It’s another perfect day in paradise: 73 degrees, a light onshore breeze, and mostly sunny–a terrific day for a paddle! I contemplate my options from buff-colored cliffs overlooking the deep-blue Pacific that stretches infinitely westward. Shall I join the surfers riding smooth-faced waves that sparkle in the sunshine, explore the rock gardens and kelp beds with the harbor seals? Or paddle along the downtown waterfront and have lunch on the patio of my favorite seafood restaurant? Welcome to San Diego, where days like this are strung together one after another in a seemingly endless succession. Who could stay inside? Who could not be drawn to the edge of the continent and beyond?

From protected bays to the dynamic open coast, a wide variety of world-class paddling opportunities can be found within 20 miles of downtown San Diego. Despite the desert climate, even whitewater boaters get their adrenaline fix riding the perfect waves that roll into shore day after day. For me, the best part of kayaking in San Diego is the wildlife that is found everywhere: clinging to the rocks I paddle near, burrowing in the sand I launch from, and plying the coastal waters alongside me. In my kayak, I’ve surfed with dolphins, watched and been watched by harbor seals and sea lions, drifted over leopard sharks and rays, searched for sea turtles, and paddled along the coast in the company of gray whales. Never mind that this is the seventh-largest city in the United States, and that the buildings, asphalt, and manicured landscaping stretch to the very edge of the sea; the moment I slip past that edge, I’m in a different world.

On shore, it’s not surprising to find a different kind of city, one where the pace is a little slower and the people are a little friendlier. Part urban metropolis with a bustling downtown overlooking a busy harbor, and part small-town beach community, San Diego is the sort of place where lawyers and bankers take the long way to work–the way that winds past their favorite surf breaks.

Mission Bay: With nearly 30 miles of coastline ringed in parks, palm trees, beachfront homes, and resorts, Mission Bay is San Diego’s jewel and the center of watersports activity. A shallow swamp until the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the current watery playground with San Diego’s large military population in mind. Public access has always been a high priority, and there are many places to launch a kayak and sightsee within the bay. The Mission Bay Channel also provides surf-free access to the great Pacific for boats of all types.

Despite human modification, wildlife continues to flourish in Mission Bay. Pelicans, cormorants, ospreys, and herons are year-round residents, while numerous other bird species visit on their migrations. Sea lions frequent the bait barge in Quivira Basin or haul out on nearby docks. At low tide, paddling close to rocky areas will reveal starfish, anemones, urchins, limpets, small fish, snails, octopus, and the occasional eel. The sandy bottom of Mariner’s Cove teems with live sand dollars and other invertebrates. On the exotic side, you’ll find a cage of “off-duty” penguins at Sea World. You might also catch some behind-the-scenes action of Sea World’s “Cirque de Mer” show if your timing is right. In summertime, a kayak provides access to the best seats in the house for the nightly fireworks show. A truly great day on Mission Bay will take all this in and includes a picnic at one of many waterfront parks. Later on, dock your craft at the Barefoot Bar and Grill for dinner, or keep the beach party going long after dark around a blazing fire in one of the numerous fire pits.

San Diego Bay: As a working harbor, San Diego Bay offers a few more challenges for kayakers, but it’s well worth the effort to paddle past downtown in the evening and watch the city lights come on. The bay is the heart of the city, and kayakers will find much of what makes the city tick along the waterfront. For the urban experience, launch at Shelter Island and head east along the shoreline toward downtown. A noteworthy sight on this journey is The Star of India, the oldest functional tall sailing ship in the world, and a maritime museum. Continuing past downtown, you’ll entertain diners at waterfront restaurants and pass by what’s left of the tuna fishing fleet–once the largest and most productive in the world. When you reach Seaport Village, a popular tourist destination, cross the bay to the Ferry Landing on Coronado Island and land on the sandy beach next to the ferry pier. Have a cup of coffee or a scoop of ice cream, and browse some of the shops nearby. From this vantage point, the sunset show is to the east–reflected in the city skyline as the buildings turn golden with the final rays of the setting sun. Return to Shelter Island along the west shore of the bay and you’ll pass a few impressive aircraft carriers and possibly see some Navy Seals out training. With nearly a third of San Diego’s population tied to the military, it is a dominant theme of the city. If you want company while you paddle, an informal group of kayakers known as the Night Herons kayak this route every Tuesday, leaving promptly at 6 p.m.