GUEST ARTICLE: Warm tropical night air hit our faces as we exited our plane after a short 4½ hr ride (on Virgin Australia) from Sydney. We’d just arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga on the main island of Tongatapu. The windows of the little airport were crowded with excited smiling faces of people eagerly awaiting disembarking passengers. After picking up our bags we found our hotel pickup happily awaiting our arrival.
The black inky night consumed our surroundings with the exception of a trickle of small barred-up concrete shops illuminated by dull fluorescent lights. We were headed to the island’s main town called Nuku’alofa. I think our driver must have had super night vision because the van lights weren’t very bright and there were constant moving obstacles along the way, like stray dogs, pigs, chickens and pedestrians.
It took us about half an hour to reach our hotel Little Italy which is conveniently located just minutes out of town. The owner kindly greeted us and after checking in showed us to our rooms. All rooms start on the 1st floor up a steep set of stairs. Unfortunately for some that aren’t so limber (like my poor mother-in-law) this was a real chore for her to conquer everyday. The rooms were nicely outfitted and made for a comfortable enough stay.
The next morning we awoke to a beautiful sunny day and from our balconies we each had an incredible view. Tall palms lined a long concrete walking path along the water and gently swayed to and fro in the warm tropical breeze. The massive lagoon of stunning green and blues stretched out far and wide. In the middle of this lagoon was a rare sight – a small ship had run aground and judging by the looks of it, it must of have happened some time ago.
After breakfast we hopped in our little rental (provided by the hotel) and headed out for our first sightsee of the island. Tongatapu is just over 257km squared so it was going to take us a few days to take it all in. Luckily we were booked in for 3 days. We’d been provided with an island map marking all the hotspots so that day we headed west to a must-see surfing beach called Ha’atafu Beach.
The drive through town was interesting and the streets were a lot busier than we had expected (actually the town itself was a lot bigger than we’d imagined). A number of shops from big to small lined the streets along with farmers who had set up makeshift stands along the sidewalks proudly displaying their day’s harvest.
Local men wore traditional tupenus (similar to a sarong) and some also had on ta’ovalas which are woven wheat colored waist mats fastened tight with a rope. I noticed some looked like that of a standard mesh potato sack. The ladies also wore tupenus but longer ones and then topped them with a long dress called a kofu. Happy school kids in an array of brightly colored uniforms also walked the streets (many I noticed walked around barefoot).
Along our journey west we passed a number of quaint little communities. The homes were pretty modest and most had nicely manicured yards and clotheslines neatly lined with fresh colorful laundry. Families of pigs and stray dogs were also a common sight. The roads weren’t too bad with only a smattering of potholes but that didn’t matter since the average speed limit around the island was about 50km/hr. You’d really you’d be lucky to reach that speed with the island’s laid-back driving style.
It didn’t take us long before we reached the beach. It was a nice spot with a big stretch of sand. There were only a few tourists soaking up the sun and a couple of surfers off in the distance catching what looked to be some decent waves. We would have loved to have just chilled out there for the day but since we were time constrained we had to move on.
For lunch we headed back to Nuku’alofa but took a different route back to explore on the way. We heard there were a couple of good cafés to choose from and on that day we went to the one called Friends Café. It was really busy but thankfully we managed to find a table on their veranda. Not being big fans of fried food there wasn’t that much to choose from and in the end we ended up having a rather mediocre lunch.
Afterwards we drove around the town to do a bit more exploring then headed back home to chill out for a bit. Later that afternoon after our little siesta we saw a really interesting sight from our balcony. With the tide being at its lowest a trickle of tourists and locals were taking advantage of it and were wading out in thigh-high water in the direction of the abandoned ship on the outer reef. It was a peculiar sight and looked like something we’d definitely have to try before we left.
For dinner that night we had booked ourselves in for a Tongan culture show at the Liku’alofa Resort located on the west end of the island. We’d noticed a sign for it when we were downtown for lunch that day. Lucky thing too since they only hold shows on Wednesdays and Fridays so we were in luck!
The Liku’alofa outdoor restaurant was a lovely little place nicely decorated with palms, flowers and fine local woodworks. Some really friendly Tongan ladies greeted us at the door and showed us to our table right near the stage…and we all know what that means – by the end of the night someone was probably going to be shaking their booty up there. At the back of the restaurant they had set up a huge buffet table that was sending out wafts of delicious aromas. Meanwhile melodious music filled the air as a little band of men merrily played Tongan tunes in the corner.
After an energetic intro by the MC and then a prayer in Tongan we made our way to the buffet. The dishes were all mouthwatering and nothing like I’d ever tasted, well minus the staple vegetable Taro. They’d also roasted a small pig for us and it sat proudly on display (apple in mouth and all). I couldn’t help but think of all the cute little piglets we saw while driving around the island that day – yikes! In respect I took a small helping and after a bite I was won over with its delicious smoky Tongan flavors, thanks piggy!
After dinner the cultural show began … with a bang! About a dozen energetic dancers filled the stage. All were dressed in beautiful decorative garb and they also appeared greased up? We soon found out what the deal with the oil was as local audience members headed up on stage and stuck money to their favorite performers during the show. Tongans are pretty humorous and love a good laugh. At times some of the audience members (mainly ladies) jokingly butt in on dances mimicking moves the best they could, this of course was met with a roar of laughter and applause from the audience.
For me the highlight of the show was the fire dance. The main dancer for this was absolutely incredible and put on the best show I’ve ever seen. There was also a little fella in training and he didn’t do too bad, well except for the time when one of the fire sticks got away from him and almost lit the stage on fire lol! Overall it was a great night and a most wonderful Tongan experience.
The next day we awoke to a gray rainy day but that didn’t stop us from venturing out to do some more exploring. We headed straight to a little place on the west side called Houma to see the Mapu’a’Vaca Blowholes. The blowholes run along the coast for as far as the eye can see and produce a massive spray when the thunderous surf connects with the holes in the coral limestone. We’ve never seen anything like them they were truly an amazing sight rain or shine! We’d seen one or two blowholes in one place but this reef had so many, all blowing simultaneously – a great sight.
For lunch we tried the other recommended café in town called Café Escape. This time we had an awesome lunch, the food was fantastic and so were the desserts. A definite hats off to the talented young chef in the back!
Afterwards we drove to the north of the island to see a very peculiar monument called Ha’amonga ‘a Maui (Burden of Maui). It is a stone trilithon that was constructed out of three very heavy limestone slabs back in the 13th century. They say back in the day it was probably used as a gateway to the king’s royal compound and now it’s one of Tonga’s biggest tourist attractions (their own little Stonehenge!). It’s a fascinating sight, tall porous thick stones impressively erected with a brilliant green landscape in the background.
There were a few local ladies there with tables of their handiwork laid out. They were pretty aggressive with their selling technique but after seeing how poor most lived I didn’t blame them. In the end I was sold on a beautiful black pearl necklace that only cost me about $18 Pa’anga (10.00AUD). That may not seem like much but I know that money would go a long way for them so I was more than happy to contribute.
On our last day we drove around until we felt satisfied we’d been down pretty much every road in Tongatapu. For lunch that day we went back to the Liku’alofa Resort and sat in a gorgeous little hut overlooking the ocean. We didn’t get to see that beautiful view the other night during the show and we were really happy we made the effort to go back it was definitely worth it!
Later that afternoon we went on that lagoon walk out to the marooned ship. Unfortunately we didn’t have any reef shoes and only had sandals but at a slow pace they did the trick. The water was nice and warm and crystal clear. We really had to watch where we stepped so as not to tread on any little creatures. At one point I came across a sea snake that I thought would have been scared off by my approach but with his aggressive tail twitching and stubborn stance it was I who carefully backed off.
The ship up close was pretty impressive, ugly and rusted yes but such an interesting sight to see as well. Actually it’s a real shame that whomever’s it was didn’t dismantle it or pull it off the reef when they had the chance. Now it’s just a giant rust bucket that salt water and time is slowly corroding. On the way back the sun was slowly starting to set. The water looked like glass reflecting a myriad of beautiful shades of dusk painted across the sky.
We had a wonderful 3 days in Tongatapu. We really liked the friendliness of the people and especially their humour. There were so many beautiful spots around the island but I would have to say my most favourite was the Mapu’a’Vaca Blowholes (incredible!!).
Checkout my blog about another little Tongan island called Vava’u where we swam with the Humpback Whales.
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!