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Winter Travel

Best places for stand-up paddle boarding

It’s the perfect beginner’s alternative to surfing. Here, the top warm-weather destinations in the United States and internationally for trying it out.

Dana Edmunds

IN THE 1960S, surfing instructors in Hawaii discovered a great way to increase tips: While their tourist-students lay prone on boards trying to catch waves, the instructors would hang cameras on their necks, stand upright on surfboards, and use long canoe paddles to maneuver out to take photos of clients in the surf, creating the perfect souvenir. “Stand-up paddling,” as this mode of transit became known, remained a surf culture oddity until about 10 years ago, when a handful of professional surfers began using the technique to train. In the past few years, the sport has spread beyond surfers — and become wildly popular. “Everyone has a fantasy to be a surfer, [and] stand-up paddling makes it easier,” says Rob Casey, author of Stand Up Paddling: Flatwater to Surf and Rivers and an instructor in Washington state. “The learning curve is relatively easy and gear requirements are minimal.” And while stand-up boards are more expensive than kayaks — beginner boards, which are wider and heavier than traditional surfboards, start at around $700 — Casey says they’re easier to store and carry and provide better exercise, particularly for the core muscles.

To find out whether stand-up paddling is as easy as advertised, in mid-September I signed up for a private lesson at Charles River Canoe & Kayak (617-965-5110, paddleboston.com), located just next to the Newton Marriott. “I’ve given lessons to people from 4 years old to 70 years old, and I’ve never had someone not be able to stand up,” instructor Dan Cox told me, as he helped me into a life jacket. After a quick dockside intro to the equipment and basic techniques, Cox had me kneel on the board, paddle a few yards into the river, and creep up into a standing position. (Yes, it’s really that simple: Beginner boards are designed to be super stable.) For 90 minutes Cox showed me different stroke techniques. I’d worn a swimsuit and had dreaded the thought of plunging into the Charles on a cool fall day, but I stayed upright and dry through the lesson.

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Part of the sport’s popularity comes from the fact that, unlike surfing, you can do it nearly anywhere: Rivers, lakes, and oceans all make suitable grounds for “SUP,” the acronym by which the sport has become known. But as fall gives way to winter and the Charles turns icy, it’s tempting to find a more hospitable climate for paddling. Here are five experts’ picks on the best places to stand-up paddle.

dana edmunds

Several prime spots for stand-up paddle boarding can be found on Oahu, the third largest Hawaiian island.

> OAHU, HAWAII

Reid Inouye is the publisher of Standup Paddle Magazine. He grew up in Oahu, Hawaii, where his son, Matt, runs a paddle board training company.

 WHERE TO PADDLE “On Oahu, I recommend Puaena Point at Hale’iwa Beach Park, on the Waimea Bay side of the Anahulu Bridge. It’s perfect because you have a safe flat-water area with little waves and lots of parking and showers. It’s not necessarily where I go — I favor some secret spots on the north shore where the waves are too big for most people — but it’s user-friendly for beginners. If you’re looking to try paddling in waves, try ‘Pop’s’ beach in Waikiki, directly in from the Sheraton. You have to wear booties because the reef may be sharp or there may be sea urchins, but the waves here are very forgiving and tame.”

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WHERE TO RENT GEAR OR GET A LESSON “On the north shore, try Uncle Bryan’s Sunset Suratt Surf Academy [808-783-8657, surfnorthshore.com]. At Waikiki, you can go see former professional big-wave surfer Tony Moniz, who runs the Faith Surf School [808-931-6262, faithsurfschool.com].”

WHERE TO STAY “In Waikiki, for a good place with good rates, try Outrigger Hotels [866-956-4262, outrigger.com]. They have five locations, with three on the beach. I also like the Pacific Beach Hotel [800-367-6060, pacificbeachhotel.com], just across the street from Kuhio Beach.”

Philip Shearer

Big Blue unlimited offers stand-up paddle boarding lessons on Providenciales, Turks and Caicos.

> TURKS AND CAICOS

The big-wave surfing of Dave Kalama, a pro wind-surfer, was featured in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Die Another Day. Along with surfer Laird Hamilton, Kalama stand-up paddled the entire chain of the Hawaiian Islands, a distance he estimates at 250 miles.

WHERE TO PADDLE “I’ve been all over the world, and one place I really like for stand-up paddle boarding is Turks and Caicos. I run a paddle boarding school there on the island of Providenciales. The water is really clear, and the reefs are very alive. You’ll see stingrays and all kinds of fish. The island has trade winds, so you can do downwind paddling. It has mangroves, so you can get protection from the wind to do flat-water paddling. It’s a really versatile area.”

WHERE TO RENT GEAR OR GET A LESSON “The company I work with is called Big Blue [649-946-5034, bigblueunlimited.com]. They have kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling, and diving.”

WHERE TO STAY “Most of the people I work with stay at the Club Med Turkoise [888-932-2582, clubmed.us/turkoise-all-inclusive], but there are condos all the way down the beach, so if you don’t want a resort, you have a good selection of private rentals.”

Hotel CINCO

Champion surfer Gerry Lopez shows a more advanced move in Punta Mita, Mexico.

> MEXICO

In the 1990s, native Hawaiian Dave Chun launched a company called Kialoa, making outrigger-canoe paddles in Bend, Oregon. In 2003, Laird Hamilton asked him to create an extra-long one for use while stand-up paddling. Today, Kialoa manufactures some of the industry’s best SUP paddles.

WHERE TO PADDLE “I like to go to Punta Mita, a village about 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I stand-up paddle board off the beach at El Anclote, which is in front of Hotel Cinco [866-628-2693, cincopuntamita.com]. I like this spot because under the right conditions the outside break can be linked to the inside break, making for a very long ride. It is a very forgiving wave and a great place for beginners. In the absence of surf, exploring the bay by stand-up paddle board is almost as much fun.”

WHERE TO RENT GEAR OR GET A LESSON “Hotel Cinco would be a good spot to rent gear. If you want a lesson, my friend (and champion surfer) Gerry Lopez runs yoga/paddle/surf camps at the hotel.”

WHERE TO STAY “Hotel Cinco. I’d rather surf than drive, so I stay near the waves. There is also the budget-priced Hotel Meson de Mita [hotelmesondemita.com] that’s around $50 per night, as well as luxury resorts like the Four Seasons [fourseasons.com/puntamita].”

Shelly Swanger

Consider the area west of Panama City, Florida. (Sorry, boys, but you’ll need shorter paddles.)

> FLORIDA PANHANDLE

Jeff Archer first tried stand-up paddling in 2005 and quickly decided to make it his career. He’s a cofounder of Yolo Boards, one of the industry’s most successful equipment makers. He recommends several spots on the Florida Panhandle, just west of Panama City.

 WHERE TO PADDLE “Along the South Walton beaches, we’re blessed to have an array of paddling destinations for almost any water adventure, including the Gulf of Mexico, Choctawhatchee Bay, Morrison Springs, and our most prized ecosystem — rare coastal dune lakes. South Walton is the only place in North America (and one of only a few locations worldwide) to find these rare brackish-water lakes that open and close to the Gulf. My ideal day begins with a sunrise paddle on the Choctawhatchee Bay and ends with a fun surf session at Pompano Joe’s — a longtime locals’ spot — on the gulf at sunset.”

 WHERE TO RENT GEAR OR GET A LESSON “Sunset Beach Service [850-585-1536, sunsetbeachservice.com] offers board rentals spanning Navarre Beach to Seagrove Beach, and La Dolce Vita [850-650-0289, destinbeachservice.com] is a great source in the Destin area.”

WHERE TO STAY “Newman-Daily Resort Properties [800-225-7652, destinvacation.com] and Sandcastle Escapes [866-626-4208, sandcastleescapes.com] are great options for a vacation rental on or near the beach. Sea Oats Motel [850-837-6655, seaoatsrentals.com], Destin’s only beachfront motel, offers that nostalgic Florida experience right on the gulf.”

Hotel del Coronado

The Hotel Del Coronado has prime waterfront.

> SAN DIEGO

Brody Welte is a longtime waterman, a certified personal trainer, and the founder of Stand Up Fitness, a San Diego business that teaches people to incorporate stand-up paddling into a full-body workout. He touts his adopted hometown as one of the best paddling hot spots in the mainland United States.

WHERE TO PADDLE “San Diego has some of the best water to paddle in California. There are three main flat-water spots: San Diego Bay, Mission Bay, and Carlsbad Lagoon — and then, obviously, you have the open Pacific Ocean. San Diego Bay is my favorite for flat water. You can paddle around Coronado and have great views of downtown San Diego. LaJolla Cove is a great place to paddle out in the ocean. The shoreline is beautiful, and there is a lot to see in the water.”

WHERE TO RENT GEAR OR GET A LESSON “The city of Coronado just opened a boathouse on Glorietta Bay that offers lessons and rentals. It’s close to downtown and has beautiful calm water to learn in.” 

WHERE TO STAY “The historic Hotel Del Coronado [800-468-3533, hoteldel.com], one of the most iconic hotels in California, is located right on the water.”

BY THE NUMBERS

> Your Height + 8’’

How tall a stand-up paddle should be

Source: REI

> 113,431,943

Number of valid US passports in circulation in 2012

> 55,169, 571

Number in 2002

Source: US Department of State

Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and frequent travel writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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