Everybody knows someone who's made the trek to Kauai, but with its pristine beaches, sprawling canyons and epic waterfalls, perhaps that someone should be you.

MORE KAUAI: Best Food | Where to Stay | Waimea CanyonGrowing up in Alberta, the spring break pilgrimage to Maui was every bit as ingrained as the road to Santiago de Compostela is for Spaniards. Not for me, mind you. My parents, haunted by some never-spoken-of slight on a newlywed trip, refused to go back; I was left to gaze at the “Hang Loose ’84” half-shirts with unrequited envy. And though I’d never been there, I knew all about Mama’s Fish House and the twisty road to Hana (59 bridges! 620 curves!). I knew the subtle differences between staying at Kapalua, Kaanapali and, later on, Wailea. And while there was once a neighbourhood kid who had been to the Big Island (his family returned to Maui the following year), I had never met anyone who had been to Kauai. Part of this was logistical: you could fly directly into Maui from Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary. Part was legend: more than once I was told that Kauai was the rainiest place in the entire world. But most of it was, I expect, good old-fashioned crowd following: the Dushinskis are going to Maui, and so are we.Couple paddling towards Bali Hai All of which combined for that rarest of Hawaiian tourist experiences as I stepped off the (now direct) flight on the tarmac in Lihue: not knowing what to expect. The open-air airport, the car rental counter, the scared-straight chat about nullified insurance should I dare take the car off designated highways—all of it could have been in Maui. But the differences appeared, fast. My family and I were aiming to quickly zip to the old sugar town of Waimea on the island’s southwest coast, but, by 8 p.m., darkness had descended. That the road was punctuated by a few hazily lit one-road towns seemingly staged for a 1940s movie made the island seem all the more foreign. We had booked an old plantation cottage near the beach and as we entered the front room we found it deserted, ditto the neighbouring restaurant—and it wasn’t yet 9 p.m.  When we finally located someone, he politely pointed us toward a glow in the darkness and set us on our way with nary a lei.KauaiRainbow We awoke the next morning to another oddity—silence. My young daughter and I decided to go for a stroll on the black-sand beach and while the churning surf looked a little dicey for swimming, we nonetheless had the entire two-mile stretch of beach to ourselves on the first week of spring break, an event on par with spotting a yeti in Nepal. Unbeknownst to us, by starting in sleepy Waimea we had stepped out of the defining “tension” that every Kauai visitor faces: do you opt for the resort-heavy Poipu with its constant sun and perfect beaches, or chance it and head to superlatively beautiful Princeville with its soaring lush cliffs and the consistent rain that creates such lushness? In truth, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave Waimea. We’d developed a pace so languid that the act of going for lunch seemed to be sufficient exertion for an entire day. A small grocery nearby served heaps of fresh poke for next to nothing; at night, the circa-1938 movie theatre showed first-run movies. But by night two, the prospect of again watching Mark Wahlberg play a determined army ranger was enough motivation to pack up and head east to Poipu.Spouting Horn near Poipu, Kauai Of all of Kauai, Poipu is the most relatable to the first- timer. There’s a Grand Hyatt, a Marriott and a Sheraton, and condos and timeshares all fringed by a series of white-sand beaches. There’s even a Whaler’s General Store, a Merriman’s and a Roy’s to make the Maui habitué feel perfectly at home.But it doesn’t take long for differences to present themselves. In Kaanapali or Wailea, visitors stroll the few steps to a beach in front of their hotels; in Poipu, it’s not uncommon to hike or drive to a different beach each day. Some are great for surfing, some for sunning and some for solitude. And starting each day with a new destination had spinoffs—one day I kept driving and found myself at the McBryde National Botanical Garden and enjoyed myself more than I ever have in a garden (and that includes the Olive Garden). One day I came across a Mexican grocery store that sold enormous breakfast burritos for the cost of a kid’s hot chocolate at any of the big resorts. Again I fell into that daily reverie that marks the perfectly relaxed vacation, but you’re not allowed to quit a taste test halfway through, no matter how much you like the first choice. I rallied the troops and headed north to Hanalei Bay.Vivid Kauai sunsetI suppose I’d saved the north island for last, as my expectations were pretty high. Those who had been there spoke of it in a mellow-cadenced, revelatory tone, and even the residents of Poipu said you had to visit (but warned us to pack an umbrella).Save for some brief Lihue traffic, the trip north is surprisingly easy. You pass through the former tourist hub of Wailua, the local town of Kapa’a, and by the time you roll into Princeville, the change from semi-desert to the verdant green of the north has been so gradual you hardly notice it, until you notice it. As we turned into the long drive into the Princeville resort, I was struck by how familiar it felt, not to the rest of the island but to the golf resort communities of South Carolina where I spent my youthful vacations when my pals were in Maui. I knew the low-slung condos lining the fairways of golf courses, and the result, on this heretofore trailblazing journey, was a tad deflating.At the end of the road sits the St. Regis hotel and, in my experience, deflation is a tough emotion to maintain at a St. Regis (at least until it comes time to pay the bill). And no sooner had we strolled through the towering lobby than I realized we were far, far away from South Carolina: the entire expanse of Hanalei Bay plays itself out from the hotel’s cliffside perch. Surfers hitting offshore breaks, green cliffs falling into the sea—and the whole scene is anchored by the most perfect crescent of sand I could imagine. We set about snorkelling just off the beach with only a handful of other visitors.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Hanalei Bay is part hippie retreat, part millionaire’s playground, and all awesome. Photo by Christian Arballo.Come nighttime, the place reverts to a slightly South Carolinian form with a series of pricey touristy restaurants nestled in a strip mall near the resort’s entrance, so we decided to hop back in our car and roll down the hill to the town of Hanalei, and thereupon happened upon perfection—a place that could be the love child of a Hollywood set designer, an MIT specialist in human desire and Ralph Lauren. Owen Wilson should be the mayor. Here billionaires pass no judgment on millionaires who pass no judgment on locals, because everyone is wearing a near-identical variation on a pair of Reef flip-flops, Billabong board shorts and a barely buttoned short-sleeved shirt. Two minutes after arriving, I was already dreading having to leave. Each time I saw some dude hanging on the patio of his oceanfront place, I cursed myself for not getting into computer engineering or writing “Margaritaville,” but no sooner did such big-city pettiness enter my mind than the pervasive Tao of chill came back: just be grateful we get to share in it, man.5382297936_da49af99ae_oAfter a few days of this, my kids started to get worried. I wasn’t cursing at other drivers. It didn’t bother me if they wore wet bathing suits in our rental car. I happily stood in line at the touristy shave-ice stand with a Harrelson-esque smirk on my face. I ceased to be the perpetually clenched-jaw father they knew. It was time to get back to reality.And so Kauai really is different than Maui: less traffic, fewer familiar faces from home, huge canyons, and the kind of paradise that’s straight out of central casting. But try as I might to compile a definitive list, I couldn’t get past the one way Kauai was exactly the same: it’s a terrible place to ever have to leave.MORE KAUAI: Best Food | Where to Stay | Waimea Canyon