A new eco-lodge is finally making the remote, wildlife-rich Danube Delta accessible. Rory Ross ventures to the riverbanks and discovers a land untouched by time.
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.
Later that day, Singh took me by boat to visit a cormorant colony in an arboretum of willows and wild poplars abutting a lake. The delta is a breeding ground for millions of birds migrating from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In the spring, pelicans touch down in 1,000-strong flights. A flash of yellow and turquoise might herald a bee-eater; a lightning streak of blue might be an acrobatic roller. Virtually every tree branch was packed wing-to-wing with heraldic-looking birds in a Hitchcockian scene of cheeping, clucking, and cawing. We watched as cormorant chicks learned to fly, tumbling from their nest into the water, then flapping around until they became airborne. As we nosed deeper into the colony, dead fish began to rain down on us, a classic cormorant alarm signal. "A cormorant under attack empties his larder, as if to say, ’Here, take whatever you want and go away!’" Singh explained.
The delta’s big four—white pelican, white-tailed fishing eagle, and red-breasted goose, in addition to the pygmy cormorant—are joined by some 300 other species, including herons, spoonbills, kingfishers, and cuckoos. At least 80 species of fish, including pike, sander, and catfish (the prized catches of the region), lurk in these waters. Of course, when I went on a fishing expedition with Stafania and Sacha, two Lipovan resort rangers, we spent a half-day probing the backwaters of the delta and yielded just a single three-inch tiddler.
After a couple of days on the water, I was ready for more terrestrial pursuits. Singh and I drove two hours to explore the region’s historic monasteries and ancient wineries. I was surprised to discover that the former are thriving commercial entrepôts whose substantial landholdings produce abundant food, wine, and livestock. They also do a brisk trade in religious icons to visiting busloads of local schoolchildren, for whom a visit to a monastery is a field trip. Strolling around the immaculate grounds of the Saon Monastery—built in a timeless, functional style in 1846 and covered with whitewash—was like stepping into an illuminated medieval manuscript. Lunch in the refectory surpassed Romanian hospitality with the piling on of quail eggs, lamb, chicken-noodle soup, and roast duck, washed down by palinca and monastic wine. Over dessert, I learned that like Singh, the abbess had a previous career: as a gold medal-winning rower at the Montreal Olympics. Clearly, the delta was where people went to start all over again.
The 400-year-old Sarica Niculitzel winery just down the road required a greater leap of imagination to realize its charm. Although this region was once famous for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (the Romans exported them to the West), three generations of Communist neglect have left this vineyard a tangle of cobwebs and crumbling stairways. With great warmth, pride, and pantomime gestures of imbibing, the manager and his daughter invited me for a tasting. We descended perilous steps to the cellar, where he produced a selection of ancient vintages, and, carefully wiping off the flocculent dust, pulled corks and poured. Unlike in other ex-Communist states, the wine-making tradition here hadn’t fermented into a sickly-sweet mess: the whites (Riesling and Aligote) were crisp and dry; the reds (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) full-bodied and muscular. I was as excited to receive a few bottles to take home as the manager was to give them.
The delta’s other famous contribution to world gastronomy is caviar. Virgil Munteanu, a former governor of the delta, joined Singh and me in a visit to a sturgeon farm on Rosetti Island in the delta’s northeast corner, where a paddling pool of murky water stood in the garden of a small, isolated fisherman’s hotel. A Moldovan sturgeon expert, Arkadie Redrasco, came along, plunged both arms in and hauled out a yard-long blue and white sevruga sturgeon, which flexed angrily. "It is very difficult to catch sturgeon," said Munteanu. "They can grow up to 10 feet and weigh 660 pounds. Traditionally, fishermen had to kill them for their roe. Nowadays, they can harvest the roe, stitch up the fish, and return it to the water." I asked if the flesh was good to eat. Munteanu’s eyes lit up. "Of course, but it is best smoked." For lunch, though, we had grilled sturgeon: well flavored, oily, and firm, but not particularly exciting.
The caviar, however, tasted like the food of the gods, though it was served without pomp or ceremony, in generous dessert-spoon dollops. Indeed, as Singh and I sped by boat the 75 miles back to the resort, he told me with a sigh, "In Romanian supermarkets, top-grade caviar costs a quarter of what it would in the United States." He continued with a smile. "This may be Europe’s last frontier, but if you enjoy some of the good things in life—like wine, caviar, and natural beauty—it is also one of the most civilized." For the seasoned traveler, though, the delta’s charm may lie in its simplicity. No distractions, no frippery. Just a vast expanse of nature, all to yourself—and millions of birds.
Rory Ross is a London-based writer and a frequent contributor to the Daily Telegraph.
Guests fly to Bucharest. From there, it’s a four-hour drive to the resort, which arranges round-trip transfers that can seat up to four for $362.
Where to Stay
Delta Nature Resort The lodge can organize trips to the Saon Monastery or the Sarica Niculitzel winery, $112 per person. 40-21/311-4532; www.deltaresort.com; doubles from $363, including breakfast.
Delta Nature Resort
The danube delta is one of the continent's last frontiers, an untamed tropical region with hundreds of wildlife species living among its wetlands, and just a handful of villages. Before the arrival of the Delta Nature Resort three years ago, there were practically no modern places to stay. The low-impact, 32-acre eco-lodge overlooks the apex of the Danube, about 180 miles northeast of Bucharest, and attracts a mix of nature lovers, sport fishermen, and wealthy Romanians. At a distance, the resort resembles a typical low-key fishing village, yet the 30 villas are outfitted with luxe but unobtrusive amenities and flourishes—jet-force showers, handmade carpets, polished wood furniture—that don't distract from the simple allure of having the setting, a vast expanse of nature, all to yourself.