Try it by Kayak
Whether you're paddling down Venice's canals, soaking up Stockholm, or gliding past the castles of the Dordogne, consider seeing the sights from a kayak, says Lucille Howe
You may wonder, when there are horse-drawn carriages and helicopter flights across many of Europe’s cities, why paddle your own kayak? Well for starters there’s the thrill of exploring a destination independently, under your own steam. From the water you’ll also be seeing the hidden corners you’d never have discovered otherwise. You can power-paddle off that heavy lunch, then cruise to a Prosecco pit stop when you want to relax. I found that once I’d tried it I was hooked, and I’m not the only one. Kayak tours are springing up in all kinds of destinations. Here are some of the best.
It was a Dane, René Seindal, who introduced kayaks to the waterways of Venice. The self- confessed Italophile guides day tours from his outdoor office on Certosa island. If ever there was a city designed to be seen from the eye level of a shallow boat, it’s Venice, with its staggeringly beautiful architecture and abundance of back-door moorings for clandestine meetings. For the same price as a traditional gondola ride, you can spend the afternoon exploring small canals inaccessible to pedestrians, enjoy the palaces up close and experience the Grand Canal and all its lively traffic. “The traffic regulations are very permissive about rowed or paddled boats: they can go anywhere at any time, even against one-way traffic,” says René.
Most paddling trips around the city are about 12–15km and are tailored to your level of experience, the tide and size of the group. When I join one of the tours I find the brightly coloured, closed kayaks to be surprisingly sturdy. Aided by René’s advice to brace the oar with your left arm and steer with your right, twisting your torso as you go, I soon find an easy rhythm.
It takes a morning or afternoon to enjoy a round trip to the colourful little island of Burano, 10km north of Venice. It’s fun to break free of the narrow canals to some open water, through the salt marshes of the lagoon. The largest population of water birds in Italy lives here – about 60 species – and a pair of waders eye us suspiciously. René directs us past the islands of San Francesco del Deserto, Lazzaretto Novo, Sant’Erasmo, San Giacomo in Paludo and Madonna del Monte. Some of these are mentioned in guidebooks, others are rarely visited and seem unnoticed by tourists.
In the kayaks, we’re able to visit while remaining quiet and unobtrusive. “Kayaks are the bikes of the waterways” is how René puts it. Some tours also include a visit to a gondolier workshop to see the vessels being made, and for something special try the night trips. Paddling down the Grand Canal, under the illuminated Rialto Bridge, past the Salute church and through the narrow, unlit canals behind St Mark’s is a truly memorable experience. Masks are optional!
€120 PER PERSON ALL DAY, €150 PER PERSON AFTER DARK. EMAIL INFO@VENICEKAYAK.COM OR VISIT WWW.VENICEKAYAK.COM
Nestled in the south-west of France is the Dordogne départment with its valleys, meadows, forests, limestone plateaus, prehistoric caves and lattice of streams and rivers – perfect for kayaking. Aside from its impressive geography, the area also has more than 1,000 castles, a plethora of achingly beautiful towns and villages and some internationally renowned vineyards. Experience the lot on the 120km kayak route from Argentat to Beynac.
Rivières de France is a chain of kayak and canoe hire centres dotted all over France. They have two bases in Dordogne – one on the river itself and another in the estuary of Vézère. You can choose between half-day paddles down the river or week-long expeditions, depending on your commitment.
“As my friends and I were looking for more of a try-out tour than an induction into the French wilderness, we opted for kayaks and one double canoe,” says kayak tour convert Frances Stewart. “The river cuts a mighty gorge into the limestone cliffs, but it was astonishingly shallow, much to my relief.
“The effort put into propelling yourself along the river is so worth the astounding views. The surroundings are truly breathtaking – we paddled past the ancient Lascaux caves and fairy-tale villages balanced on the edges of cliffs. There are also many points along the river where it’s possible to pull in for a break, a bite to eat, or a spot of sunbathing.”
KAYAK HIRE FROM RIVIÈRES DE FRANCE STARTS FROM €19 FOR A SINGLE KAYAK. WWW.CANOE-KAYAK-DORDOGNE.COM
In Stockholm, hip, adventurous urbanites use kayaks like the Romans use scooters – to get around the city, which is comprised of 14 islands. Simply rent from locations near Ulvsundasjön Lake and the Djurgård and Karlbergskanal canals and paddle through the national parks to your next espresso.
Kafé Kajak, on Smedsuddsvägen, is a café offering kayak rental as well as the usual coffee and cake. Before or after your paddle you can relax and snack indoors or on the wood- decked terrace of this historic building. Kayak hire costs about SEK180 (€20) for two hours.
Paddle past city hall on the calm Långholmskanalen canal, or along the wooded bays of Lake Mälaren, taking a dip when the urge or temperature moves you. Advance reservations are required from May to September, when kayaks are in hot demand. It’s an ideal way to see the sights, in a city known for its green transport options.
23 SMEDSUDDSVÄGEN, WWW.KAFEKAJAK.SE. FOR MORE IDEAS, VISIT WWW.VISITSTOCKHOLM.COM/EN/TO-DO/TIPS/PADDLING-IN-STOCKHOLM
Once you’ve taken some stunning autumnal snaps in the Vigeland Sculpture Park it could be time to get active with a tour of the Oslofjord islands. Arrive by kayak, then go for a hike. Gressholmen is otherwise known as “Bunny Island”, and this silent sport may be the best way of observing the rabbits without disturbing them. On Langøyene you can camp next to a sandy beach, with excellent facilities. Kayaking feels like the least intrusive way to travel and, what’s more, looking back at Oslo offers a rare perspective. You’ll need all the encouragement to leave the islands and head back.
Reward your efforts with a tasting menu at F12 (www.f12.se), which has seen a long line of award-winning chefs. Housed within the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, its modern art and inventive cuisine make it a must-visit.
EMAIL POST@OSLOFJORDKAJAKK.NO, AND VISIT WWW.OSLOFJORDKAJAKK.NO AND WWW.VISITNORWAY.COM
For serious sea kayak lovers, Croatia’s Kornati National Park is a wonderland just a few oar strokes from Zadar. Awesome vertical cliffs – home to the Peregrine Falcon – rise up to 160m above sea level.
The island of Levrnaka is a beautiful base where you can camp under pine and olive trees and paddle out to the lush green surrounds for some hiking. The jewel in the crown is a huge salt lake called Mir (“Peace”), with pristine shallow waters.
If you’ve run out of puff but you still want to see the islands there are cruises leaving 9am and returning 5.30pm daily, where they will do all the hard work for you.
Polaris Yachting is among the tour companies here and offers a week of kayak touring and board from €580.
WWW.POLARIS-YACHTING.COM. ALSO CHECK OUT WWW.SEAKAYAK.HR