There's few better ways to spend a holiday than getting wet. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present some of the best water-based holidays around the world. So whether it's kayaking with sharks or snorkelling with turtles, give one of these experiences a try and let us know how you got on...
Ten trip ideas for watersports fanatics
Snorkelling "The Rift", Iceland
Few places on Earth can match Silfra for snorkelling. The setting is unique, a fissure crack running between the American and Eurasian continents, its precise location changing with the shifting of the plates each year. But it’s the water – or more accurately, the stunning clarity of the water – that makes this site remarkable.
Silfra has arguably the finest visibility anywhere in the world. Crystal is cloudy in comparison. The temperature helps, hovering at around 3°C, as does the water’s glacial purity – it takes two thousand years to get here, drip-feeding its way through fields of lava. In fact, the combination creates a clarity so intense that people have been known to experience vertigo on entering the water, suspended like astronauts over a gully that seemingly drops away into the very centre of the Earth.
Diving Iceland (www.dive.is) organizes snorkelling trips into Silfra.
Sea kayaking in Prince William Sound, Alaska
Watching glaciers calve while paddling round a frozen margarita of opaque blue water and brash ice is an undoubted highlight of sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. Perhaps better still are the opportunities for viewing marine life here. Seals often loll around on icebergs close to glaciers, while sea otters swim in the frigid waters, protected by the wonderfully thick fur that made them prized by the eighteenth-century Russian traders who partly colonized Alaska. In deeper water, look for pods of orcas cruising the waterways in search of their favourite food, seals (no wonder they hang back on the icebergs). You might even spot a few humpback whales, which congregate in small groups and breach spectacularly on occasion. Keep a splash-proof camera handy at all times.
Even if you miss out on a great action photo, there is considerable pleasure in just gliding around the generally calm waters of the fjords, where cliffs clad in Sitka spruce and Douglas fir rise steeply from the depths. For full atmospheric effect, stay in a simple Forest Service cabin or camp out on a small beach or at a designated campsite in one of the state marine parks.
Alaska Sea Kayakers (+1 907/472-2534, www.alaskaseakayakers.com), in Whittier, rents sea kayaks and runs guided day-trips and multi-day tours.
Kiteboarding in Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Kiters from around the world come in droves to the broad, archetypally Caribbean cove of Cabarete off the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Some never leave, hanging out on the beach in a state of perpetual kite-slacker bliss, like lotus-eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. Others shuttle in at weekends between stints at investment banking firms and crash at the high-end condos on the edge of town.
And why not? Cabarete’s bay seems engineered by a benevolent god of kiteboarding. Steady trade winds blow east to west, allowing easy passage out to the bay’s offshore reefs and then back to the sand. The offshore reef provides plenty of surf for the experts who ride the waves here, performing tricks and some incredibly spectacular jumps. The reef also shelters the inshore waters so that on all but the roughest of winter days the waters remain calm. Increasingly, the kiteboarding community has left the built-up main village to the windsurfers and retreated west to so-called Kite Beach. Here you can experience Cabarete as it was fifteen years ago, a kiteboarder’s paradise filled with fellow wind worshippers and a lively outdoor nightlife scene, including bonfires along the beach into the wee hours.
The international airport at Puerto Plata is 20km west of Cabarete. All the major windsurfing and kiteboarding equipment manufacturers have schools and equipment rental along the town’s main strip.
Sea kayaking in the Exumas, Bahamas
“Wilderness” is not the first word that springs to mind when someone mentions the Bahamas; rum cocktails, high-rise hotels and limbo contests are the ready images. Yet a short hop from the wall-to-wall cruise ship carnival in Nassau lies the Exuma Cays, a chain of a couple of hundred mainly uninhabited islands stretching for more than 65km along the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Separated by a tranquil sea, the low-lying chunks of honeycombed limestone rimmed by powdery white sand and covered in dense vegetation have seemingly been designed with one mode of exploration in mind: the sea kayak.
The Exuma Land and Sea Park, in the middle section of the cays, makes for an excellent starting point. Your ride begins at dawn, when the mirror-smooth sea takes on a delicate shade of pink. The languid morning hours are spent blissfully dipping your paddle into turquoise waters lit from beneath by sunlight reflected off a brilliant white sandy bottom and brimming with lush undersea gardens, coral reefs and a profusion of tropical fish. At midday, beach your kayak on an inviting swathe of sand and picnic under a palm tree. Snorkel over bright-hued clumps of coral, marvelling at the dazzling colours and patterns of the fish as they dart among the waving purple sea fans.
The main transport hub in the Exuma Cays is Staniel Cay, easily reached from Nassau; for trips departing from Great Exuma, you can fly into George Town from Florida.
Snorkelling with turtles, Bonaire
After months of planning and years of dreaming you’ve finally arrived at a small, uninhabited cay off the coast of Bonaire. Beneath the crystal-blue waters awaits a spectacle unparalleled in the marine world. Immense schools of tropical fish in every conceivable shape, size and colour swim alongside sea turtles and dolphins in and around the most impressive coral and sponge gardens in the Caribbean. The waters surrounding this tiny boomerang-shaped island, 80km north of Venezuela, were made a marine park in 1979.
Once under water you immediately hear the continuous grinding of parrotfish grazing on the algae that grows on top of coral heads. Within seconds, a dazzling spectrum of reef fish comes out of hiding from the delicate stands of soft and hard corals. Schools of brightly coloured butterflyfish, angelfish and damselfish swim in and out of the crevices and between colonies of elkhorn and staghorn corals. Several metres below, purple sea fans and the tentacles of anemones sway back and forth as the swift current pushes you along.
www.infobonaire.com has lots of information on snorkelling.
Kayaking in the Sea of Cortés, Mexico
The remote and ruggedly beautiful Baja coastline has become a favourite destination for sea kayakers – and for good reason. The calm waters of the Sea of Cortés make for easy surf launches and smooth paddling. Hundreds of unexplored coves, uninhabited islands and miles of mangrove-lined estuaries play host to sealions, turtles and nesting birds. Just the shell of your kayak separates you from dolphins, grey whales, coral reefs and over six hundred species of fish as you glide through placid lagoons, volcanic caves and natural arches.
It’s a good idea to keep your snorkelling gear handy – should you ever tire of the topside scenery, you can make a quick escape to an even more spectacular underwater world. Rookeries of sealions dot island coasts, and if you approach them slowly, the pups can be especially playful, even mimicking your underwater movements before performing a ballet of their own. Back on land, as you camp on white sand beaches and feast on freshly made ceviche (citrus-marinated raw fish) under the glow of a glorious sunset, you’ll have time to enjoy some peace and quiet before pondering your next launch.
Tour operators in both Loreto and La Paz offer outfitting, guided expeditions and accommodation, with La Paz providing more rental options for the independent kayaker.
Paddling into secret lagoons, Thailand
The first time you enter a hong you’re almost certain to laugh with delight. The fun begins when your guide paddles you across to the towering karst island and then pilots your canoe through an imperceptible fissure in its rock wall. You enter a sea cave that reeks of bats and gets darker and darker until suddenly your guide shouts, “Lie back in the boat please!” Your nose barely clears the stalactites and you emerge, with your toes first, into a sunlit lagoon, or hong, right at the very heart of the outcrop.
Hong (“rooms” in Thai) are the pièce de résistance of southern Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay. Invisible to any passing vessel, these secret tidal lagoons are flooded, roofless caves hidden within the core of seemingly solid limestone islands, accessible only at certain tides and only in sea canoes small enough to slip beneath and between low-lying rocky overhangs. The world inside these collapsed cave systems is extraordinary, protected from the open bay by a turreted ring of cliffs hung with primeval-looking gardens of inverted cycads, twisted bonsai palms, lianas, miniature screw pines and tangled ferns.
Phang Nga Bay covers some 400 square kilometres of coast between Phuket and Krabi. A reputable sea-canoeing trips operator around the bay is John Gray’s Sea Canoe (www.johngray-seacanoe.com).
Sea kayaking around Shark Bay, Australia
The Peron Peninsula in Shark Bay, on the northwest coast of Western Australia, is well known for its regular dolphin visitations, and a beachside resort at Monkey Mia has grown around the spectacle. But there’s much more to this UNESCO-listed reserve than meeting Flipper and the family, and the sheltered conditions make the Shark Bay area ideal for a sea kayaking adventure.
Paddling in a bay named after the ocean’s deadliest predator may sound as sensible as skinny-dipping in Piranha Creek. Sure, there are tiger sharks out in the depths, but the abundant sea life means they’re fed well enough not to bother you in the shallows. Don’t be surprised if before long a green turtle passes under your kayak, followed by rays the size of a tablecloth. And where there are rays there are usually sharks, but only frisky babies less than a metre long, maturing in the shallow nurseries before heading out to sea.
Visit www.sharkbay.org for more information.
Snorkelling with orcas, Norway
As you slide quietly over the side of the boat and put your face in the freezing water, it’s hard to breathe – not just because your teeth are chattering, but also because there, below you in the blue, are six or seven killer whales that seem as curious about you as you are about them. Tell your friends you’re going snorkelling with “killer whales” north of the Arctic Circle in winter and they’re likely to think you’re a few minnows short of a school. But though orcas, as they’re more properly known, have been known to eat prey larger than humans, the ones in northern Norway mainly eat fish.
Prime orca-viewing time is October to January, when migrating shoals of herring lure 600–700 orcas to Tysfjord in northern Norway. You might even have a chance to see them feed. Norway’s orcas have perfected a fishing technique called “carousel feeding”: they herd the unsuspecting herring into a tight ball using air bubbles as a net, slap the ball with their tails to stun ten to fifteen fish at a time, then scoff them one by one. Sure it’s cold, but there’s plenty of gear to keep you warm: dry suit, warm inner suit, mask, snorkel, gloves and booties. And yes, you might feel a tad vulnerable drifting on the surface of the North Atlantic surrounded by a bunch of five-tonne marine mammals. But all that’s forgotten as soon as you spot a dorsal fin breaking the surface – and you realize you didn’t just become dinner.
The local Tysfjord tourist office runs snorkelling safaris between October and mid-January for 1700kr per person. See www.tysfjord-turistsenter.no for more.
Sea kayaking in the Mingan Archipelago, Québec
On the map, the Mingan Archipelago, stretching 150km from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan to Aguanish, looks like a trail of biscuit crumbs scattered in the Gulf of St Lawrence. But from the vantage point of your sea kayak, cruising through the channels that separate this collection of forty uninhabited islands and nearly a thousand islets and reefs, it’s a much different story. First, it’s impossible to miss the tall rock monoliths that guard the bays which, from a distance, look very much like people. Second, much of what you’re paddling around to see actually lurks beneath the surface. The waters here are a feeding ground for the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, as well as for minke, fin, beluga and humpback whales – keep your eyes trained on the horizon, looking for the telltale puff of water vapour blown by a whale as it surfaces.
Beneath your paddles the water is so clear that it magnifies the seabed. Bright orange sea stars, deep red urchins and lime green kelp crust the sea floor, the rock worn into underwater monoliths or crazily paved ledges. As sunset stains the sea pink and purple, you’ll need to pick an island and a beachside campsite. Civilization feels a galaxy away as you laze around the campfire or scramble up a clifftop for a last gaze out at sea, hopeful of spotting a whale silhouetted against the sinking sun.
Expédition Agaguk in Havre-Saint-Pierre (418/538 1588) rents equipment and also provides guides for trips around the islands.
Rafting the Tatshenshini, Yukon
The silt-laden waters of the Tatshenshini River are a paddlers’ paradise, with the most magnificent portion coursing 213km through the heart of the St Elias Mountains, which extend from the southern Yukon across to northern British Columbia and on into the Gulf of Alaska. There’s no shortage of things beaked, toothed and clawed here, and the inevitable sightings and full-on encounters are thrilling: grizzly bears lumber along gravel river beds, hoary marmots scramble up scree slopes and schools of glinting salmon swim in the murky waters below.
Putting in at tiny Dalton Post, Yukon, for the start of a ten-day expedition that ends at Dry Bay, Alaska, you’ll soon be floating through the same territory prospectors did during the late 1800s Klondike gold rush, when the river was a busy thoroughfare. Yet you’d barely know anyone had ever been this way – the whole region remains gloriously untouched, surrounded as it is by Canada’s Kluane National Park, BC’s Tatshenshini Provincial Park, the Yukon’s Kluane Wildlife Sanctuary and the US Glacier Bay National Park. Journeying through these, you’ll pass through steep-sided mountain canyons, negotiate rapids, drift past razor-sharp cliffs and thick stands of pristine wilderness and come within touching distance of 10,000-year-old icebergs – the river system, after all, passes through the largest non-polar ice field in the world.
Tatshenshini Expediting in Whitehorse (867/633-2742, www.tatshenshiniyukon.com) has details on package tours ranging from day-long rafting trips to 10-day expeditions.
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