Road Trip to Zatoka, Ukraine

Road Trip

Zatoka Ukraine is a crazy mix of folksy village life — grandmothers, gardens and laundry drying in the sun — and touristy beach culture.

It’s on a narrow strip of land that forms a barrier between the Black Sea and a small gulf at the mouth of the Dniester River. Both sides of the narrows roads were crowded with people holding signs that read “sdaiem” or “renting”. They seem to sit there all day in lawn chairs, wearing sun hats. We choose a hotel instead, just 100 m from the beach.

The beach was small but clean with soft sand that made wading into the Black Sea very comfortable. It was located at the gap in the land — the one opening to the Gulf.

We watched a draw bridge working. And also the two cranes by the single doc on the other side of the gap. Over the course of a day, they loaded a huge barge with lumber. When it sailed, another barge took its place, two tug boats assisting its arrival.

Like the nerd I am, I read all about Black Sea marine life before the trip, and imagined Angel Sharks, Cat Sharks, all sort of rays, and more. Did you know there were Ukrainian-specific species? The “Ukrainian brook lamprey” and “Ukrainian stickleback.”

In the water I saw tiny fish, little fish, and one jelly fish about the size of a fist.

We only made quick trips to the beach because our little boy would start fussing, though during one early-morning trip he remained perfectly calm and seemed fascinated by the waves. We took turns swimming.

Before our return, we detour to the right bank of the Dniester River, into Ukrainian Bessarabia.

Did you know that Shabo was not just a brand of Ukrainian wine, but a Ukrainian town surrounded by vineyards where the wine is produced? We visited their shop, and a gorgeous cottage-style restaurant, where our boy remained alert and calm — I want to believe this is a sign of budding good taste.

We drove further up the right bank to take a very quick look at the castle in Bilgorod-Dniestrovsk. The shorter route back to Kyiv would have involved passing through Moldova for 7km and then through the Lower Dniester National Park. Were it not for my wife’s Ukrainian passport, we might have tried it. Instead we backtracked all the way to Zatoka, then past Odesa and up to Kyiv.

I remain utterly charmed by the names of Ukrainian villages: Cold Water, Oaks, Crooked Lake, Similar, Old Lighthouse (which is inexplicably located dozens of miles inland), Little Mill.

Ukraine’s roads are improving, but still have a way to go. I bottomed out, scraping our car’s undercarriage five or six times, once on the main highway between Kyiv and Odesa.

I’ve enjoyed watching the progress of Ukraine’s gas stations during my time in Ukraine. Some of them draw visitors for their restaurants rather than their gas. They’re a sign of what a competitive (partially competitive) market can do. Shell is the one international petrol company with stations in Ukraine, but they’re all empty. Their gas is one or two hryvnias more expensive, and I wonder if they’re burdened by some dishonest requirements imposed by Ukraine’s corrupt regulators.

Every road trip, I’m reminded of Ukraine’s beauty and potential. Just north of Odesa, there are gorgeous lakes with seemingly no infrastructure for visitors. The rolling Eurasian steppe offers breathtaking vistas, where it seems like you can see forever. I kept thinking: “I want to put a home here.”