Few travelers make their way to the miniature dots that make up the Kingdom of Tonga, but if you fancy idyllic stretches of uncluttered sand and colorful wildlife, a trip to this unspoiled oasis should be at the top of your South Pacific itinerary. After your adventures exploring with a car rental in Auckland, New Zealand or Nadi, Fiji, hop on a quick flight to Tonga.
I was lucky enough to visit the rustic capital of the country, Nuku’alofa, on the island of Tongatapu. With packed dirt sidewalks, hole in the wall cafés and a ramshackle marketplace boasting handmade wooden, paua shell and woven crafts, the authentic island atmosphere was relaxing. No bustle, no squawking vendors peddling tourist trinkets and…no tourists.
A scenic boat ride to Pangaimotu Island offered views back to shore of the distinguished King’s Palace, down town and a tangle of coconut trees beyond. Tinny Polynesian beats rose from a radio on the bar and the smell of grilling pork evoked a laid back, no worries vibe.
The beach here wrapped around the whole island and at low tide I walked out to explore vibrant tide pools teeming with darting fish, rainbow crabs and reef coral. The snorkeling was postcard perfect in the clear water and the ship wrecks just off shore made for fascinating discovery below the gentle waves.
Back on the main island amongst pungent fruit groves of the western shore, there was Liku’alofa Resort spilling onto a luxurious expanse of powdery white beach. The hospitality of the Tongan proprietors was unsurpassed, even if it wasn’t the most lavish accommodations. The meals were artfully prepared and the ambiance kept in line with the stress-free local standard. Watching the sunset from my rough, recycled fishnet hammock was sublime. It’s lucky that I examined my mosquito net for holes before bed, as the geckos and persistent insects cackled and chirped all through the night.
I received a warm Malo ‘e lelei (welcome) at the Tonga National Cultural Centre and delighted in the exhibitions. Two thousand year old Tongan traditions in weaving, dance, cooking and kava ceremony were presented throughout the complex of fales (halls). It was all without commercial gimmicks or false smiles that can make a tourist attraction so cringe-worthy.
The performers were gracious, the buffet was overflowing with the freshest fruit, roasted meats and interesting sea food (sea grapes, sea cucumber, Polynesian Sashimi), and the Taumafakava ceremony allowed the spectators to partake in the ancient kava drinking ritual. The kava tasted like mud puddle strained through a gym sock (truly), yet the soothing and gently anesthetic sips set me at ease.
The village of Houma’s Mapu’a ‘a Vaca (Chief’s Whistles) blow holes were dramatic to behold. These natural limestone vents shot salty geysers almost 100 feet straight up as powerful waves broke against terraced rock. For three miles along the southern coast I could spy the jets spouting in the distance. Thunderous and awe-inspiring, it was no wonder ancient Tongan Kings used this spot for meditation.
Tonga may be off the usual tourist trail but if you make the effort to visit you will be rewarded with an inspiring taste of authentic, frills-free island life and a level of friendliness seldom experienced in more developed destinations.
Noella Schink is a travel writer out of Portland, Maine. She recommends Auto Europe for your car rental needs while traveling to the South Pacific and beyond.