With many accessible only by boat, Black Sea beaches near Balaklava, Ukraine, promise blissful solitude.
The coast was stark and abandoned. We'd discovered a natural wonder with no foot traffic – a landscape of vibrant colors and fluid sunsets that belonged in a watercolor. Before my eyes, the Black Sea coast was unveiled.
Joe and I sat cliffside, admiring the scene, pondering how slim the chances were for the earth to have erupted such beauty. Gazing at the coastline jutting out of the calm blue sea had us speechless. Speaking would only ruin the moment.
We were in no-man's land: a place where pirates spoke Russian and mountains connected with the sea. Along with the two-man tent, two backpacks full of soiled clothes, a rusty Swiss Army knife, a 24-ounce cooking pot, a 1-kilogram bag of Ukrainian grain known as gretchka, we had ambition and a reckless purpose for exploring uncharted waters.
A breeze floated down the mountains through sappy pine trees behind us and mingled with the salt of the sea. The aroma infiltrated our senses, soothing us into the kind of nap only men with no worries enjoy. My mind drifted back to where it all began.
After a rickety train ride to the main train station in Sevastopol, Joe and I waved down the number three bus to Balaklava. Balaklava revealed itself as a somewhat touristy harbor town 30 minutes from the center of Sevastopol, offering a 30-hryvnia (almost $4) tour of an old Soviet underground submarine base designed to handle an atomic impact. Along the boardwalk, quaint booths sold diversified knick-knacks – anything from Russian sailing hats to British flag bikinis – and owners of docked boats offered to take people out of the cove along the Ukrainian coast to a beach of their liking. Beaches were of the nude kind, family kind, fishing kind and golden kind.
Joe and I were seeking a beach of the golden kind – a land known as “Golden Beach,” a 30-minute boat ride from the cove of Balaklava.
We'd later find out that Golden Beach is really only accessible by boat, unless you want to bushwhack up and down a steep sheer-rock mountain for 10 kilometers. We would discover neither sunken treasure chests overflowing with coins nor gold bars along the cliff-lined beach, only silent golden sunsets you couldn’t buy with a MasterCard. The nature of the sunsets was so magnificent and valuable to the viewing experience that the name “Golden Beach” seemed a perfect fit.
The Boat-ride Hustle
We had heard from friends that if you walked along the docks at the right hour and found the right man with the right boat, you could maybe negotiate a fair price (our friends had told us not to pay more than 50 hryvnia each (a little over $8) with the right man who would then maybe motor you as far out as "Golden Beach," where we were headed. We decided to give the rumor a try.
Soon enough we found our man – a middle-aged, lizard-skinned, beer-bellied dude who went by the name of Dima. We found out immediately that Dima was a bonafide hustler who could out-deal “Mr. Art of the Deal” himself, Donald Trump, only he didn’t give a damn about the famous or the rich. He had his business, his boat, and the sea; that was all that mattered.
"How much to Golden Beach?" I asked in Russian.
He chiseled some kind of meat out of his front teeth with a tooth pick, flicked it towards us and said, “One-hundred hryvnia for each of you.”
Then he cleared his throat and hawked a loogie.
My bartering skills were far from being defunct, so I threw him a lie to see if he'd take the bait. "Well that guy down there said he'd charge us only 60 hryvnia. How about 50 hryvnia.”
"Well, as a matter of fact I own that guy's boat down there and the rate is 100 hryvnia."
I countered with another playful lie. “Another man to that guy’s left also said he’d charge us only 60 hryvnia, so how about 50 hryvnia?”
Dima gestured towards the other boat I was talking about, let out a grunt and asked, “Ha, I own his boat too. The rate is 100 hryvnia for each of you.”
Man, this freckle-faced, sunburned pirate would outshine a used car salesman. No problem. A wad of 100 hryvnia on our kind of budget was a steep price though.
The sun was beating down in a blaze of punishment. We were hot and thirsty. Our skin glistened like seal blubber and we had no time to waste. Joe nudged me. I cleared my throat and finally stuck out my hand in agreement.
"It's a deal."
He started the motor to a soft hum and untied his small boat from the dock. We motored out of the calm waters of the harbor and Dima reminisced about his past. His boat and the sea were what made life holy and worthwhile. He had come here from Russia after Sevastopol was opened to the public after being occupied by the Russian Navy until 1995.
He then started work as a fisherman, making a steady profit. Now he only fished for fun. To add some extra cash to his family’s humble income, he motored tourists along the Black Sea coast to beaches that were unreachable by road.
Dolphins began to jump at the bow of his humble boat. Dima pointed up to a cliffside fortress on the outskirts of the cove.
"The fortress has been there for hundreds of years. Recently the weather has destroyed it and nobody wants to restore the thing. Those darn teenagers go up there at night to smoke, drink, and do you know what.”
We were soon dropped off at the pebbly beach, and the boat motored away. Dima started chuckling and yelled, “I don’t own those guy’s boats at the dock. In fact I don’t even know them.”
Joe and I looked at each other and shook our heads in disbelief. Evidently, Dima had schooled us in an art of negotiation we had yet to master.
A remote stretch of Ukrainian coastline.
The pebbly beach continued down the coast for a quarter-mile, leading to trails up to one of the cliffs covered in an assortment of vegetation. Joe and I followed one for a good mile and made our temporary home snuggled in the trees thirty meters from sea. I headed off to locate drinking water from a natural spring while Joe set up camp.
Considering how remote Golden Beach is, we were surprised to find out that a pair of beefed-up Russians spend a couple of hours each day locating people camping on the bluffs and charge them for such pleasures. The first night the jocular pair never found us. However, the second night, they came crashing through the trees down to our campsite, demanding 20 hryvians ($2.50) a head.
Nevertheless, we had no problem paying, being that nowhere we had ever been legally offered such consistent warm weather, views and solitude.
With a shimmery moonlit sea in the background, our campfire dwindled, and my dreams floated off to the sounds of waves churning against rocks on the shore. In the morning we scaled technically steep, rocky mountains to obtain a spaceman's panorama of the outlying terrain. Perched on the summit, all seemed infinitely possible.
We were far from home, but our explorations would leave memories to be shared for a lifetime.