• The Drau River seen from above, Drau Paddel Path, Carinthia / Drau

    Why time on the Water is in Carinthia’s DNA

    Canoe, kayak and bike along the water: Carinthia's Drau Paddel Path allows outdoor enthusiasts to experience nature first-hand. Our author Colin Nicholson gave it a go.

    It was the vision of the wide opal blue waters flowing through the majestic Eastern Alps that first captivated me. This is the twisting river Drau, in Austria’s most southerly province of Carinthia, where you can now go on a canoeing adventure for days on end. Should that sound a little strenuous, there is another strand to Carinthia’s DNA. It is a string of lakes spiralling around the Drau like the second ribbon of the double helix. This is Austria’s southern shore and has very different characteristics. It is where to indulge in time on the beach, swimming in warm, crystal-clear water, followed by leisurely spa time and sunset dinners on lakeside terraces.

    If both sound attractive, do what we did and switch between the two water routes by bike. This is possible thanks to a service that transports your luggage ahead of you, and takes back the canoe – or kayak, or stand-up paddleboard (you can switch craft) and bike – at the end.

    Canoeing on the Paddel Path Drau, Carinthia / Drau

    Row the Boat

    Let the Paddling Adventure begin

    We started with the canoeing in Oberdrauburg. The Drau is calm here, but the river’s strong current quickly whisked our boat downstream, and we needed to paddle regularly to stop our boat seeking the shade of the bankside trees in the mid-June sun. On either side of us was an ever-unfolding mountainscape, punctuated only by the odd castle or patch of snow.

    You don’t want to overshoot landing spots, as it’s impossible to backtrack up the river, so strong is the stream. However, blue flags have recently been added to alert paddlers to good points to pause, such as the beach at Dellach, where we climbed the treetop lookout tower to survey the scenery. The river is very different from more commercial waterways, without cruise boats or heavily laden barges, which makes it ideal for this sort of adventure.

    Back on the water, we spied a buzzard overhead, then the first of several paragliders, whose white canopy appeared like a crescent moon in the deep blue sky. We paddled on, switching hands ever more frequently as our shoulders grew heavy. By Greifenburg, after 20 km, we were ready for a proper break at the ‘house of a thousand beers’ – with a lovely dish of trout – at the Gasthof Wulz.

    Mountain biking at the Drau Paddel Path, Carinthia / Drau

    Over Rough and Smooth

    Switching Boats for Bikes

    We stayed at one of the many cyclists’ stops, and a ride was what we needed after a day’s upper body workout. But rather than follow most cyclists along the Drau, we switched the e-bikes into ‘eco-mode’ to snake up a trail in the forest until we crested the brow of the hill and saw the Weißensee – or white lake – disappearing into the distance.

    There are affordable places to stay here too, such as the beachside camping site we cycled past on the way to the lake, but also a parallel universe of four-star spa hotels, of which the Strandhotel was one. Here, after our cycle, I hired a stand-up paddle board for an hour to glide effortlessly over the mirror-like surface of the 12 km-long lake, before heading back to the beach for a sauna and swim. The water is remarkably warm – over 20 degrees from May to September – given the lake is a giant ice rink until March. It heats and freezes so quickly because it is shielded from the wind and is fed by underwater wells, rather than streams, so is incredibly still.

    As always, our luggage was waiting for us on our arrival and, as always, we left it at the hotel reception for pick-up. Many cyclists prefer to take panniers or hire trailers for children (and often dogs). But the service gave us the flexibility to switch back to boats at Sachsenburg, one of the new ‘base camps’ on the Drau, offering hourly rental of a variety of craft. While canoes are stable and so great for young families, we found ourselves eyeing the sleeker double kayaks.

    Kayaking on the Drau Paddel Path, Carinthia / Drau

    Gently Down the Stream

    Kayaking Like A Pro

    I immediately preferred the more symmetrical movement of using a double-ended paddle – it was a bit like swimming front crawl – especially when we were drenched by a refreshing shower – a broadside from the Moll River, carrying with it all the meltwater from the Großglockner, Austria’s highest peak.

    By the time we reached the dam at Paternion, 20 km later, my biceps would have made my gym instructor proud. So it was the perfect point to switch into hedonistic mode again (and eco-mode on the e-bike) leaving the river to head to Millstatt, with its 11th century monastery surrounded by lakeside lidos. The white-robed inhabitants of these more recent ‘wellness’ temples love to swan from hot tub to lounger via the café. After trying every sauna and steam room at the Hotel Forelle, followed by beachside dips, we were lapping up a bottle of Reinisch Johanneshof Pinot Noir 2018 over an exquisite five-course dinner.

    Top Tips for First-Time Paddlers

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    • Kaernten Kanu
    • Kayak on lake Achensee / Achensee
    • Kanufahrt auf der Drau
    • Stand Up Paddling, Villach region
    Tree house Drau Paddel Path, Carinthia / Drau

    The Final Stage

    Paddling towards the Finishing Line

    The next day we wheeled our bikes on to a ferry that took us across the Millstätter See to its south shore. This is a beautiful ride, hopping from beach to beach populated with swimmers. With our e-bikes, we’d soon rejoined the Drau cycle route, avoiding a huge grass snake crossing the path, and were riding alongside e-scooter users heading towards the cobbled streets of Villach – a city lined with cafés.

    In Villach is another of the new base camps, and this time we wanted to test the fastest, but least stable, single-person kayaks. We were assured that even if we fell in the water it was clean enough to drink. We left the city to a chorus of birdsong, passing the 16th century Kloster Wernberg – still run by nuns – before we saw a blue flag waving at us, beckoning us to a brief pause at Silbersee, where there was a lakeside café for ice-creams. The single kayaks proved the most sociable form of transport. With the four of us seemingly suspended above the still water, paddling was so effortless that we could come alongside each other and chat as we cruised gently along. I felt sorry to stop when we reached the dam at Rosegg. 

    Over dinner, I reflected on our adventures. We had paddled 70 km of what is now a 210 km route, and we had cycled much further. As someone used to visiting these mountains in winter, I couldn’t get over how different it all felt. But gliding through the mountains, rather than gliding over them on skis, had proved a dream. My only complaint? My beachside reading remained at exactly the same page as where I packed it the week before.

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