Picking your shore excursions is never easy, but once you fall in love with kayaking, you'll be eyeing every cruise port for the perfect place to dip your paddle and explore the waters. There's a freedom that comes from getting onboard a kayak -- a much smaller boat than the ship you've been on -- and paddling away. You're the captain of your own vessel (as long as you listen to your guide, that is) and that kayak can go just about anywhere. Exploring mangroves or tropical reefs, or paddling around docks and bridges as you look for secret places teeming with marine life below, will give you a new perspective on where you are.
So we ask: Where do you like to kayak when you're cruising? We've paddled all around the world to discover the best cruise ports for kayaking. Here are our top picks.
Why get in a regular old kayak when you can go to Cozumel and get in a kayak reminiscent of Wonder Woman's Invisible Jet?
When you're in port here, arrange for a kayak excursion with Cozumel Tours, which rents clear kayaks. No, they're not quite as invisible as Wonder Woman's jet, but they are totally see-through, giving you a much different perspective of the reefs and rocks, schools of fish and the underwater world than you can get anywhere else. (It's like snorkeling without getting your face wet.)
Key West, Florida
In Key West, Lazy Dog Outfitters leads kayaking excursions through mangrove creeks, a unique marine ecosystem that's one part forest and one part ocean. The mangrove trees grow in groups, providing a safe haven for fish, crabs, sea stars and aquatic birds, all of which you'll see while you're out on a paddle.
The kayaks are wide and stable, easy to maneuver and able to get into the twisted, shallow creeks that twine among the mangrove trees. Many of these kayak tours are suitable for kids, and some even combine backcountry snorkeling, where you'll swim over sponge beds and clumps of coral, looking for rays, fish and more.
Catalina Island, California
A few miles south of Los Angeles in the Gulf of Santa Catalina sits Catalina Island, a natural playground that's full of surprises. On land, you can pay a visit to a herd of bison or hike to the top of Mount Orizaba for great views, but we're sticking with exploring by sea and that means ocean kayaking.
The coastline here is dominated by towering cliffs and secluded seaside caves, making for unusual ocean paddle scenery. Catalina Tours offers paddle tours close to shore where you'll see those caves and cliffs; maybe even a curious harbor seal will swim by for a look.
Paddle over near-shore kelp forests, as full of colorful fish as landside forests are of birds. You might even witness a bald eagle dive for its lunch and come up from the water with a fish grasped firmly in its talons. Regardless of what you see, paddling around Catalina Island makes for a fine day in port and on the water.
Fuerteventura, Canary Islands
Much like Catalina Island, paddling around Fuerteventura puts you up close with caves, cliffs and an array of wildlife. Here in the Canary Islands, your paddle might take you to a secluded beach where you and your paddling companions are the only ones around, or it might lead you into large sea caves at the foot of cliffs formed from volcanic rock. You might even spy a loggerhead sea turtle resting on the beach, laying a clutch of eggs in a nest or swimming beside your kayak.
The island of Fuerteventura is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and its waters are warm and clear year-round, making it easy to spot whales, dolphins and other cetaceans. Many kayaking excursions here take advantage of the warm, clear waters and pair a paddle with a side trip for snorkeling. To top it off, there are three national parks to explore on the island when your shoulders get sore from all that paddling.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax's harbor is the second-largest natural harbor in the world, which makes it ripe for a good kayak excursion. Here you'll be able to explore the waters adjacent to and beneath the boardwalk and piers -- waters positively teeming with marine life -- and a kayak is the only way to see it. Sea stars, mussels, periwinkles, spiky sea urchins, crabs and even lobsters make frequent appearances.
But tours aren't limited to these locations; others head out into the heart of the harbor to Georges Island, home to Fort Charlotte and the lighthouse there. Where most visitors only see the lighthouse from a distance, kayakers get close and experience it in a completely different way.
Oh, you'll see wildlife here, too: shorebirds like plovers and sandpipers, eagles and osprey hunting for dinner high above; even the occasional harbor porpoise, pilot whale or minke whale might make an appearance.
Sea kayaking in Juneau means two things: whales and glaciers. It's possible to spot both while you're out for a paddle on your next Alaska cruise.
The guaranteed sighting is Mendenhall Glacier. If the glacier's not calving, you can get close and soak up the view of the ever-changing glacier as the light plays on its ancient ice. But you can get an impressive view of the Juneau Icefield from North Douglas Island, just a little way offshore. You stand a good chance of seeing those whales in these waters -- just look for bubbles, waterspouts and those distinctive tails emerging from the water.
The fjords of Norway make for excellent kayaking and it's tough to find one better than Geirangerfjord. For starters, it's the most famous fjord in Norway, and the high, steep, snow-capped mountains around mean plenty of waterfalls.
Before you set out on your kayak adventure from the village of Geiranger, fuel up on some chocolate (they have a delicious chocolate factory there) and a beer (they have a lovely little brewery, too) before you head out. Maybe even take a hike to a vantage overlooking the fjord to plan your route, but plan fast because the rich blue water is begging you to hop in a kayak and paddle away.
As you paddle, you'll see eagles above and sea urchins in the crystalline water below; you might even see a seal or sea otter up close, as these curious little creatures are inclined to investigate you and your kayak.
Bay of Islands, New Zealand
Kayak around 144 islands in the Bay of Islands near Paihia, New Zealand. This massive bay -- really a sunken valley -- was visited by Charles Darwin and has since become a hot spot for big-game fishing and wildlife watching.
From your sea kayak, you can paddle around the harbor, visit islands filled with sea and shorebirds, and catch a glimpse of bottlenose dolphins, seals, orca pods and Brydes whales. This National Maritime Park has more than just the wildlife to see: unspoiled islands and footprint-free beaches; the iconic sea arch, The Hole in the Rock; and even paddles up the Waitangi River to Haruru Falls.
Kayaking outfitters in Paihia cater to cruisers with tours and start times designed to accommodate ship arrival and departure times and make the most of your day in port.
The Panama Canal
Kayaking in the Panama Canal? It's possible. While you won't be paddling alongside your ship as it navigates the locks, you can paddle parts of the canal, explore Gatun Lake and look for wildlife along the many channels and coves.
Most tours include a stop at one or more locks where you'll get a brief lesson in how they work, and if you're lucky, you'll get to see a ship working its way through. As exciting as that is, the most thrilling part is the wildlife. In the tropical forest, you'll likely spot birds like the kingfisher and osprey, as well as monkeys -- howler, spider, titi and white-faced -- and sloths, turtles, lizards and maybe even a crocodile.
On Gatun Lake you'll see plenty of wildlife, but part of the draw here is the history: At the time it was built -- between 1907 and 1913 -- it was the largest man-made lake in the world and the Gatun Dam, built across the Chagres River to aid in construction of the canal, was the largest of its kind.