It took a year of planning, but two years ago I packed my bags and set out for a seven-month trip that took me across the United States, to Hawaii's Big Island (where I lived for two months) and then to Australia for three months to see my family. And then another month to make my way back to my home in Connecticut, just outside New York City. And I've been dreaming about it ever since. 


Seeing my family was fantastic, of course, but my time on the Big Island (the most recent, geologically, of the Pacific Island chain) turned out to be a long-term love affair. Two months was hardly enough to get to know this beautiful place that has such a strong Native Hawaiian presence (and they are serious about protecting their heritage and land) packed with myriad ecosystems. Here are just a few of the locales I spent time in — though the island is similar in size to the state of Connecticut, visitors often say it's like visiting 10, as there's so much variety in flora, fauna, geology and weather. 

The northern part of the island looks more like Ireland than a tropical isle. That's because imported grasses are used to feed cattle, which are cared for and rounded up by paniolos, which are Native Hawaiian cowboys riding horses like these. 
While on some parts of the Big Island it rains almost every day, in others it's extremely arid, like this area here. The boundaries between the two zones are often visible, they are so close to each other. 
This looks more like a moonscape than Hawaii, but these are the observatories on the top on Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano that makes up part of the island chain. The Hawaiian islands are far enough away from light pollution to create a more ideal situation for stargazing. 
This scene that reminds me of Monet's Giverny is actually a freshwater pond separated from the sea by only a sandbar.
A lava tube brings the sea into the land a fair distance from the shoreline, creating a unique niche ecosystem.
This pool is heated by the natural geothermal energy of the still-active volcano on the Big Island; it is a public swimming spot that seawater flows into with each wave. 
Petroglyphs from ancient Hawaiians are just off the beaten path in Volcanoes National Park.  
A group of teenagers surfs not off a beach, but from a several-hundred-year-old lava flow. 
Of course there are plenty of palm trees at sunset; it is still Hawaii. 
An end-of-day hike in the grasslands above a former lava flow (that's the black land you see before the coast meets the lighter-colored sea) in Volcanoes National Park. 

All photos by Starre Vartan