Hobie Mirage Outfitter
Best For: Beginners, or anyone who wants to give their arms a rest.
Why It's Cool: It's a pedal boat for grown-ups! Sure, you can paddle it just like any sit-on-top kayakit's stable and predictablebut what distinguishes the tandem Outfitter is its unique hands-free propulsion. Dubbed the MirageDrive, the system slides into the hull in seconds, and your pedaling motion powers a pair of underwater flippers. You steer with a tiny joystick that controls the rudder. It's so simple that my inexperienced parents were cruising around North Carolina's Banks Channel right away. The Outfitter is designed as a tandem but can be paddled solo, and thanks to its 34-inch beam, even beginners will have no problem staying upright.
Before You Buy: The MirageDrive needs water at least 12 inches deep, so landing can be tricky. And it's heavy for a 12-footer. 12'8" x 34", 72 lbs, $2,199; hobiecat.com
Mad River Synergy 12
Best For: Paddlers who want a stable flatwater cruiser with enough storage for weekend kayak-camping trips.
Why It's Cool: The Synergy is among the best of a new breed of kayak/canoe hybrids that deliver ultimate versatility. With its high sides and low seat, you'll feel like you're sitting in a bathtubbut not like you're paddling one. The 12-footer I tested cut through windblown whitecaps and tracked well, thanks to a sleek kayaklike hull. And you get the stability and ample cargo capacity you'd expect from a canoe. Mad River offers a 14-foot model with an optional rudder, but unless you plan on doing gear-heavy, long-distance trips, choose the more maneuverable 12-footer.
Before You Buy: Check your stroke. The grab handles protrude a bit from the hull, so some paddlers may scrape their knuckles. 12' x 30.8", 60 lbs, $750; mad-rivercanoe.com
Native Watercraft Magic 12
Best For: Anyone who wants an all-purpose craft that converts to a specialist fishing kayak.
Why It's Cool: A "plug-and-play" system of metal rails and recesses in the hull lets you customize the Magic 12 with fishing accessoriesrod holders, a dashboard for a GPS and fish finder, cup holders, tackle boxes, coolerswithout drilling any holes. At 30 inches wide, it's exceedingly stable, so you can focus on roping in the trout and bonefish rather than staying upright. Remove the angler system and the Magic quickly converts back into an everyday craft that's surprisingly quick and maneuverable. In either mode, you get a cushy folding seatthink mesh beach chair mounted on a kayakthat maximizes airflow, eliminating the sticky-back syndrome caused by most high-back seats.
Before You Buy: If you weigh more than 200 pounds, get the 14.5-foot model, due out this summer. 12'1" x 30", 56 lbs, $750; native-watercraft.net
Best For: Boaters who want a portable kayak that packs small enough to check on a bush plane or store in a closet.
Why It's Cool: It paddles better than any inflatable I've ever tried. I was skeptical when I pulled the Java out of its duffel and started popping together the aluminum-and-magnesium frame, but once I launched it in the Intracoastal Waterway near my home in North Carolina, it was clear this is no portable pig. It's the lightest and longest kayak here, which helps boost speed. And though the wind blew me sideways at first, the Java tracked well as soon as I dropped the skeg. Don't doubt the durability of its welded urethane hull. I paddled the Java across scalpel-sharp oyster beds, but the hull remained unscathed and airtight.
Before You Buy: Feathercraft claims the Java takes ten minutes to assemble, but expect to spend about twice that. 15'4" x 28", 33 lbs, $1,966; feathercraft.com