Last Monday morning, I was splashed by a mullet when it leapt at least five feet out of the water in a crazy attempt to fly. I cruised alongside a guy who casually reached down and picked up a Frisbee-sized jellyfish. I stood within four inches of the long, thin beak of a pelican resting on a buoy; it looked at me and yawned. You get a wondrous workout of wind, water and wildlife when you push off into Newport Bay. On a recent day, after lessons from Jim Smiley of Paddle Power, I headed around Balboa Island in sit-down kayaks that let you paddle and pedal, then cruised along on trendy stand-up paddle boards, balancing on two feet like a Venice gondolier. From your shoulders down to the soles of your gripping feet, these innovative paddle craft deliver an all-body, all-sensory workout you won't soon forget.
-- Roy M. Wallack
Work out a limb, any limb
Hobie Mirage Revolution: Speedy, 13-foot, 5-inch performance kayak with pedals that drive two underwater fins that work like a penguin's flippers.
Likes: Exhilarating fun. No learning curve. Faster than a regular paddled kayak. Seems effortless (until you climb out and feel the burn in your thighs and butt). Anyone of any age or skill level can push the pedals, which move back and forth (not circularly, like on a bike). Steering is done by a small left-side lever. Otherwise, hands are free. You can also paddle it like a normal kayak (the paddle is attached to the side) or do both at once -- a tremendous workout. There are many convenient design features: pop-off wheels that neatly stow behind the seat, water bottle holders, a hole for a sail mast.
Price: $1,649. (800) 462-4349; www.hobiecat.com.
Got a need for speed?
C4 Holoholo SUP: Twelve-foot-long, 27-inch-wide touring stand-up paddle board; it's designed for speed in a calm bay or coastal waters, but it can also handle surf.
Likes: Very stable and fast. Its 5-inch-plus thickness keeps water from lapping over the edges. Seems like a good all-around board for beginners and veterans. As a first-time stand-upper, I was shaky initially but got confident and began pushing it hard in about 20 minutes. Ridges on the deck's foam pad allowed my feet to grip easily -- no grip fatigue as with flatter, less tactile foam decking. A special long paddle ($130 to $200) must be purchased separately.
Dislikes: Does not include an easy carrying device.
Price: $1,867. (808) 739-2837; www.c4waterman.com.
See what swims beneath
Ocean Kayak Peekaboo: Stable, wide, casual-use, 11-foot, 11-inch family kayak with a 2-foot-long polycarbonate window in the floor, for looking at coral and sea creatures.
Likes: It works. Looking through the window on a sunny day is like being in a moving aquarium. Room onboard for two kids, one on the bow, the other in a rear 3 1/2 -foot-long storage well. The window is easy to replace if damaged; just loosen Phillips-head screws. Great for exploring local snorkeling spots, such as Laguna, Palos Verdes and Catalina. Thirty-four inches wide.
Dislikes: A bit slow (but what do you expect? It's made for looking at things).
Price: $899. (800) 852-9257; www.oceankayak.com.
Pump it up and take the plunge
ULI inflatable stand-up paddle board: 11-foot-long, 29-inch-wide board that rolls up into a backpack.
Likes: Great for beginners and travelers. Soft, slightly flexing surface makes balancing easy. Hand pump and gauge included. No possibility of dings and other damage. Rigid enough to hold steady in waves.
Dislikes: The flexing makes it slower through the water than a fiberglass board.
Price: $1,349. (858) 270-1342; www.uliboards.com.
Irvine-based fitness writer Roy M. Wallack is the coauthor of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100."