Venice's water secret
It's rush hour and there's a traffic jam on the Grand Canal. Popping out into the canal from one of the narrower waterways is a trio of gondolas; hurtling towards them is the No 1 vaporetto (water bus) loaded with its summer cargo.
So far, so familiar, but in the midst of this waterborne whirl of gondolas, buses, taxis, pleasure and motorboats there's me in a kayak – with a honking, crane-bearing delivery boat up my backside.
Spying what I thought was an available gap, I'd sneaked into it so I could take some photos – but I'd parked in front of a restaurant and there was a Coke fridge to deliver.
Under the watchful eye of the deliveryman and scores of tourists peering down at us from the Rialto Bridge, I began to manoeuvre out, using my paddle as a rudder to sharpen the turn.
As I started the home run towards Rene, my kayak guide waiting for me on the other side of the bridge, my biceps felt like they'd done three rounds on a cheese grater. But I did it, without crashing or crying and even got a wink of approval from the deliveryman – high praise indeed in Venice.
Unlikely as Venice by kayak sounds, it really is possible. My fellow kayaker, Brian, the most diminutive and softly spoken Texan one could hope to meet – and who had never set foot in a kayak before – was living proof that a sense of adventure and an affinity with water counts far more than bulging biceps.
But don't just rock up with an inflatable vessel, as some fools have done. Go with someone who knows and respects the city, understands the vagaries of its weather and tides and, most importantly, obeys the waterways' unwritten rules.
With his Venetian colleague, Marco, Rene Seindal, a strapping Dane who has made Venice his home by marrying his passion for rowing with a canny business venture, offers day trips and night paddles, lagoon tours and week-long tailored trips. Their base is at Camping San Nicolo, a pretty, well-run campsite at the western end of the Lido and an eight-minute bus ride from the island's vaporetto terminal. The Lido is a good springboard into the rest of the lagoon, while Venice itself is only a half-hour paddle away.
Rene reads Venice's maps by its canals. "I get lost on the streets but not down here," he told me, reassuringly.
I'm with him. Having spent weeks combing its tangle of streets like a blind, spatially challenged beetle, I found meandering along Venice's canals in a kayak serene in the extreme.
The price tag for the equivalent number of hours in a gondola would run into thousands – captain of your kayak, 100 a day; 40 minutes on a gondola, 80 – but the freedom to linger by this bridge or that moss-slicked palazzo is priceless.
Things rarely got as hairy as my Rialto three-point turn – unless you count the incident when, after butting a moored gondola just in front of the Bridge of Sighs and ricocheting into the wall (sorry, Unesco), I sat trapped in a strong current like a lemon, until a kindly gondolier gave me a shove with his oar.
We shared the canals with police boats, fire appliances, hearses, ambulances, taxis and, early one morning, the bin men (tanned and Ray-Ban Aviator chic) – the workaday Venetians who keep the city ticking over.
Roaming the rii (smaller canals), we paddled with gondoliers who didn't mind us – we shared the same foe: moto ondoso, or the wake caused by motorcraft – and started to recognise Venice for what it is: an archipelago of tiny islands linked by bridges.
One afternoon, we paddled right into San Marco and bobbed about in a "safe zone" near the Doge's Palace, grinning at the cheek of it. Between paddling there were the obligatory gelato stops, lazy lunches and conversations with Brian about why he has never heard of JR or Dallas.
A refreshing contrast to the constraints of the city, the lagoon's wide-open shallows also offer a new perspective on Venice itself – one small, if significant, piece of an aquatic jigsaw.
"Most people visit Venice and think they've seen the city but there's a thousand years of history right here," Rene said, running the gloopy silt of the lagoon floor though his fingers as we paddled out from the kayak base on the Lido one morning. "This is the mud Venice was built on."
Part lake, part estuary, part sea, the lagoon is fed by the Adriatic via three inlets and comprises thousands of hectares of mudflats and salt marshes speckled with islands – some inhabited; others deserted and littered with curious military installations, forgotten monasteries, isolation hospitals and lunatic asylums. Tricky to reach as a tourist, the islands are blissfully accessible by kayak.
One evening, we paddled to the market-garden island of Vignole for squid-ink spaghetti and a side order of sunset at Trattoria Alle Vignole before heading into Venice for a night tour. The canals were practically ours.
Becoming part of the show is a curious flipside of kayaking around Venice. Locals stared, tourists took photos and strangers shouted: "Where can we rent the kayaks?"
As we left San Marco via the Bridge of Sighs after our thrilling 20-minute bob, I was distracted by a small hand poking through one of the stone grills to wave at me.
The enclosed bridge gave prisoners their last tantalising glimpse of Venice before they were led to their cells in the Doge's Palace. Craning my neck in search of a face, I waved back – and crashed into a gondola.
Kayaking Venice Kayak offers kayak holidays and guided tours of the city and lagoon for groups of two to 12 people from its base on the Lido, priced at 100 (NZ$200) per person a day or 280 (NZ$560) for three days.
A six-day kayak holiday is 750 (NZ$1500) per person including camping, 650 (NZ$1300) without. Most city trips are about 15-20km; in the lagoon, up to 25km.
Further information see Turismovenezia.it/eng