creator, Diwaker Singh, is a former banker from Simla, India. In 2000, while working on a telecommunications project in Bucharest, Singh planned a family holiday of fishing in the delta. He anticipated a five-star experience, and instead found himself checking into a Communist-era block hotel. But when Singh drew back the curtains of his bedroom window, he couldn’t wait to explore the teeming wetland before him. Only there was no local fishing infrastructure—nor anyone who could speak English. "The delta is a lost paradise," says Singh, a swashbuckling figure often spotted juggling a cigarette, cell phone, and long-lensed camera (he is an avid amateur wildlife photographer). He fell in love with the area instantly, and went to work creating his ultimate dream retreat. Since opening its doors in May 2005, the Delta Nature Resort has been attracting a mix of nature lovers, sport fishermen, and high-profile people (many of them friends of the lodge’s investors, who include Ben Goldsmith, son of the late financier Sir James Goldsmith), in search of a low-key escape. Half of the guests are wealthy Romanians who come as much out of curiosity about the resort—the country’s first high-end hotel erected in decades—as for the delta itself.
I arrived in Bucharest from London one crisp May morning and was driven four hours from the Romanian capital to the sleepy port of Tulcea. It was as if I’d traveled back in time 200 years. The adjacent countryside is a medieval landscape of hamlets, vineyards, and pastures, all of which amounts to a historical oubliette: Nicolai Ceausescu, leader of Communist Romania (1965 to 1989), set up labor camps here for dissidents. The delta is also a haven for Lipovans, a formerly persecuted minority whose ancestors fled Russia in 1772, along with 16 other ethnic communities, including Italians, Turks, Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, and Greeks, making it paradoxically the most cosmopolitan part of Romania. Together, they inhabit 22 tiny villages on islands scattered about the delta. "The region is not as developed as Transylvania, but it’s richer than Moldova," said Nicolae Cosovei, mayor of the nearby village of Somova, referring to Europe’s poorest nation.
From Tulcea, it was a short drive along badly potholed roads passing simple farmer’s cottages (strangely, they all had immaculate vegetable gardens) to Somova, half a mile from the Delta Nature Resort. At a distance, the resort resembles a typical fishing village, which was how Alireza Sagharchi, the lodge’s British architect, had envisioned the place—he incorporated local materials and vernacular architectural elements. Yet the 30 villas, which are grouped around a central clubhouse overlooking the delta, come with amenities and design flourishes that aren’t available for miles around in this part of the country: jet-force showers, handmade carpets, polished wood furniture, and a biodegradable waste system. I arrived as a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs was being served on the terrace. The glare of the morning sun reflecting off the water was so strong I could barely open my eyes.