"In walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas a canoe [can] be paddled or sailed, or hauled, or carried over land or water". So wrote pioneering paddler John "Rob Roy" MacGregor in his 1866 book A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, summing up the early attraction of canoe adventures.
MacGregor, a barrister who discovered canoeing on a trip to North America, is credited with popularising the sport across Europe, and with developing the idea of sailing canoes, which had more space for equipment and enabled longer journeys to be made. In MacGregor's case these included navigations of the Rhine, Danube and Seine rivers, and a jaunt through the Suez Canal.
The collections at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Cornwall (01326 313 388; nmmc.co.uk) include an original "Rob Roy" canoe from 1869, though it's not currently on display. What is – until September when it will be repatriated to Canada – is one of the world's oldest birch bark canoes. Recently found resting in a barn on a Cornish estate, the canoe is thought to be 250 years old, having been brought to the UK by a local soldier who fought in the American War of Independence.An even older canoe, a 10,000-year-old dugout, will take pride of place at the Drents Museum (00 31 592 377 773; drentsmuseum.nl) in Assen, Netherlands when it re-opens this autumn.
Before you explore the sport rather than its history, get the terminology right. The word "canoe" derives from the Carib word "canoa" or "cenu" and means an open vessel – sometimes termed a "Canadian" canoe. Kayak is an Inuit word, meaning dugout, even though modern-day kayaks are enclosed. To sum up: canoes are larger, open-topped and powered by a single-ended paddle while kayaks are smaller, closed and powered by a double-ended paddle.
Kayaking and canoeing trips vary from calm paddling on lakes and canals to racing down white water or powering through the waves on open water. While many holidays are open to complete beginners, it can really pay to practise before you go. The British Canoe Union (BCU) is the main point of contact for the sport in the UK (0845 370 9500; bcu.org.uk). An umbrella organisation for Canoe England, Canoe Wales, the Canoe Association of Northern Ireland and the Scottish Canoe Association, the BCU is the place to start if you want to find a club or centre near your home where you can get to grips with this exciting passtime.
Once you're ready to head off onto the water, one of the first choices you'll make is whether to opt for a trip by kayak or by canoe. Despite the obvious differences between the two, both can be used for a wide range of trips. Open canoes, however, hold more equipment so are better for longer touring trips; kayaks, being lighter, nippier and sealed, are well suited for short ventures into choppier waters.
North America remains fantastic territory for open canoes, but there are plenty of places to have a go closer to home. Wilderness Scotland (0131 625 6635; wildernessscotland.com) runs three-night descents of the River Spey in open canoes. Costing from £445 per person, these include equipment, camping, meals, guiding and transport from and to Aviemore train station.
For a quick taster of canoeing to see if it is for you, several operators in the UK hire out open canoes by the half-day, including Wye Valley Canoes (01497 847213; wyevalleycanoes.co.uk) situated just outside Hay-on-Wye in Powys, Wales. Here, two to three-hour trips meandering gently downstream cost just £20 per person, including all the equipment and pick-up by minibus at an agreed finish point.
An ocean wave
Sea kayaking can be as calm as river or lake kayaking but often it's a bit more challenging, and definitely warrants some pre-trip instruction.
The BCU's sea touring committee is a good source of information on local clubs and courses ( seakayaking.org.uk).
If you'd rather learn on holiday, Ridgway Adventure (01971 521006; ridgway-adventure.co.uk) in Scotland's northwest Highlands, runs excellent kayaking trips, from weekend trips for adults (from £355 per person for three nights) to longer family trips that involve time spent learning to kayak, as well as abseiling, raft building and other outdoor pursuits (from £480 per child and £580 per adult, for six nights). Both include full-board accommodation, equipment and instruction.
Regular sea kayakers might prefer to look to Northern Ireland, where the new North Coast Canoe Trail will be launching next month. Stretching from Magilligan to Waterfoot, past highlights such as the Giant's Causeway, it's set to be a great DIY trail for paddlers with existing sea kayaking experience ( canoeni.com).
Borea Adventures (00 354 869 7557; boreaadventures.com) is launching new "Hot Pools" kayaking trips in Iceland this year. Five-day trips explore the dramatic shores of the westfjords region, with evenings spent relaxing in natural hot pools. Trips cost from £805 per person for departures in July and August, including tents, food, equipment and guiding but not flights.
If you'd rather kayak in sunnier climes, Original Travel (020-7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk) offers the chance to paddle along Croatia's lovely Dalmatian Coast. Four-night trips cost from £798 per person, including accommodation, equipment, transfers and flights. Further south, there's Turkey's turquoise coast. Join one of the sea kayaking day trips offered by Bougainville Travel (00 90 242 836 3737; bt-turkey.com), which involve paddling over ancient ruins submerged beneath the water around Kekova island, east of Kas. These cost from €30 per person, including guiding, equipment and transport from Kas or Kalkan.
Canoeing is a quiet, carbon-friendly way of getting around. Some proponents also believe that by being close to the water but tucked inside a craft, canoeists trick surrounding wildlife into believing they're "one of them", allowing them to get closer to birds and animals than they otherwise would.
Jurassic Kayak Tours (01305 835301; jurassic-kayaking.com) in Dorset runs day trips around the Jurassic Coast that take nature-loving paddlers into caves and through arches that couldn't be accessed by bigger boats. The trips, which often go beneath the rock arch of Durdle Door, cost £50 per person for three hours. In neighbouring Devon, the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust (01803 606035; countryside-trust.org.uk) is running one-day ranger-led "Canoe the Coves" trips round the English Riviera Geopark this summer. Aimed at introducing visitors (over-12s only) to wildlife and coastal geology, the trips take place on 2 June, 22 July and 10 August and cost £45 per person.
Meanwhile Atlantic Sea Kayaking (00 353 282 1058; atlanticseakayaking.com) in West Cork is known for night tours, where kayakers paddle over shimmering puffs of phosphorescence in an inland lake. They also offer seaweed foraging trips and nature safaris. One of its most popular trips at this time of year is a special dawn chorus tour taking kayakers out to enjoy birdsong before breakfast (€45 per person.)
Sweden (above) is great territory for nature-based trips. Nature Travels (01929 463774; naturetravels.co.uk) runs a wide range of trips, from one-day sea kayaking in the Stockholm archipelago (£98 per person) to seven-day self-guided kayaking and wild camping trips in the country's High Coast (from £402 per person, including transfers and kayaks but not camping equipment or flights) and two-nighters that take in the Koster Archipelago, Sweden's first national marine park in 2009 (from £383 per person, including everything except flights).
Finally, several trips for families include kayaking as part of a week's package and are a great introduction to paddling. In France, Ardèche Adventures (020-8123 0076; ardecheadventures.com) offers one-week "Family Adventures" costing £425 per adult and £325 per child, including kayaking through the Ardèche gorge. In July and August, the holidays include five days of activities, with instruction and equipment, but not transport or accommodation; the latter can be booked for an additional fee.
Paddling up an appetite
Fancy canoeing, rather than singing, for your supper? In Devon, Wild Wise (01803 868269; wildwise.co.uk) is running "Wild Foods by Canoe" foraging day trips in April and September, for £65 per person. Starting and ending in Totnes, the trips will explore some of the more inaccessible places to find local, seasonal plants and teach participants different ways to prepare and cook them. If you're new to the game and want to try it out before buying kit, various operators offer specialist day trips. These include Jersey Kayak Adventures (07797 853033; jerseykayakadventures.co.uk) whose kayak fishing trips (below) cost £45 per person, including all the equipment.
Canoeing may be associated with country, but it's also a great way to do some urban sightseeing. From the water you get a different perspective, and it's a relaxing way to take in the sights. Some of the best include Kajak Ole (00 45 40 50 40 06; kajakole.com) in Copenhagen, which offers 90-minute trips from DK245 (£28) per person; Thames River Adventures (020-8361 3009; thamesriveradventures.co.uk), which does hour-long trips from £49.99 per person; and Venice Kayak (00 39 346 477 1327; venicekayak.com), which runs full-day tours from €120.