When the microphone plunges into the Pacific, somewhere in the channel between Maui and Lanai, the whole boatload of us gasp in unison. About 30 tourists, smartphones in hand, had been busy scanning the water's surface for another quick glimpse of a tail or a burst of a spout from one of the thousands of Alaska humpback whales in these waters. Like us, these giants decided to escape the cold, travelling a long way south to make Hawaii their temporary home.
"I'm going to stop talking for a second and let the whales take over," says Mark, the marine biologist on board. With the flip of the mic, whale song fills the air, blasting from the ship's speakers: It's a horror-movie theme song and also the most hauntingly romantic thing I've ever heard.
Mark tells me that the serenade sounds like a quartet of male humpbacks that were likely right under our boat – and the clearest he's heard in years. No one really knows why humpbacks make these songs – it's not for mating or any other practical reason. There is simply no scientific explanation, which makes it all the more beautiful. (I tell Mark: If I could sing like that, I wouldn't need a reason, either.)
"That was so unexpected," my mom says finally, as we approach the dock.
That, as it turns out, would be the undercurrent of our Hawaiian adventure. I have been to enough tropical destinations – Cuba, Belize, the Caymans, St. Lucia twice – that I foolishly think I know what to expect with Hawaii. Pina coladas, turquoise water, sun, sand. Reprieve.
But the unexpected is found by simply looking a little deeper, such as whales singing beneath our boat, just out of sight: Scratch the surface of Hawaii and you'll find islands with distinct, dramatic offerings.
Hawaii was never an option when I lived in Toronto – Caribbean islands were a short three-hour jaunt away. But when I moved to Vancouver last fall, and the city began to drown in a record two-month rainfall, followed by record snowfall, followed by the longest drought of sunlight since the 1950s, Hawaii was all anyone on the West Coast could talk about.
Of course, any island near the equator with palm trees and tropical breezes offering an escape from my existence of cruel, cold Canadian dog walking has to be nice. But Hawaii has a reputation for being overly touristy, with little local flare and extraordinary price-tags for even simple things.
"Maui is the most special," my neighbour says over dinner. "It's the only place we go." My colleague feels exactly the opposite: "Kauai is the only place we've been going for a decade or more. They can't build higher than the tallest palm tree."
And so, I convince my boyfriend to meet my parents and me in Maui – and then miraculously arrange another lengthy stay in Kauai, for just the two of us.
In Maui, the island lives up to its reputation for ungodly prices: I can't stop making jokes with cashiers: Is that 10 or 14 karat? Will it tuck me in at night? A $10 pineapple, $45 bargain breakfast buffets, $34 sunscreen. All mediocre, none of them gold.
But what the island charges for simply being there, it makes up for in droves with surprise finds – such as on the the road to Hana, the fabled stomach-testing drive – 620 hairpin turns, 54 one-way bridges.
At the last minute, we find an offer we can't turn down: a helicopter ride to Hana, and a guided drive back. For the price of around a dozen bottles of sunscreen, we scoop it up (because, as someone who white-knuckled a stranger's ginger chews, I can attest you don't need to do that drive twice).
The helicopter ride is – as predicted – stunning. We soar over turquoise waters, black-sand beaches, waterfalls that are literally out of a movie (Jurassic Park).
But I lose my breath on the drive back when we pull over for a bathroom break. Did I mention the 620 turns?
Sure, it was just a tree – but it was a work of art. Touching it, looking up, way up – about 200 feet up – I am mesmerized by the vivid orange and blue and purple and green watercolour strokes on its smooth bark, like it had been sanded down and painted by some random rogue Monet-inspired tourist.
But this isn't a fluke sighting: There's a forest of these masterpieces – and several forests of them along our drive. The Eucalyptus deglupta sheds its bark at different times, our driver Gary (who would make a killer Jeopardy contestant) tells me. Each time it does, the fresh spot reveals a bright green patch – then turns every shade of the rainbow as it matures.
I hate flowers, and I kill houseplants. I don't go to church. But these trees awaken an eco-admiration and, in that moment, a belief that there is a higher power, and she is a hell of an artist. Leave it to Hawaii to reveal the most beautiful thing I've ever seen on an impromptu bathroom stop.
Even the boring drives are remarkable. In the backseat of an Uber is where we find modern Hawaiian culture: The drivers, all 12 of them we had in a week, have called Hawaii home for years. These aren't the type of Americans I'm used to encountering on travels: Hawaiian expats speak sloooowly, all have ponytails, all tell incredible stories – some of impromptu performances with Willie Nelson at the local beach bar, some of closeup encounters with manatee and sea turtle, some simply wax poetic about the pull of the moon for the drive.
In Kauai, the surprises don't quit.
It is, as I was told, incredibly lush. It rains a lot here – although luckily not during our visit – and everywhere is green. Maui, though spectacular, still feels like the United States on a beautiful beach; Kauai is somewhere else entirely.
You would not expect to find a canyon here, let alone something nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, 3,600-feet deep and formed five million years ago by the volcano that created this island.
But this is Hawaii and, by now, we should be used to it.
Within an hour of landing on Kauai, we had driven through thousand-year-old forests and gawked at soaring mountain skyscapes. We check into our Poipu hotel, on the island's southern tip, and go on a pre-dinner walk along the golden beach.
A few metres ahead of us, is a grey, unmoving blob. It's a 300-pound endangered monk seal.
Because of course it is.
She's soaking in the last minutes of her snooze before sundown, before she'll roll into the ocean to begin her night-shift, hunting for meals until sunrise.
For our feasts, the meals are spectacular – as expected, in high-end hotels (Go to Red Salt in Poipu, and you'll never look at seafood the same). But true to the theme, the best meal is one we don't plan for: at a restaurant in a strip mall, between a pet store and a real estate office. I can still taste the miso butterfish at J02 – the strangest, most nondescript restaurant name ever.
On our last day, I meet a Minnesota native on the beach who visited this island with her two young kids a decade ago. "So you're back, after 10 years? How lovely," I say.
"No, we just didn't go home, really. We had to live here," she says, and then, after noticing my jaw on the sand, adds: "I know that sounds crazy, on the surface."
And it does – on the surface. But the real Hawaiian gems lie just beneath, and digging a little deeper, I totally get it.
If you go
Where to stay:
In Maui, The Westin Ka'anapali Ocean Resort Villas are more like a city unto itself with several pools, a kid zone, restaurants and grocery store, all steps from the ocean. Save on the price of touristy food by making your meals with kitchens in every unit (but do splurge on dinner at the resort's swanky Pulehu restaurant at least once.) Rooms start at $409 (all prices U.S.); westinkaanapali.com
In Kauai, the Ko'a Kea is located the island's southern tip of Poipu, the sunniest, driest area on the island – this is where you want to be. The quiet, mainly-adult boutique hotel is sleek without being pretentious. The oceanfront room will not disappoint and the hotel's Red Salt restaurant is worth a visit – or five. Bonus: It's steps away from some of the best snorkelling in the area; you're bound to come face to face with a sea turtle and sunbathe with a seal. Rooms start at $375; koakea.com
What to do:
The Pacific Whale Foundation in Lahaina offers whale watching (between December and May) at a great price – with a marine biologist on board. The organization is a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of whales – so it's worth the price of admission. $39, pacificwhale.org
The Hana Sky Trek, from Temptation Tours, is a six-hour excursion offering a helicopter tour of Maui from the air, a picnic lunch on a black sand beach and a thankfully one-way guided trip in a limo van to – or from – Hana. It's spectacular, in every sense. $342, temptationtours.com
In Kauai, rent a car – we didn't regret our Jeep 4x4. Driving around the entire island can be done in two-ish hours, but there is plenty to see. Set out early on a sunny day to see the Waimea Canyon on the island's west side and don't stop driving until the end of the road at the Kalalau Lookout to take in the view of the Napali coast. On another day, cruise to the quaint oceanside towns of Princeville and Hanalei on the island's (rainier, but still stunning) north side.