Tropical island holiday coming right up. Destination: Tonga.
We always like to take advantage of seeing new places with the help of a ‘local’ so we eagerly said ‘yes’ and bought our tickets months ago. We were super excited for our ‘easy’ trip to Tonga – no planning, no research, just pack our bag and show up. Unfortunately, due to personal issues on their end, they were not able to be in Tonga for our trip which led us to have a very different holiday than we first thought we were going to have.
Suddenly a lot of research and decisions had to be made. And with the craziness of the preceding months, we decided we really needed a restful, pampered holiday, which meant: resorts! Bruce & I do not usually do ‘resorts’ as we rather spend the money doing activities and eating out, etc. But this time, we did it totally differently and it was perfect. Our bodies really needed to chill out and so we did absolutely not one thing except stay at our resorts and sleep, read, play games, snorkel, swim, and eat. That about sums it up!
Well, here’s a bit more about it.
Tonga is an island group of approximately 176 islands of which 31 are inhabited. The islands are grouped into three main groups: Tongatapu, Ha’api, and Vav’au. Tonga is the only nation that has never been colonized; the people are super friendly, and the islands still have that ‘remote’ feel to them.
The local currency of Tonga is the Tongan Pa’anga or TOP. $1 NZD = $1.31 TOP or inversely, approximately $.75 NZD = $1 TOP; $1 USD = $1.48 TOP or .$52 USD = $1 TOP.
Temperatures don’t vary much and range between 18C (about 65F) to 28C (84F) which makes it quite comfortable.
The amount of sunshine does not vary much throughout the year. Sunrise at approximately 5:30 am; sunset by 7 pm.
TONGATAPU ISLAND GROUP:
All international flights come into Tongatapu. Several people told us, and most of the guidebooks say, that there’s not that much to do in Tongatapu and recommend going to the other island groups, especially if you’ve come for the beaches and water activities. Most folks have to spend a night in Tongatapu because one cannot generally make a connection flight to the outer islands in one day.
As a consequence, we spent two nights in Tongatapu on our way in and another night there on our way home. We had two full days to roam around.
Our first two nights we stayed at the Waterfront Lodge ($220 TOP/night), billed as a upscale recently renovated villa right on the waterfront. Under new Italian management, the hotel boasted only eight rooms all located on the second floor, with an Italian restaurant and bar on the first. The rooms were nice, fitted out with European décor, air conditioning, wi-fi, marble bathrooms, and high ceilings. Having the air-conditioning was such a plus as we acclimated to the tropical heat of the islands. Continental breakfast was included with the room. We booked a room with a balcony and it was quite enjoyable sitting out there on our first day, reading, and watching the goings-on in front of us.
The downside of this place is that it’s right on the main road and across from the fish market which operates daily. We had to sleep with the doors and windows shut, and even then, I could hear the yammering and racket of the fishermen who come early to drop off their fish for the market. That was a bit annoying and would prevent me from staying there again.
From the lodge, it was an easy water-front 20 minute walk to town. The main town and port of this island is Nuku’alofa. It is the business centre of Tonga and the hub of all activity. There are several ‘western’ restaurants to be found here as well as traditional local cuisine. We didn’t get to sample too much as we only had time for a dinner at the Lodge restaurant (good) and lunch at Friends Café (excellent).
A very neat thing to experience in town is the Talamahu Market, the largest fruit, vegetable, and handicraft market in Tonga. Hundreds of vendors are there touting their wares. The edibles consisted of baskets of coconuts, peanuts, yams, taro, tapioca, eggplant, papaya, pineapples, watermelon, bananas, tomatoes, cabbages and a variety of cooked cakes and pies. Handicrafts consisted of the beautiful tapa cloth and lots of woven baskets, purses, and other novelty items. Upstairs in the market are heaps of stall owners selling ‘regular’ stuff to the locals – clothes, shoes, cosmetics, etc.
Other items of note:
Every 30 metres or so, we found a little shack with steel bars in front – these are the local NZ-equivalent dairies:
Tongans are subsistence farmers and many eek out a small living by selling fruits and veggies by the roadside. We saw hundreds of these small huts everywhere.
The cemeteries were an amazingly cheerful place to walk through as they revere their loved ones with colorful banners and decorations.
Coconuts abound and are cheap as!
Pigs roam freely everywhere!
On our second visit through Tongatapu we stayed at Toni’s Guest House which is akin to the familiar New Zealand backpackers’ accommodation. Toni’s gets very high ratings as being a clean and friendly place and we were not disappointed. We stayed in the blue house which was perfectly fine. We had a private en-suite room for $60 TOP (about $48 NZD or $32 USD) and if you were willing to share a bathroom, you could get a room for as little as $15 TOP. They are located in a small, quaint neighborhood about 5km from Nuku’alofa and they operate a shuttle several times a day for $1 per person. They’ve got a good thing going there and I’d consider staying there again.
The airport is located a 30-minute drive from Nuku’alofa. Cab rides should run about $15-20 TOP per person one-way. Toni’s Guesthouse will transport you to/from the airport for $10 per person. The Waterfront Lodge charged us $25 per person which I now know to be a total rip-off.
HA’API ISLAND GROUP:
One wanting to get away to pristine long-white sandy beaches is advised to go to the Ha’api island group. Located a half-hour plane ride away, we were very eager to get to our destination. Chatham Pacific has a monopoly on inter-island transport and have no qualms for charging exorbitant prices – the regular fare is $178 one way (the round-trip fare equals the cost of getting to Tonga from New Zealand)! We arrived one hour before departure as required and had a good chuckle looking at the flight board (see photo below). Tongans are famous for doing things at their own pace and there was no rush to check in the few of us destined for Ha’api.
Once ready to leave, I was not so amused to find out we were traveling on a little 8-seater propeller plane. Hmmm, had to work hard to calm my anxious nerves, but once in the air, I enjoyed the feeling of flying through the clouds with practically a 360-degree view!
We booked our stay at Serenity Beaches Resort or Patti’s place as it is locally known. A five-minute taxi ride from the airport to the main town of Pangai got us to the small pier where we met Patti and another guest and made the 1-hour boat trip to Uoleva Island.
If you clicked on the link to Uoleva above, you will have read that Uoleva is inhabited by approximately 6 people! And that sounds about right as there are three accommodation places on the island – two backpackers and then Patti’s ‘resort’.
What a treat! Patti’s a 69 year-young American who has lived many lives. At 50 she divorced after 35 years of marriage, went and studied Lomi Lomi massage in Hawaii, lived there and in Alaska for many years, then set her sights to the Pacific Islands where she sailed for 2 ½ years, and then at the ripe young age of 65, decided to open a resort on this remote island in Tonga. She’s currently partnered with a lovely Tongan man, Semi and, we had many hours of wonderful conversation with both of them.
There are five Balinese-styled bungalows or ‘fales’ (fahlay) as they’re called in Tonga for accommodation and one large hexagonal 30 foot diameter gorgeous open-aired gazebo which serves as the main room for dining and socializing and also hosts the open-air kitchen. There’s no electricity. They power the fridge and other electronic devices twice a day for about an hour each time by running a generator. They have very cool solar lights from Ikea for evening use or you sit and talk by candlelight. All the fales are open-air with blinds that serve as your walls. Each fale is hidden from the others so you can sleep with your blinds up which we did most nights. The toilets and showers are also open-air yet private. They’ve now hooked up a few of the showers with a Califont gas heaters so you can have a warm’ish shower!
Serenity Beaches is located on 8-acres of ‘bush’ on the tip of Uoleva Island. It has access to both sides of the island with the walking distance between the two sides of mere minutes. Three of the fales are on one side (where we stayed, in the Ika (fish) fale – highly recommended), the others are located near the main gazebo.
As we arrived at the end of tourist season, the hired staff had already been let go and only Patti and Semi were running the place, therefore, they were the ones cooking our meals. They are both fantastic cooks. We had the breakfast and dinner meal package which was totally sufficient. Patti made most breakfasts and can do anything – we had french toast, eggs, and the best pancakes ever! Semi made a few delicious dinners – lobster tail burrito wraps, seafood curry, and a yummy chicken dish. We were not disappointed.
We stayed for five nights and it was perfect for us despite not having the best weather (lots of windy and overcast days). There’s a coral reef right in front of their place which was pretty amazing – pristine large colourful coral abounded as well as various fishies and the bluest starfish I’ve ever seen! There were only two other guests though one night a group of six ‘yachties’ came for dinner. They were quite interesting to chat with having been sailing on their boats for several years. Several said Tonga was one of their favorite pacific islands. Oh, and there was a local guy spending a few days there chiseling out a canoe with a small hand-tool from a tree he felled with a little saw. It was pretty darn cool!
We shared many connections with Patti which made our stay even more enjoyable. We had heaps of discussions around gardening and permaculture and on a variety of spiritual topics. They are not yet able to grow much due to soil conditions and they have to bring in a lot of food from Nuku’alofa. They can source locally caught fish and some vegetables but not much is available. I’d brought some veggie seeds for her and we talked a lot about proper composting methods. By the last day, we were rested enough that we offered to help build her first raised garden bed and prepped it with layers of seaweed, dried leaves, and food scraps. We’re hoping to go back some day to see her garden and/or help out again with prepping more beds!
VAVAU ISLAND GROUP
Our next stop was the island of Vavau, located a further half-hour 8-seater plane ride north. This is the island our American friends have a small dwelling on and they offered us the opportunity to stay there for a few nights. Their place is located on the old harbour in the port town of Neiafu, about a twenty-minute taxi ride ($20TOP) from the airport. We found their one-room place to be simple yet quite cute and recognized the many things they had purchased in New Zealand to ship over to Tonga. It rained quite a bit the two days we spent there so we spent most of our time enjoying their personal library collection of various spiritually themed books (THANK YOU GUYS!).
We also ventured into the town which is mainly a one street strip of western-owned and operated restaurants, shops, and tour guide centres. The place was full of Palangis (white people) from America, Australia and Europe. Apparently the ‘yachties’ flock to Neiafu’s protected harbour during the months of July – October to take advantage of the weather and the thing that Vavau is most known for – swimming with the whales. Every year flocks of humpback whales migrate from chilly waters of Antarctica to the warm waters of Tonga to birth and raise their young. We’ve heard from many that swimming with a whale is truly an incredible experience, but alas, it was not meant to be for us as this year the season was not so good and the whales left early. Maybe this has to do with the now 20+ something whale watching operators that have set up in Vavau in the last few years.
Most tourists elect to stay at one of the outer islands from Vavau as there are over 20 islands and many resorts to choose from. We stayed at Mala Island Resort ($180 TOP/night) as it was just fifteen minutes away. Mala Island is a privately-owned small island (you can walk around it in 20 minutes). A group of Americans invested through a Tongan partner in 2001 and built this small resort with only 10 bungalows. The reviews I read for Mala were mixed as folks said the resort was in a state of decline and it was. However, that did not take away from it’s charm.
This year the resort was being run by one of the partners, Terry, who hailed from Reno, Nevada. He was a lovely man who was working quite hard to keep the resort going. The island is a 5 minute boat ride from Talihau Beach which is a 15 minute taxi ($20 TOP) from Neiafu. Mala has a small beach with a great snorkeling reef right from shore. The ‘Japanese Gardens’, an underwater coral haven is just a stones’ throw away. Terry said, however, that the Gardens are not as pristine as they once were due to the hurricanes of last year. None-the-less, we enjoyed several afternoons of snorkeling in the area. Other than that, we sat and read and relaxed. There were few guests. The food was fine – nothing to write home about except for the fries which were quite delicious. The menu consisted of mainly western fare.
The rooms were cute – wallpapered with tapa cloth and bamboo poles. There were screens on the windows and a fan which came in handy during the days. The main restaurant area was lovingly built in traditional tropical décor with lots of bamboo and a big veranda to take in the gorgeous aqua-marine views. We were happy enough to spend four days there but I do not think I’d return again. This is a great place to spend a day or at most two nights.
The owners are currently looking for investors, so if you’re keen to own a piece of paradise, this could be for you. But beware, do your homework first! We chatted with many Palangis who came to Tonga to realize a dream. We heard story after story about how hard it was to navigate the beauracracy and how hard it is to assimilate. But Patti but it best – patience and persistence is what’s needed to make it here otherwise Tonga will eat away at you very quickly.
Both Bruce & I liked the islands enough that we would definitely come back again. The tourism market is growing and I’d do a bit more research about Tongatapu (to save on the additional airfare), but I’d definitely head back to Patti’s in Ha’api when I’m in need of some true relaxation.
So now we’re home and back in Wainui. The grass has grown quite a bit in just two short weeks so it’s time for another round of mowing. And it’s time to gear up for the next adventure – my family’s visit from the States. My mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law and 1-year old niece will be arriving in one weeks’ time. I’m so excited!