‣ Lighthouse Reef, Belize
Forget the hustle and bustle of Belize City, Ambergris or even Caye Caulker. Head out paddling on the real islands, mon, by hopping a boat to Halfmoon Cay. Located in the easternmost portion of Belize, 45-acre Halfmoon sits in the heart of Lighthouse Reef National Park, the first protected marine area in the entire Caribbean. One of the crown jewels of the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, the electricity-free island offers sea kayak access to world-class snorkeling, letting you cannonball out of your cockpit to view everything from manta rays, sea turtles and nurse sharks to angel-, surgeon- and the fake-eyed butterfly fish. You can also paddle and sail to other palm-lined tropical islands.
Local Knowledge: Bring your birding binoculars. The island is also home to the primary research center in the 10,300-acre bio-preserve for the Belize Audubon Society, which bases there to study the red-footed boobie.
— Eugene Buchanan
‣ Hawaii Kai, Oahu
Oahu is a mecca of downwind paddling, and its signature run is the nine-mile Hawaii Kai. Whether your craft of choice is an outrigger canoe, surfski or standup paddleboard, Hawaii Kai is a rite of passage. Start at the vowel-laden Kuliouou Beach Park, just 20 minutes east of Waikiki off the Kalanianaole Highway (H-1). To avoid the rudder-eating reefs, head out through the channel markers to the point at Portlock where the sea crashes off the sheer cliffs. For the full monty, bash up the striated wall toward Hamauma Bay. When you turn at the entrance to the bay, it’s game-on. Swift rollers will lead you ever closer to the hulking profile of Diamond Head, the extinct volcano that resembles the brow of a giant tuna. Just off the lighthouse at Black Point, the swell steepens, providing the world’s warmest sleigh ride. Once around the point, stay wide of the surfers—there’s a reef between them and the shore—and before you can say Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku (you know, the father of modern surfing), the run ends at Kaimana Beach Park just west of the Outrigger Canoe Club.
Local Knowledge: For world-class snorkeling, head to Hamauma Bay. Farther up the coast is a great body-surfing beach called Sandy’s and, farther still, the scenic lighthouse at Makapuu Point. — Joe Glickman
‣ Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida/Mississippi
If you’re hanging out on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi or the Florida Panhandle, slip away to the waters around the eastern or western section of this National Seashore. From Pensacola, Fla., access the eastern portion, which features miles of protected water and barrier beaches in Santa Rosa Sound. Coastal blackwater rivers are also rife with paddling potential. Launch your kayak from one of several oceanside parking lots and make your own itinerary. Watch for the gopher tortoise, Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, and more than 300 bird species. Off the Mississippi coast, a string of offshore islands form the park’s western section. Several islands (notably Deer Island and Horn Island) are accessible by sea kayak and offer primitive camping, great fishing and the occasional alligator sighting. The nearby Pascagoula is the largest undammed river in the Lower 48, with days’ worth of sandbars, lagoons, and tributaries to paddle to through the 'cuts’. From Ocean Springs, Miss., stow the credit card and kayak nine miles up the Old Fort Bayou 'blueway’ to Southern eats and blues at the world-renowned Shed BBQ & Blues Joint.
Info/rentals: nps.gov/guis or southcoastpaddling.com
Local Knowledge: Time your visit with the annual Battle on the Bayou kayak race to the Shed, usually held in mid-March. Don’t miss Fort Massachusetts, a historic coastal fortification covered by the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina, but now reopened for visitors. — Alan Kesselheim
‣ PEARL RIVER BASIN, LOUISIANA
Less than an hour’s drive northeast of New Orleans lies the Pearl River Basin: the least altered, most pristine wetlands in Louisiana. A vast, bewildering labyrinth of slow-moving channels, bayous, and sloughs, this flat, seasonally flooded expanse extends into two states (Louisiana and Mississippi), and includes the Pearl River State Wildlife Management Area, the neighboring Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, and a huge chunk of property owned by NASA. Together, this mix of land and water protects one of the largest and least disturbed blocks of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the U.S. No wonder then that the “extinct” ivory-billed woodpecker has purportedly been seen here during the past few years. Other than a few good ol’ boys in their fishing boats, you’ll have the array of serpentine channels all to yourselves, shared only by a few river otters, alligators, and water snakes, plus plenty of pileated woodpeckers, wading birds, waterfowl, and ospreys.
Local Knowledge: A convenient, no-frills campground is located at Crawford Landing within the Pearl River State WMA, a few miles east of Slidell, La. Here, on the fringe of the West Pearl River, you can launch your boat right from your campsite and venture into shadowy Peach Lake Slough and Bull Bayou, where an ivory-billed woodpecker might still be lurking. — Larry Rice
‣ TEN THOUSAND ISLANDS, FLORIDA
Magical, mystical and alluring, the Ten Thousand Islands chain is a maze of uninhabited low keys that separates the Everglades from the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s southwest coast. Despite the name, the islands actually only number in the hundreds. However, with its myriad of islets, lagoons, and shallow ocean passages, there’s enough exploring potential in this subtropical wilderness for a weekend or weeklong winter paddling getaway. The native Calusa tribe recognized the canoe early on as the best mode of transportation through the island group, and canoes and kayaks are still the best way to appreciate the area’s beauty and wonder. Launching from Everglades City, at the northern end of Everglades National Park, you’ll be among the archipelago within minutes as you enter Chokoloskee Bay. Endless paddling routes weave through countless mangrove-lined passes and small bays with an incredible number of fine camping spots. Spectacular sunsets are a highlight of any Ten Thousand Islands trip. As for company, you’re almost certain to have curious dolphins cruise alongside you—even manatees and alligators from time to time. Bird life is nothing short of sensational.
Local Knowledge: This is a wilderness area that will likely be very different from other places you have paddled or camped. Proper planning is a must. Carry drinking water and food supplies in hard-sided containers; raccoons inhabit many of the keys and can be numerous and bold. — Larry Rice
‣ Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, mexico
Had enough of the high-rise resort schtick in Cancun and Playa del Carmen? Head south an hour or two to Tulum and on to the Sian Ka’an (Mayan for “origin of the sky”) Biosphere Reserve. From Tulum, follow the rough, dirt road along the narrow peninsula that makes up the most accessible portion of this World Heritage Site. To the east: the turquoise Caribbean with gentle surf, sections of coral barrier reef to snorkel through and miles of coastal dunes. To the west: protected waters seamed with channels through mangroves and quiet lagoons full of tropical birdlife, from frigate birds to roseate spoonbill. The reserve covers 1.3 million acres and includes 23 Mayan archaeological sites, sea turtle nesting beaches, and wildlife from jaguars to Caribbean manatee. Much of it is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Two traditional fishing villages, Punta Allen and Punta Herrero, offer boat tours for snorkeling and wildlife viewing as well as kayak rentals.
Local Knowledge: Snag a fishing license. Sian Ka’an is known for world-class angling for tarpon, snapper, bonefish, and snook. — Alan Kesselheim
This story is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine