The main island, Tongatapu, is interesting to explore for a few days and to get a taste of what the South Pacific’s only kingdom has on offer but the outlying islands is where the fun really begins. We met an Australian fellow on the pier at Nuku’alofu and he told us he had a charter business out on an outer island and pointed us in the direction of his large catamaran on the opposite dock. Thomas quizzed him about the anchorage at the island and we decided that it was a good place to aim for with just a day sail between island groups.
A few days later we had a fantastic sail and arrived there in nine hours. Once onshore to visit the village, we ran into the guy’s wife and she directed us to her place as an option for going for a hike. It was an enjoyable stroll along a dirt track encompassed by palm trees and jungle. What we came away with was an understanding of the quality of activities and hospitality that were on offer here on the islands for non-cruisers.
One active and one dormant volcano are on the western horizon from this family’s secluded getaway on the Tongan island of Nomuka. Seasonal visitors are welcomed and enjoy an array of activities including sailing, snorkelling with free-diving through caves and reefs, paddle boarding, exploring the volcanoes and most importantly – swimming with the whales. Directly on a beach behind a protective reef lies a covered communal area equipped with games and hammocks. Different hues of blue and spotted coral heads in the lagoon entice you for an exploration snorkel. Options of living on board the boat or staying on land in safari tents caters for all tastes. It almost seems like a camp for grownups and families with an itinerary of adventurous, negotiable activities on the agenda. Only taking group bookings ensures that the family’s time and energy are focused in helping create a truly memorable experience.
Conserving this idyllic location is important to the owners. They give their time to initiate local projects improving the quality of life for all the island’s inhabitants and ensure the sustainability of the environment is learned.
The island of Uoleva approximately 40 nautical miles north of Nomuka and only 5 miles south of the Ha’apai island group’s capital, Pangai has a range of accommodation options. Most of these holiday places have their own boats and will collect you from Pangai.
An eco-lodge, Talitali’anga, consisting of bungalows with private bathrooms is priced at 150 NZD per night, has a ‘yacht club’ attached and offers swimming with the whales.
Alternatively, there are two resorts offering hostel type accommodation. Both are Tongan owned and run. Captain Cook’s Hideaway begins at 30 TOP for singles and 50 TOP for doubles. We were made extremely welcome here and given local fruit and had great conversations with Maree, the manager on duty. She explained many Tongan customs to us including funeral arrangements and how to cook an umu.
She proudly showed us the mats she was currently weaving in case someone in her family died. Kind of like a Tongan style funeral plan. The deceased would lie in wait for burial on the mat while everyone paid their last respects. She proudly said that she could get 1 500 TOP for the mat if a family needed one in a hurry but I think she was reserving this one with someone in mind. This culture is rich in traditions and Christian values.
The hostel style accommodation had inclusive options for food or a communal kitchen for self-catering. All food would need to be purchased at Pangai as there are no shops on the island, or better yet in Nuku’alofa as the supply of fresh vegetables is unreliable in Pangai.
The other hostel resort is called Taiana’s resort which had communal living arrangements and its local resident artist who had been staying there for over a year with no intention of moving on in a hurry. These very affordable options are a good idea for long-term escapes from the rat race.
There are two other resorts on the island. One, Fanifo Lofa, is dedicated to kite surfing in the large reef-protected lagoon on the eastern side of the island. They also arrange kite surfing safaris to other islands. This relatively new option has an all-inclusive rate of 125 AUD a day not including alcoholic drinks. There are comfortable twin or king sized fales each with their own solar hot water and power and an ensuite with a composting toilet.
The enthusiastic owners have used a combination of imported and local timbers, along with their imaginations, to create a unique environment. They built it themselves with only having hired someone to weave the palm leaf decorations in the fale’s interiors. Serenity Beaches Resort on the southern end of the island offers more up-market accommodation.
Tours to swim with the whales begin here at 230 NZD. The island itself is a tropical paradise. The resort occupants are the only inhabitants besides a few wild pigs. Overgrown pathways zig-zag through the jungle and crystal clear waters invite you to snorkel or swim. The sand rimmed island can be circumnavigated in a few hours. Homestay options exist in other parts of the Ha’apai group and may require a hike, kayak or boat ride to get to if you’re up for an adventure immediately on arrival.
The northern island group of Vava’u is the sailing mecca of Tonga with many designated anchorages and is a Sunsail charter base. Options for cave diving and swimming with the whales can be arranged here. If you’re a lone traveller, you may be able to pick up a sail with a visiting yacht. Just ask around at the bars close to the water’s edge. The islands are a lot drier in the north and tend to lack the white beaches of the southern islands but there is still plenty of beauty to experience. The locals are very welcoming and there is a large range of accommodation options to cater for all budgets.
The peak season for visiting is from mid-July-October, Tonga’s winter, to coincide with the yearly migration of humpback whales. Off-season rates could be quite competitive but less services would be available. Outer island groups can be reached by local ferry or small aircraft from Tongatapu, the main island. Ferry timetables can be a bit fickle due to unscheduled maintenance so the option to fly maybe preferred.
Hints: Cultural sensitivities require conservative dress. No one is allowed to work or play sport on Sunday – it is against the law. They are lenient at resorts.