Steve Fisher scouts the Zambezi
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Kayaking

11 beautiful kayaking trips that will change your life

There are few better ways to see the world than by kayak. Ten-time world champion Claire O'Hara reveals the best places to paddle.
Written by Tom Ward
7 min readPublished on
Some people like the idea of a relaxing, beach-resort holiday abroad. Ten-time kayak world champion Claire O'Hara, however, prefers to take her sport with her when she heads overseas. “Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to travel all around the world to the best kayaking locations. As an elite athlete these locations help me train and compete, but most importantly they're such inspiring places, with some of the best white water in the world."
For a paddler, these are the ultimate trips. In no particular order, here are her favourite kayaking destinations;

1. The French Alps

No matter your level, the French Alps are a beautiful playground for kayakers. Starting with the Ardèche for beginners or the bigger volume of the Sunshine Run on the Durance for an intermediate/advanced trip, you can get used to the style and size of the rivers in the region before progressing in a direction that suits your style. For the more advanced paddlers, the French Alps are the perfect warm-up before advancing to the more challenging waters of the Austrian, Swiss and Italian Alps. With stunning mountains, clean, clear water, and croissants for breakfast, the Alps are an awesome adventure not far from home. To make it a holiday you’ll really remember, stay in the Moulin de Montabonnel – a rustic B’n’B in the stunning Devesset region of Ardeche.

2. Slovenia

Kayakers paddle into the Soča river in Slovenia.
The Soča: what could be better!?
If you’re up for boosting your Instagram game and getting a good workout, head to the Soča river in Slovenia for the clearest waters in the world. There’s only really one river to paddle, but it's as beautiful as it is sprawling. The Soča has several sections, each of varying difficulty, which is why it's chosen as one of the main destinations for club trips. The Kompas Hotel Bled provides affordable but nice rooms close to the river and you can always try the guided Soča River Experience when you need a break from going it alone. Plus, there's even an amazing ice cream shop in the small town. What more do you need?

3. Ottawa

If you’re after big water, huge rapids and amazing waves, then head to Canada and the Ottawa River. Here you'll find some of the safest big water in the world. Two different channels offer a range of rapids to suit and entertain everyone, from beginners to the elite. In the spring, this becomes the base for some of the world’s top paddlers as they search out the big waves during snow-melt season. During the summer months it becomes a bubbling community with a mixture of all ages and abilities taking to the warm water to surf and paddle some amazing rapids and waves. It’s also home to many major freestyle and white water competitions every year – including the King of Clubs competition. Stay at the Novotel, Ottawa, for ease and comfort.

4. Nepal

The adventure paradise of the Himalayas, Nepal is one of the most amazing kayaking holiday destinations I've ever visited. The scenery, culture, people and rivers make Nepal a truly magical place. Whether you’re paddling the Upper Seti half day run out of Pokhara, or heading on one of the multi-day expeditions in the Everest region, there's so much country to explore and paddling to be done. Plus, every year the Nepalese Rafting Association host a White Water Festival, which is a great place to meet other paddlers and start a trip. For an authentic experience, stay at the Sampada Inn.

5. New Zealand

Kayakers on the River Cluth in New Zealand.
Kayaking the Cluth
Hidden away in the furthest part of the planet is the adventure paradise of New Zealand. Whether you’re looking for grade 2 or grade 5+ kayaking, New Zealand has everything. The North Island has a real rainforest feel, with rivers cutting their way through tree-lined gorges. The South Island is a stark contrast, with Alpine mountains, rolling hills and valley after valley filled with classic kayaking runs. Unlike Europe, New Zealand's population is very small and as such the country is still very open and under-developed, so some of your kayaking adventures will see you hiking into the middle of nowhere, or even flying in on helicopters. Kaikoura – a coastal town on the South Island replete with dolphins and whales – comes particularly recommended, as does the Albatross Backpacker’s Inn.

6. Norway

Kayaking in whitewater at Stuttgangsfassen Sjoa in Norway.
Stuttgangsfassen Sjoa, Norway
Famous for its big water and technical drops, Norway is far from just a kayaking destination for the elite. With stunning coastal areas, fantastic fjords, and some of the best rivers in the world, it has something for kayakers of every level. That said, it is the only country with the grading X (a step above grade 6 – literally no chance ever of surviving these rapids and drops). Read the guide books carefully and choose your runs – and if in doubt, portage (carry your craft around obstacles) to be sure. Start with the West Fjord, running out of Oslo, and take it from there, making sure to stop off at the coastal town of Helgeland and Hidra Island.

7. Uganda

Sadat Kawawa rides the White Nile rapids in a kayak.
The White Nile has some of the hardest rapids in the world
The White Nile has become famous over the last decade or so for its incredible big water and famous surf waves. Warm water, weather, amazing communities and paddling – this is truly a cultural paddling holiday adventure. Unfortunately, two large dams are set to flood it later this year. Get in before then and stay at the idyllic Hairy Lemon, a kayaking resort campsite on an island in the middle of the river. You don't have to be the world's best to come to the White Nile, many a kayaker has learnt to paddle on the lakes and rapids of this iconic run. Get in quick.

8. Zambezi

Steve Fisher scouts the Zambezi
Steve Fisher scouts the Zambezi
One of the 7 Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls marks the boundary between the upper and middle sections of the Zambezi river, famous for its big volume white water and numbered rapids and waves. Featured in almost every major kayaking video, the rapids on this African river have rightly made a name for themselves. The water is predominantly Grade 3 – 4+ with a few exceptions. Grab yourself a local guide and go explore what this incredible gorge has to offer. Stay at the Islands of Siankaba on the Zambian side of the falls for a luxury experience that’s right on the water.

9. Chile

Chile is famous for kayaking. Hands down, it has everything a kayaker could possibly want, from huge waterfalls and stunning bright blue rapids, to the Futaleufu – one of the coolest-named rivers you’ll ever run. Whether you’re a hardcore creek boater looking for an epic photo, or a recreational paddler looking for beautiful crystal blue water, Chile has something for everyone. Set up base in Pucon and you have easy accessible class 3-4 runs, or you can even go further afield and explore Patagonia. The Hotel Casa Solaria makes for a sunny start to your trip.

10. USA

Rafting down the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
The grandest canyon of them all
For several years I wondered why I couldn't convince my American paddling friends to come explore the rivers of Europe and the UK. Then I started exploring the USA and realised that they already have almost every style of paddling possible – from the epic creeks and freestyle features in Colorado, to the big volume rapids and famous classic runs of West Virginia, to the super steep crazy gnar of California, and the continuous big volume of the Payette and the Middle Salmon. The USA is an awesome kayaking holiday destination. Two of my stand-out multi-day paddling adventures have to be the Grand Canyon of the Colorado (19 days – 280+miles) and the Main Salmon River (6 days – 100 miles). If you’re opting to start at the latter, the Salmon River Motel is a low-key way to set up camp.

11. Lanzarote

Fancy something a little different? Then jump on a plane to the tiny island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. Pack your play boat or surf kayak and hit the beaches for a long weekend. Or spend a full week surfing on some of the most stunning and friendly beaches in the Atlantic. Stay in a beautiful holiday resort hotel, book a room near a pool, treat yourself to some luxury as you eat out and enjoy this cross between package holiday and kayaking adventure. Head straight to Playa Blanca for a relaxed sea kayaking excursion to the nearby Playa Papagayo. Not the most challenging of trips, but a great way to kick back and get to grips with the sport!