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Tonga Trip Report (Long)

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My wife and I traveled to the Kingdom of Tonga from August 30-Sept.18, 2005, on a self-planned trip. Our primary reason for choosing Tonga was to have the opportunity to snorkel with humpback whales, and our trip was fantastic in that regard. Because we pieced our trip together ourselves, we had the opportunity (sometimes unplanned) to come into contact with a large number of tour operators and accommodations. Our trip was mostly spent in Vava’u, but we also were in Tongatapu for five days, so we had the opportunity to see both island groups. We did not visit the Ha’apai group or the Niuas.

Overall, Tonga is a very undeveloped, very beautiful group of islands with spectacular natural attractions, a thriving traditional culture, and very little in the way of modern tourist infrastructure. We found the Tongan people to be generally polite but not outgoing, with a few notable exceptions. Most tourist-related businesses are operated by expats from Australia, New Zealand, or elsewhere. Even so, the tourist industry does not operate with the reliability and dependability that many travelers are accustomed to, as I’ll explain in more detail below.

In my mind, there are three kinds of people who are most likely to enjoy a trip to the Kingdom: (1) people who are keen to get into the water with humpback whales; (2) people who want to visit destinations that are not heavily touristy or commercialized; and (3) people traveling across the Pacific on a yacht – Vava’u has a strong yachting community.

Several preliminary bits of advice if you’re planning to travel to Tonga:
(1) If you’re going with the objective of swimming with the whales, you’d be best served by signing up for one of the group trips offered by Whaleswim Adventures (www.whaleswim.com). We would have done this ourselves if our schedule had allowed it, and some of the inconveniences and involuntary changes-in-plans we experienced would have been avoided if we had. Even though we did not sign up for one of these trips, Rae Gill, the owner of Whaleswim, vastly helped us in choosing accommodations and tour operators. I had the opportunity to meet her and one of her guides, Annah Evington, while we were in Vava’u, and they have a time-tested way of doing things that ensures not only a good experience for the tourists, but also an absence of any harmful effects on the whales.
(2) If you are planning your trip yourself, do so many months in advance. We booked our trip in February 2005, and even at that time, many hotels were booked up or had limited availability, which caused us to have to change hotels every few days. September is at the peak of the whale season, and accommodations are very limited in quantity, so you have to book early.
(3) If you want some really expert assistance planning activities, either before your trip or while in Vava’u, get in touch with Aquarium Adventures (aquariumadventures@yahoo.com), which is run by an American couple named Ben & Lisa Newton. They were extremely friendly, helpful and knowledgeable, and were one of the few businesses that ran like a regular tourist operation. Highly recommended!
(4) Don’t expect everything to go as planned – maintain an open mind and some flexibility.

With those introductory comments, here’s an account of our trip and some of the experiences we had:

I. Getting There:

We flew from Los Angeles to Nuku’alofa on Air New Zealand and arrived at Fua’amotu Airport around 5 a.m. on a Thursday. As of mid-2005, the airport has separate international and domestic terminals, so we had to catch a taxi for a short ride to the domestic terminal. When we arrived there, it was completely deserted. As we waited, a few more tourists arrived and we all waited together for the Peau Vava’u check-in personnel to arrive.

Peau Vava’u was, in September 2005, the only domestic airline in Tonga. (The government has now opened up the market to additional carriers, but as far as I know Peau Vava’u is still the only one). They originally had operated two DC-3s, but reliability problems had prompted them to ground those two aircraft in favor of a Convair 580. In researching the trip, we had found lots of stories about Peau Vava’u overbooking and canceling flights, operating hours late for no apparent reason, and the like. Our experience was just the opposite. Our tickets (which we had bought and paid for six months earlier) were waiting for us, the flight was not overbooked, and it took off and arrived right on schedule. We found the service to be courteous, and you get some great views of the islands as you fly north to Vava’u. We had expected that all of our luggage would be weighed for compliance with the airline’s weight limit, but they only weighed our checked bags and not our carry-ons. We encountered no problems at all.

II. Mounu Island Resort and Whale Watch Vava’u:

Our trip was set to begin with a 5-day stay at the Mounu Island Resort, situated on a private island about 30 minutes by boat from Neiafu. Mounu is owned and operated by Allan and Lyn Bowe from New Zealand, and they also own and operate one of the handful of whale-watching operations in Vava’u, called “Whale Watch Vava’u.”

Mounu Island is gorgeous. It’s a small island that you could easily walk all the way around in half an hour. The island is covered with a lush forest, and nicely landscaped trails lead from the main restaurant/bar to the four traditional fales for guests. We stayed in the “Honeymoon Fale,” #4, which is the largest and nicest. The fales are rustic, open-air structures, each set on the beach. They are comfortable and functional. The beds are equipped with mosquito nets, but we did not encounter any mosquitoes on the island. Mounu is surrounded by beautiful blue water and has a really excellent snorkeling reef between it and a neighboring uninhabited island, Ovalu. The food is also very good, although you don’t get a choice about what to eat.

We frequently saw humpback whales from Mounu Island, often while we were eating. Allan and Lyn have a dog named “Uli” that somehow senses whales and will bark furiously in the direction of any whale within visual distance. The dog is amazing and frequently spotted whales that no human had seen.

We went out whale-watching twice with Allan on one of his boats, and both times got in the water with whales. On both occasions, it was a fast-paced affair, with Allan bringing us close to the whales and having us quickly enter the water and swim to the whales’ anticipated path, usually just to watch them swim by and then depart. We did have one fortunate encounter with a curious male humpback that circled us, and approached us on the surface. It was incredible.

At this point, a few observations about swimming with whales are in order. First, be prepared for cool water. Humpback whales come to Vava’u in winter, and we found the water to be in the low- to mid-70’s when we were there. We were perfectly comfortable wearing 3/2 full wetsuits, but some other people on the boats used shorties. If you are sensitive to cold water, plan ahead and bring a wetsuit!

Second, keep in mind that the whales aren’t all motivated to be in close proximity to boats and people. In fact, in our experience, most whales would put their flukes up in the air and dive whenever approached by a boat. We have heard stories -- and seen video -- of friendly whales approaching boats and interacting with swimmers, and we had our own very close encounters later during our trip (see below), but those experiences appear to be the exception rather than the rule. As you might expect with any wildlife, the whales have their own agenda, and if you want to get a good encounter with them, you have to devote multiple days to give that encounter a chance to happen.

Third, be aware that different whale watching operators have different styles in their approach to whales. Some will swoop in quickly and drop you in the whales’ path, while others will approach the whales only cautiously and slowly. The latter approach is likely less stressful for the whales, although I have to tell you that the whales appear to be capable of effortlessly avoiding any whale boat or swimmers they choose to. They are fast swimmers, and can dive out of sight, hold their breath for 15-20 minutes, and surface frustratingly far away. None of the whale watch boats has any equipment that allows them to locate or track the whales, which means spotting and approaching them is done 100% by spotting them visually. Patience is definitely required when you go out looking for whales in Vava’u.

Anyway, we went out with Allan twice whale-watching, but the weather wasn’t the best and the whales weren’t being very cooperative. Even with that, both of us got in the water with them and it was an great experience.

We did have two frustrating experiences at Mounu. The first was on a Sunday, which happened to be the first day with nice weather since we had arrived in Vava’u on the preceding Thursday. We were DYING to get out to find some whales under the good weather conditions. Allan informed us, however, that Sunday is a “day of rest” in Tonga, and so he’d be unable to take us out. He then promptly got on his whale-watching boat and headed out to pick up the group of tourists to whom he had chartered his boat for that day. We saw him and the tourists swimming with a whale right off Mounu later in the day! Needless to say, we were irritated, but being out on Mounu, we had no choice to do anything but stay on the island. At least we were able to have a good day of snorkeling out on the nearby reef, but this experience highlights the fact that when you stay at Mounu, you’re a captive with little control over your daily activities.

Our other problem came when it was time for us to leave Mounu and transfer to the main island of Vava’u for the rest of our stay. We had pre-arranged with Dolphin Pacific Diving to go out whale-watching on that day, and had confirmed the arrangements with numerous e-mails before we arrived. We asked Allan to contact Dolphin Pacific to work out a plan to transfer us so that we could go out as planned, but he did not contact Dolphin Pacific until after hours the day before we departed, and by then Dolphin Pacific had canceled our whale watching day. We learned this when Allan dropped us off at the Tongan Beach Resort (chosen because he was picking up a whale watching group staying there), and we were left to fend for ourselves and figure out where to go and what to do. Not a very smooth or professional hand-off, but it’s just one of those things that happens in Tonga. As it turns out, Allan was actually doing us a favor …

III. Hakula Lodge and the Maris King

Our plan was to stay the next four nights at the Hakula Lodge (www.fishtonga.com), a two-room lodge owned and run by Jeff and Janine LeStrange directly beneath their own residence. The Lodge caters to fishermen, since Jeff and Janine also have a sportfishing boat called the “Hakula” (Tongan for “sailfish”), but the lodge is open to non-fishermen too. The Lodge has a lot going for it, which I’ll get to in a minute, but the best thing about it is Jeff and Janine. Of all the tourist-industry people we came into contact with in Vava’u, Jeff and Janine took the most personal interest, and made the greatest effort, to make sure that we were taken care of and that our stay in Vava’u was enjoyable. It started when Janine found out that we were stranded at the Tongan Beach Resort, which is not near anything else. Instead of leaving us to our own devices, Janine immediately came over to the Tongan Beach Resort and picked us up, let us drop our things at the Lodge, and then gave us a ride into town. By then, we had learned that our carefully pre-planned itinerary of whale watching had been canceled by Dolphin Pacific Diving (more on that below), and Janine gave us some suggestions for places to visit in Neiafu to fill our unexpectedly-free day. Moreover, she informed us that Hakula’s whale-watching boat, the “Maris King,” would be going out the next day and invited us to go out with them. This kind of personal attention and caring about our trip continued throughout our stay with Jeff and Janine, and it really made the trip go much more smoothly. I would recommend staying at Hakula for this reason alone.

The Lodge is located about a mile outside of Neiafu, overlooking the Port of Refuge with a beautiful view. It has two rooms, each with a refrigerator, air conditioning, and the like. If you are going out fishing with Jeff or out whale-watching on Maris King, all you have to do is roll out of bed and walk down to the dock -- very convenient! The only disadvantage to staying there is that you end up having to take taxis back and forth into Neiafu if you want to eat out there or have activities that depart from town. This is a bit of hassle, but worth it in my view because Jeff and Janine are such great hosts.

We ended up going out whale watching twice on Maris King, and those were our two best days on the water. Maris King is piloted by “Veni,” and the whale-watching guide is “Ofa,” a lovely young Tongan woman. Maris King is an extremely comfortable boat, and Veni and Ofa do a great job of carefully and respectfully approaching the whales. As an added bonus, our trips were accompanied by one or more of the young women from “Wild Focus,” who shot digital video both above and below the water of our encounters with the whales, and they can then sell you a DVD of the highlights of your day. They do excellent work (we have three of their DVDs) and turn around the videos in only a day.

The highlight of each of our days on Maris King was a long in-water encounter with a mother/calf humpback whale pair. Some mothers don’t want swimmers near their calves, but this one (it was the same whale both days) didn’t seem to mind. They allowed us to approach VERY close and just sit there watching them play and interact with each other. The calf, at one point, approached us to within about six feet distance, just to “check us out,” with the mother watching carefully but never doing anything aggressive toward us. It was an astounding experience that we will absolutely never forget, and we get to relive it by watching the video any time we like.

Our experiences on Maris King were the best ones we had. I’m sure luck played a role, but we concluded that Maris King was the best whale-watching boat of the ones we tried. So, if you are in Vava’u, try to go out with Veni and Ofa.

IV. Neiafu

Now that we were on the main island of Vava’u, we were going into the main town, Neiafu, to eat out and for other activities. Neiafu is a small, picturesque and very sleepy town. Everything closes around 6pm on weekdays, noon on Saturdays, and the whole place is shut down after hours and on Sundays. We ate at a number of places, including the famous “Dancing Rooster” and the “Bounty Bar,” each of which we found disappointing. Our favorite dinner spots were “The Compass Rose” and “Ciao,” both of which seemed to be open when lots of other places were closed, and both of which had excellent food and service. If you want to experience the Neifau social scene, go to “the Mermaid” any night of the week, but especially Friday night. It’s a lively bar with bar-type food and lots of people partying.

If you want to use a computer for any purpose, such as getting on the internet, you have a couple of choices, but the best is Aquarium Adventures. Ben and Lisa Newton have a half-dozen VERY modern computers with a fast internet connection and excellent home-made desserts to boot. As an added attraction, Wednesday night is “game night,” where you can partake in whatever first-person shooter they happen to be playing over the network.

V. Tongan Feasts

We did two Tongan feasts with traditional dancing while in Vava’u. The first, and most popular, is held at Hinakauea Beach on Thursday nights, and you can buy tickets at the Adventure Backpackers Lodge in Neiafu. The Hinakauea Feast is extremely authentic and very entertaining and is considered a “must do” activity in Vava’u. The only drawbacks are that they pack a lot of people in, and the seating (simple wooden planks) can get very uncomfortable after a while.

We also went to a barbecue/feast at the Puataukanave International Hotel. This one was indoors and a lot more comfortable, but also less authentic-feeling than the one at Hinakauea. The food, music, and dancing were all excellent, though, so I still think it’s worth attending.

VI. Dolphin Pacific Diving

As I mentioned above, our pre-planned itinerary of whale-watching and scuba diving was thrown completely up in the air when we learned that Dolphin Pacific had decided to cancel all of our reservations for no apparent reason. Dolphin Pacific had recently been purchased by a British couple (Al and Zoe Coldrick), who had taken over about a month before our visit to Vava’u. I really got upset when Al told me that they were not going to honor our multiple days’ worth of reservations. To calm me down, he offered me a free night dive, which I accepted but never actually occurred. Despite being completely irritated with them, we still went out whale watching with them on one day and out diving one day. There’s more detail on each of those outings below, but overall I found our dealings with Dolphin Pacific to be disappointing, mainly because the reservations I had made months earlier and confirmed a few days before our arrival were completely ignored, I surmised because a big diving group had shown up and taken priority. Dolphin Pacific has gotten a lot of great reviews over the years from other travelers to Vava’u, but our experience was not encouraging.

Whale watching on Dolphin Pacific’s boat “Makaira” didn’t go well. Makaira is a sport fishing boat that has been converted into service for diving and whale-watching trips. On our day, twelve tourists plus several guides were crammed onto the boat, and as a sport fishing boat, Makaira doesn’t have an abundance of comfortable seating. The whales weren’t cooperative and the other people on our trip were mostly 20-year-olds who didn’t really seem to care anything about whales. The only good point of the day was meeting Annah Evington and her brother Grant.

My 2-tank dive with Dolphin Pacific went better. We went to two dive sites, each of which was spectacular. We saw vibrant coral, sponges, and an array of great fish, and the visibility must have been at least 100 feet. I had my first shark encounter (a group of whitetip reef sharks we found in a cave), my first turtle encounter (looked like a hawksbill), and my first squid and lobster encounters. The divemasters appeared to be very safety-conscious, and the dives both went great. As an added bonus during the surface interval, we got to observe a giant swarm of large fruit bats roosting in the trees on top of Kitu Island, and our second dive was highlighted by the sound of a humpback whale singing nearby. I wish I had gone on more dives in Vava’u. Amy from Wild Focus accompanied our dive and made a great video of it, which I also got the DVD for.

VII. Vava’u Lahi Land Tours

If you want to see Vava’u by land, the best option is Vava’u Lahi Land Tours, which is a tour bus driven by “Eva,” a Tongan gentleman who is reputed to do the best land tours. You can arrange the tour through Aquarium Adventures, and it takes about half a day. Eva takes you around the island to see various villages, takes you to the top of Mount Talau (with a wonderful view), and to a couple of caves. Be warned: part of the tour involves some light hiking through overgrown fields, so be sure to wear long pants and enclosed shoes. We didn’t, and each got a variety of insect bites in the process, one of which developed into a very serious problem a couple of days later.

VIII. Puataukanave International Hotel

Hakula Lodge was all booked up in anticipation of an upcoming fishing tournament, so we had to check out and spend our final two nights in Vava’u at the Puataukanave International Hotel, the newest and supposedly most luxurious hotel in Neiafu. On the plus side, “Pua’s” has a superb view of the Port of Refuge, and is extremely conveniently located, so you can walk to anything in Neiafu. On the minus side, we found the service to be indifferent. Our room featured a television that didn’t actually receive any channels of programming, and had a column of ants marching from the door, up the wall, across the ceiling, and out the sliding door to the balcony. Overall, I would not recommend the Puataukanave, even despite the extremely convenient location.

IX. S/V Impetuous

After our two awesome days out on Maris King, we figured we had topped out on whale-watching and it wasn’t going to get any better than what we had experienced. So we had a discussion with Lisa at Aquarium Adventures, and she suggested that we go on a day sailing trip on a boat called the “Impetuous.” (www.sailingtonga.com) What an awesome idea! Impetuous is a 51’ Beneteau in perfect condition, and is operated by two Kiwis named Sandy & Terry. We chartered the Impetuous, and went out sailing for the day, which was really wonderful. Sandy & Terry sailed us around, anchored near a deserted island with a fantastic reef for snorkeling (‘Euakafa), and at the end of the day stopped near Kitu Island to let us record a singing whale through the hydrophone we had brought with us. They also do multi-day charters and whale watching trips. The lunch we had on the Impetuous was superb as well. It was a really enjoyable day, and if you like sailing, Impetuous is highly recommended.

X. Off to Nuku’alofa

The last five days of our trip were to be spent in the Tongatapu Group, so we flew on Peau Vava’u, again with no check-in complications and no significant delays. One piece of advice that you will see everywhere is to re-confirm your flight the day before it leaves. We did this.

Upon arrival at Fua’amotu Airport, we thought we were going to be picked up by a van from Fafa Island Resort, which was where we would be staying in Tongatapu. No one showed up, prompting one of the assembled taxi drivers to call someone associated with Fafa on our behalf. He then volunteered to take us to the wharf to meet up with the boat that would take us out to Fafa, so we got there with no problems. Apparently there had been some mechanical difficulty with Fafa’s van.

The boat that took us out to Fafa was the “Kurti,” a sailboat that now operates exclusively on motor power. The boat is clearly aging and that, together with the absence of the van to pick us up at the airport, didn’t make for a very good first impression of Fafa. Fortunately, in this instance, the first impression wasn’t accurate. Upon arrival, we met Joseph, one of the Germans who runs the Resort, and had a tour around the island. Fafa is similar in concept to Mounu Island, in that it is a small island with nothing on it but a resort composed of traditional fales. There are differences, however. Fafa is slightly larger, and the surrounding water and reefs are not as nice as those at Mounu. There are more fales (probably 12, as opposed to 4 on Mounu). The fales themselves are much larger and more advanced from a construction and comfort standpoint. They are beautiful works of architectural art that seem very traditional, but very modern at the same time. The pictures on Fafa’s web site (www.fafa.to) don’t even begin to do these fales justice – they are spectacular. One of the coolest things is that the fales have fully-enclosed, private OUTDOOR showers, each set in a lush garden. My wife and I agreed that it was the best shower we had ever seen. And, unlike the showers on Mounu, these had actual working hot water.

The other thing you notice immediately at Fafa is the bird life. The whole island is swarming with various kinds of birds, including Red Shining Parrots, purple swamp hens and banded rails. The greenery is well-maintained and the staff is courteous and responsive. The restaurant serves three meals a day, with a menu that you can order from that changes every day. The food is superb.

There is one and only one thing we didn’t like about Fafa: the geckoes. The island has a large population of geckoes that appear to inhabit every structure, and they come out every night. They are about 6” long and scurry around, hissing at each other and probably eating loads of insects that would otherwise be biting everyone. We thought they were cute at first. The problem, however, is that they poop with impunity inside the fales and other structures from dusk until dawn. We would wake up with brown stains across the top of our mosquito net, and we’d have to be careful where we walked first thing in the morning. If you sat out in the open in the fale at night, you were at risk of being pooped on, which I actually was at least once. We talked to other guests who had similar experiences. It got to be very unpleasant after a couple of days.

Our plan was to spend a couple of days just relaxing at Fafa, and then take a couple of day trips to the main island of Tongatapu to see various tourist attractions. Those plans were interrupted, however, by a serious medical problem. Remember the insect bites that my wife and I had received taking the land tour with Eva on Vava’u? One of the bites on my wife’s foot had become badly infected and rapidly swelled up to the point where she could not walk. Her foot was in incredible pain, she was running a fever, and the toxins from the infection were causing her to be nauseated. We talked with Joseph, and he kindly arranged to take us to Tongatapu first thing in the morning on the resort’s speedboat, and he also arranged a driver to take us to a clinic run by Australian missionaries near Nuku’alofa. So, that’s what we did, and by this time we were really worried. Tonga isn’t a very advanced or modern country, and we worried about the quality of medical care. The doctors and staff at the Village Mission Clinic quickly put us at ease. My wife got first-rate medical attention and a lot of caring and compassion at the Clinic. Although they lacked the diagnostic techniques and modern drugs that you find back home, they were extremely professional, and took the right course of action. They gave my wife antibiotics that caused her fever to go away and stopped the spread of infection in her foot.

Over the next five days, my wife continued to be unable to walk and we were forced to spend the rest of the trip in our fale at Fafa Island, except for a short sight-seeing tour to see attractions like the blowholes, flying foxes and the trilithon. Joseph and the people at Fafa were extremely caring and accommodating throughout the ordeal. Finally, the day arrived for us to return home, and we had to endure six flight segments over a 36-hour period to get there. Not pleasant!

As an epilogue, I can tell you that after about a month of daily IV antibiotic treatments, we finally got rid of the infection in my wife’s foot. It wasn’t a weird tropical disease or anything like that – just a garden-variety infection like you could get anywhere in the world through an infected break in the skin. My wife is walking normally again, and we still treasure our experiences in Tonga, especially swimming with the whales.

Well, that’s my trip report. Feel free to write with any questions.

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