Even once you've gotten to know every inch of a place by land, there's nothing quite like exploring its hiding places from the cockpit of a boat. Sunrise, sunset, or in between, the water forms the secret heart of many a destination.
Kayaks are the ideal crafts for explorers: Your group can be as small or as large as you like; they're portable enough for solo journeys; rentals are often readily available; they can maneuver from lake to bay to stream (assuming they're outfitted properly); and they allow you to get up close and personal with the water in ways that larger boats could never manage.
If you enjoy kayaking while on vacation and would like to make it the focus of your next adventure, here are a few fabulous spots you might consider.
1. The Belize Barrier Reef
Have you been looking for an excuse to work in a little fun in the sun? You're in luck: The tropical weather is only one reason to make Belize the focus of your next kayaking excursion. No list would be complete without this Caribbean destination, which is home to the second-largest barrier reef on the globe.
Maneuver through a series of tiny, palm-studded islands (called cayes in local parlance), and see if you can spot the difference between the many different types of coral (more than 100 species in all). The reef is also inhabited by over 500 species of fish, so even if you don't spot any other humans on your journey, you'll be kept company most of the way.
As long as you're in Belize, you might also consider hopping aboard a different vessel on a cave tubing expedition. Nearby Tulum, in Mexico, also beckons, with its collection of archaeological wonders. Guided trips are available for those who want someone else to take the oars after days of solitude among the coral.
2. Kenai Fjords National Park
For those who prefer something a little more rugged (not to mention colder), Alaska's rockbound shoreline beckons. With more than 750 miles of coastline to choose from, it can be difficult to decide where to launch, but it's even more difficult to go wrong.
As you navigate the glaciers and the icy fjords, you're bound to feel transported into another world, perhaps to a prehistoric age. Keep an eye out for humpback whales and orcas, who frequent these waters. Bear in mind that this is a remote adventure, suited only for those who feel at home when removed from the creature comforts.
3. Galapagos National Park
And as long as we're on the subject: You want remote? Consider checking the Galapagos Islands off your bucket list. Darwin's paradise, located more than 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is home to a host of fauna you won't encounter anywhere else on the planet. Chief among them are the giant tortoise and the blue-footed booby bird, both of which have to be seen to be believed.
Kayak traffic in this unique locale is restricted; you have to enlist the aid of a local outfitter in order to begin your explorations. If the thought of cookie-cutter travel sends a shiver down your spine, fear not: Customized excursions are available, though you'll likely pay a great deal more for the privilege. At the end of the day, the photos and memories will be worth every penny (not to mention every calorie expended).
It should be noted that, due to the location, travelers are likely to experience jet lag upon arrival. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to adjust before getting into the cockpit of a self-guided craft. Also, brush up on ways you might avoid falling victim to jet lag in the first place.
4. The Dalmatian Coast
If you've been to Italy or Greece, the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean is likely still imprinted on the backs of your eyelids. There's nothing in the world quite like it—unless you've also visited this jewel of coastline in nearby Croatia.
The gorgeous architecture and pristine white sand might threaten to keep you ashore, but resist the urge—there's plenty more sand where you're going, and the buildings will look even better from the water. The coast is dotted with scores of uninhabited islands, where you'll have the whole beach to yourselves. You could easily spend an entire week exploring the many hidden grottoes, caves, and inlets that lurk around every new turn. Of course, once you reach the end of the week, you'll likely never want to go home again.
5. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Looking for something a bit closer to home? The Apostle Islands of Lake Superior, hugging the shoreline of northern Wisconsin, just might fit the bill. While the location might lack the exotic cache of the destinations listed above, these islands offer a magnificent paddling experience that's emphatically not for the faint of heart.
Carved from the glaciers that formed the Great Lakes, these awe-inspiring caves resemble the fingers of giants, ringed with evergreens. Camping is available at several spots along the shore, making it easy to plan a multi-day excursion. If you need to rely on a local outfitter for a rental, it's a good idea to use a single site as your base camp—the crafts available are usually not large enough to be packed out for overnights, although that also depends on the type of equipment you travel with.
Though Superior is a lake and not the ocean, its sheer size overwhelms many travelers encountering it for the first time, and high winds can make boating extremely hazardous.
The smaller the craft, the truer this is, so make sure to use caution and follow local weather reports closely before setting off. Finally, remember to pack a wet suit or dry suit, especially if you're visiting in the spring or fall. In this northern area of the United States, hypothermia risk is a very real concern.
If you're a kayaking enthusiast, no doubt you've discovered many places that don't have a spot on this list. That's one of the beauties of the sport—the endless opportunities for exploration. When you get right down to it, shouldn't that be the focus of every vacation?