We live along the Susquehanna West Branch in northern PA (literally, our property has over a quarter mile of river bank)and we canoe and kayak it and many surrounding streams and lakes often. I've also kayaked regularly over the years in upstate New York and Ontario, so I think I'm familiar with your destinations. I've owned 9 different kayaks and rented or borrowed at least a dozen more over the years, as has my boyfriend, so I can offer some comparitive experience. We're not experts or serious adventurers, and despite experience with more serious whitewater in our younger days, we now prefer flat water, mostly casual day touring, or whitewater limited to Class 1 or 2.
After much trial and error, we've both discovered that we have the same favorite all around boat model, the Venture Easky 15. In fact, we've sold off several of the other kayaks we owned because we just prefer to use these for most of our trips. These are in your price range and you might want to include them your list of kayaks to try out in the Spring.
Easkys come in an LV (low volume) model that would fit your wife and a standard model that would fit you. A couple advantages these have over some similar models is that they are a bit lighter than other 14 to 16 foot boats. The 15' size is long enough to be fast in the flats but flexible in smaller streams. These track like an arrow but turn easily. They are great boats in rough open water and waves, like you would find in Lake Ontario or Lake George, if you get up that way. They are even safe for coastal sea paddling (once you have the skills and equipment). Really fun and effortless to handle, solid (not squirrelly) for a beginner but will enable the development of more advanced skills due to the good secondary stability of the hard-chined hull. It will edge better than any of the boats you have mentioned so far.
Good looking and nicely finished boats too, made in Great Britain. The seat and cockpit outfitting, including thigh hooks, are well designed and easy to adjust. My beau has back troubles in most kayaks but he is completely comfortable all day in the Easky. You mentioned liking a snug fit and you will get that with this boat. Venture is a division of P & H Kayaks, a Brit firm that has long made higher end composite sea kayaks, and they have brought some of their design standards into these more economical plastic boats.
If you can get up to the southern 'Dacks in the Spring, Lake George Kayak has a rental livery and dock right on the shore where you can test paddle a range of models and they have typically had the Easkys as one of those options (though last time I was there in the summer they still had older Easkys that did not have the improved seat they changed over to in 2009).
I agree with others recommendations that you need to try a range of boats before you buy -- kayaks are like shoes and some designs just fit you right and some don't. But keep these in mind, as well as the new Islay model that Venture came out with this year. Great bang for the buck in a plastic touring kayak that is a little sportier than most in its class.
Canoe / Kayak Anchors
The Kayak Wing
Touring Kayak Paddles
|Table of Contents|