The Pacific’s last kingdom is a paradise for seekers of pure peace. Its beautiful islands, divided into four groups, are scattered like pearls across 700,000 square kilometres of ocean. There is no shortage of deserted beaches and pristine anchorages here, and the swimming, snorkelling and diving are exceptional.
The main island, Tongatapu, is home to the capital, Nuku’alofa, and to most of the kingdom’s resorts. Many of these are family-owned and personal, because Tonga likes to welcome its visitors in low-key style – this is a place for simpler living and genuine encounters with the local people. Tongans know that what they can offer visitors doesn’t need dressing up. It’s already perfect!
If possible, do try to see more during your stay – head out to the scenic archipelagos of Vava’u and Ha’apai. Tonga’s tropical waters are renowned for their abundant marine life, including large schools of humpback whales which breed around Vava’u in winter. If you want to see these magnificent creatures, be sure to book your visit for some time between July and October. It’s even possible to swim with them: a truly unforgettable experience. Vava’u is also a sailor’s dream destination, with beautiful natural harbours and sheltered coves. The best known of these is the deep-water Port of Refuge, where you’ll find Tonga’s most picturesque town, tiny Neiafu. And of course, the opportunities for relaxation – right throughout Vava’u – are endless. Even more remote and completely unspoiled is the Ha’apai group, with its coral atolls, glistening lagoons, pure white beaches and just a handful of inhabited islands. The way of life here really is timeless, and while it can’t offer any luxury resorts, Ha’apai is ideal for adventure and brilliant for kayaking – paddle up to a near-deserted shore, stay at beachside fale and tuck into a traditional feast with the friendly islanders!
OUR FAVOURITE PLACES TO EXPLORE IN TONGA
Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, will be almost certainly your first taste of the kingdom. With about a third of all Tonga’s population living here, Nuku’alofa can be a surprisingly bustling place but its size also means there’s a great array of restaurants, nightclubs and dynamic cultural shows. There’s plenty to see too, such as the Talamahu Markets with its mounds of fresh produce and selection of handcrafts, including wood carving and jewellery. Although the Royal Palace is not open to visitors, you can admire this white-timber 19th century building from the waterfront. Try to time your visit to town to include a Sunday. Tongans are ardent churchgoers and their singing is legendary. Everyone’s welcome but make sure to pack your Sunday best.
Ha’apai, on the other hand, has no towns at all. It’s a faraway world of atolls, lagoons and white sand – an untouched slice of pure Polynesia, where most islands are tiny and uninhabited. The main centre is the friendly village of Pangai on Lifuka, with a lone bank and a few small stores. Ha’apai is way off the beaten track, and if you’re looking for somewhere untouched by time, you’ll love it here. Sea-kayaking, either for short island-to-island hops, or multi-day adventures, is an ideal way to explore these islands. Whale watching, swimming with whales and kite-surfing are on offer and there’s history too: it was in these islands that the Bounty Mutiny took place. Life is simple in Ha’apai so accommodation for visitors is also no-frills. But there’s nowhere better for that back-to-nature island experience and for a genuine introduction to traditional Tongan culture.
If you’re in search of empty white sands and brilliant blue waters, Vava’u is your perfect choice. This tropical archipelago has one large island and a host of smaller ones, all with shimmering lagoons, hidden coves and superb diving sites. Neiafu, the main centre, lies on the shores of the Port of Refuge, a magnificent deep-water harbour. It’s the prettiest town in Tonga, and has a Saturday market, plus shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. There is spectacular diving and snorkelling among coral gardens, shipwrecks and in mysterious sea caves. With a reputation as one of the best game-fishing locations in the Pacific, Vava’u has boats available for exhilarating searches for marlin and tuna. While Vava’u is a magnet for lovers of the outdoors, there is no need to rough it as accommodation ranges from camp sites to comfortable resorts.
OUR FAVOURITE WAYS TO EXPERIENCE TONGA
See Kayak Tonga
The lush tropical islands of Vava’u and Ha’apai are home to Friendly Islands Kayak Company. Whilst the islands are separated by reefs or open water, they are not great paddling distances apart so there’s plenty of time to kayak the warm waters, snorkel amidst colourful coral and inside legendary marine caves, and observe the traditional way of life of the Tongan people. Your most difficult choice will be deciding on which kayak tour to do. Vava’u’s hilly terrain is perhaps more interesting and scenic and it’s relatively sheltered waters are conducive to more reliable whale sightings between July and October. However if it’s white sand beaches you’re after, there’s no shortage of these in Ha’apai. Snorkelling’s superb in both island groups, but soft corals and sizeable fish are more abundant in Ha’apai waters. There are a range of itinerary’s available including 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 days for Vava’u or 7 and 11 days for Ha’apai with various departure dates throughout the year, so you’re sure to find something to suit.
Swim with the Whales in Tonga
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. Each year from June through to November, hundreds of humpback whales arrive in Tonga to spend the winter in the warmer seas for breading. Whale watching and swimming trips are available every day during the peak whale season which is from July to Oct. There is an array of interesting behavior to be seen from the boat from graceful spyhops to powerful tail slaps and full body breaching. You may even have a couple of curious whales come up to the boat to investigate. If you’re a thrill seeker then you can get into the water and swim alongside these beautiful creatures. There are rules to ensure swimmers stay at least 200 meters away, but humpbacks are curious by nature, so if you get lucky and they approach of their own accord, revel in the experience and enjoy their titanic presence.