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Our Trip to the Kingdom of Tonga

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Jan 21st, 2010, 01:28 PM
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Our Trip to the Kingdom of Tonga

I am posting this despite the fact there seems little interest on Fodor's about this country! We had such a fantastic holiday that I feel I have to share it. There were three of us travelling from Italy: my husband and I and 23 year old son. This was a part of a long trip which included Sydney and New Zealand about which I shall report soon.
Part 1
We left Sydney on 23rd November for our 10 day trip to the Kingdom of Tonga well aware that the whale season would almost be over. In fact we were well aware of quite a lot as prior to our departure I had, as usual, gone into a lot of research about the country, its history and people. Of all the Pacific islands I had chosen to visit Tonga because it seemed to be the most unspoilt; it has the oldest Polynesian monarchy and is the only Pacific country never to have been brought under foreign rule. It also seemed to have kept itself out of the honeymooners circuit so isn’t full of big holtels and luxury resorts that turn any tropical beach into just another tropical beach resort. The only thing that seems to draw the crowds to Tonga is when the humpback whales come to give birth – July to November and we were just a little late for that. However I did not expect quite the exclusive use of the islands which we ended up enjoying.

Clutching Captain James Cook’s three journals as our guidebook we landed in Nukualofa after a 3.5 hour flight in the dead of night. We were picked up at the airport by a young lady who drove us the good half hour into town and our pre booked hotel, the Waterfront Lodge. There we were given a warm welcome by the Italian owners and their friends. It was interesting to talk to Europeans who had been living in the country for over 20 years and were so well connected and informed about everything and everybody.
The next day we were able at last to see something of our surroundings. The colonial style lodge as its name implies is right on the water in front of the small wharf with ferries to the nearby islands and a small fish and fruit market. A twenty minute walk took us into town. While we waited for our hired car to arrive (very nice and efficient Vola from Hertz) we wandered around, had a drink at the Friends’ café and bought hip T shirts from Blue Banana. All the people we met spoke excellent English and were very friendly though somewhat larger than us!
Nukualofa town is not brimming with must-sees so as soon as our bright red jeepette was ready we drove off for a tour of Tongatapu as the main island is called.
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Jan 21st, 2010, 03:00 PM
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Well, you've got my interest. Please continue...

A friend of mine traveled to Tonga a few years back and I have to admit, I knew nothing of it before her visit.
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Jan 21st, 2010, 03:30 PM
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I have ALWAYS wanted to go to Tonga - love to hear more!
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Jan 21st, 2010, 03:33 PM
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Towards the end of November, I was on an small expedition ship which visited Tonga. We stopped at Neiafu and walked the very picturesque town with it's stores and tourist facilities. Later we relocated to A'a Island and by zodiac visited a cave inhabited by 500 swiftlets. We snorkeled nearby in a wonderful location. The next day we visited Niuatoputapu which had been recently struck by three tsunamis with 20 minutes between each. Fortunately, although the 3 villages were mostly destroyed, the loss of life was kept at 6. We carried on board supplies and even though the loss of habitat was significant, the people welcomed us with wonderful smiling faces and singing and dancing. The next day our visit was to Niuafo'ou. Most islands in this area never have cruise ships visiting and are only serviced every 4 months by a supply freighter. The people were wonderful and so welcoming - a great experience.
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Jan 21st, 2010, 03:51 PM
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Great, I'll carry on!

...First we called in at Cook’s landing place. Not much changed since the 1700’s. The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, 25°C, the sea tourquoise and calm. We had been warned to drive very carefully and respect the 50km speed limits (a bit low considering the good road surfaces but admittedly a lot of pigs and kids around) and just as well as some fellow tourists were stopped and fined.
Our next stop was the pretty impressive Ha’ ahmonga trilithon, a massive prehistoric stone portal in a pleasant archaeological site. After this we felt in need of a swim and some food so we headed South to Makakiu beach after checking out some stalactite caves. Here we had a good meal and swim in the only beach resort which was totally empty except for a German couple. Gossiped with the staff who seemed very willing to chat and told us to head to the blowholes a little further up. These are amazing rock formations that go on for miles forcing the sea through small crevices and up into the air in spectacular sprays. A most extraordinary sight not to be missed. We then drove to the very western tip of the island where there was supposed to be a great surfing beach and a competition. Unfortunately the waves were not cooperating and so we joined the few dejected surfers sun bathing and swimming.
Back to base. After a drink with our hosts we drove to Luna Rossa one of the restaurants favoured by the Royal family and highly recommended by all the guides. We don’t usually go to Italian restaurants on our trips abroad but had to make an exception having become friends with the owner. We didn’t regret it. Excellent fish and delicious onion soup as well as home cured prosciutti and salami.
We had an early flight the next day to Vava’u which everyone we met told us would be a dream. So we went to bed early and weren’t really sure if we’d really felt or just dreamt the small earthquake until we were told the next morning that they are quite a common occurence!
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Jan 21st, 2010, 03:52 PM
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I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your report.

Lee Ann
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Jan 21st, 2010, 07:16 PM
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There may be more out here that are interested in these Pacific Islands than you think. I have been to Tonga as well as all the other South Pacific Islands. My partner also went there last year with our Tongan (travel agent) friend.I am looking forward to your report on Vava'u as I found it one of the nicer places I have visited. I hope you visit both Swallows Cave and Mariners Cave.To all others that are thinking of visiting the South Pacific Islands it is important to visit the outer (or lesser ) islands in the group as that is where you will find more pristine reefs, small villages that are less spoilt by western intrusion.
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Jan 21st, 2010, 09:10 PM
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This is great, carrom - thank you! Looking forward to the next chapters. And to the Australian & NZ sectors, too.
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Jan 21st, 2010, 10:16 PM
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Looking forward to more!
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 12:50 AM
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Thank-you all for the encouragement!
Here goes....

The flight to the Vava’u archipelago is just one hour North but the geographic change is quite dramatic. Where Tongtapu was quite cool and flat the 60 or so islands that make up Vava’u are much warmer and hilly covered in vegetation and surrounded by crystal waters and white sand. “On average for every nautical mile travelled in any direction there are 4.8 picturesque islands”. * A sailor’s paradise everyone said and so it turned out to be for us. The Moorings staff met us at the airport and suggested we leave our luggage at the base before going to the market for our provisions. The town of Neiafu is small laid back with a few charming buildings a lovely bay and an excellent market. We did all our fresh food shopping having relied on Moorings for the heavy stuff – wine, beer, potatoes etc. We couldn’t find any fresh meat, cheese or fish so decided to do without and rather hopefully bought a primitive harpoon for our son Andrea to catch us our dinners.
Our boat, Foxglove, was ready and waiting and after a fairly lengthy briefing consisting mostly of what dreadful punishments would be inflicted if we broke the toilet or damaged anything, we felt more or less ready to take off. Paolo (husband) was slightly nervous about bareboat sailing in unknown territory but skipper Andrea was very relaxed and I, as ship’s cook, was too busy making myself at home in the galley to worry.....
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 02:57 AM
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I am the partner of Jamesexton-1. I have been to Tonga 3 times - first in 1997 for 50th anniversary of old King's wedding and the establishment of Tonga High School. Have been back twice since, first time, in 2007,to suss out accommodation for when King was crowned in 2008. And there for the Coronation - what a bizarre occasion. If in Nuku'alofa, not much to see but take boat out to either Paimotu - king's island - specially on Sunday when not much happens in town or one of the other islands around the harbour. It is run by Earl Emberson and his wife - cool drinks and very cool food. If staying in town, I recommend Waterfront - never, ever go to Friendly Islander (total rip off). Been to Vava'u - simply fabulous - so few planes flying in that it's almost tourist free. Swim with the whales, one of the few places to get in the water with them - utterly awesome. A visit to the Bounty Bar is a must, specially on a Tuesday night for free ranging jazz - and everyone should visit Cindy Russell at Tropical Teese to buy a Tongan Dirt Shirt with your choice of design. Use the new Chatham's airline to get there, it is more reliable than Tonga Air
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 10:50 AM
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More on our trip.....

The main characteristic about the Vava’u group seems to be its steady trade winds at 14-20 knots and
plenty of excellent protected moorings. This combined with the possibility of seeing and swimming with humpback whales and their young makes it a very busy bustling archipelago with plenty of good eating opportunities, Tongan feasts and various other tourist activities. Or so we were told. Everybody must have left as soon as we arrived. During our whole stay we did not cross a single other boat.
We stopped for our first swim in an amazingly beautiful bay just a half hour’s sail from the port and we were surprised at being quite alone. The first night we moored in transparent starfish- filled waters a further hour away and didn’t have to fight anyone over the only available buoy (Most buoys available on first come first served basis for $10 TP approx 4 euros per night). Next morning, sun shining, we headed for a lagoon where apparently we could find a good little restaurant. Instead we saw our first whale nursing its calf just a few feet away from us. A wonderful and unexpected experience. She stayed close to us enough time for me to shoot a couple of gigas of photos at her then swam off. So much for too late in the season! Too late for the restaurant however which had been quite abandoned by its NZ owner so we had to rely on the catch of the day which consisted of 3 decent sized nameless but tasty red fish which I grilled on the outdoor barbecue.

Andrea’s fishing fantasies well fired up by yesterday’s catch, we decided to go and look for certain buoys out in the ocean which apparently attract big fish to the small ecosystems created around the long mooring ropes. We sailed in a good wind for about 3 hours but couldn’t find anything. As we were heading back with full sails and the skipper fast asleep something bit on the lure and the reel started spinning wildly, there was panic aboard as Andrea woke up shouting “reverse gear quick” (blissfully unaware that we were sailing) and Paolo dropped the mainsail and we all screamed and rushed about frantically as he successfully pulled in a large gleaming tuna! I marinated it in coconut and lime juice and it was absolutely delicious!

On our third night we decided to try and go to the small private Mouna Island despite not having given the 24 hour warning requested. We spoke on the radio with a rather cross sounding lady who in the end said ok if you must come…. so we dinghied to the little island prepared for a rather cool reception but the place was so lovely that it was impossible not to fall in love with it instantly. A tiny wooden cottage with a little library and big veranda. Just 4 guest bungalows (only one occupied) and a charming couple (once you got to know them) running the place. We had a delicious meal of maui-maui, baked potatoes, freshly baked bread, everything home grown but gourmet cooked. Definitely highly recommended. The way back to Foxglove in low tide was a bit tricky but nothing we couldn’t handle after a few bottles of wine. Once again we were the only vessel moored in the bay.
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Jan 22nd, 2010, 11:04 AM
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I am so enjoying your report! Thanks for sharing.
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Jan 23rd, 2010, 04:52 AM
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Mouna Island was so nice we decided to stay the next morning. We went back to the resort for coffee and then went snorkeling round the reef which was excellent, full of live coral and small but very colourful fish.
On Day 4 the couple we had met in Mouna strongly recommended Pangaimotu as our next port of call. On the way there we visited the Swallows Caves which are quite spectacular especially the one with all the graffiti which is huge. The area around the caves is also quite amazing for snorkeling though I got a bit nervous seeing many little sharks and larger fish. A couple of dolphins followed us for a while.
Pangimoutu is a large bay with an island in front creating an almost completely enclosed pool. This was the first place where we saw other sailing boats but they all turned out to be moored for the season with one person in charge of looking after them. He was the husband of an artist who worked and lived in a tiny barge called Ark Gallery which we visited. That evening we decided to try and eat at Paella a resort/restaurant on the small island of Tapana run by an eccentric Spanish couple. It turned out to be more fun than we expected despite being once again the only customers. Firstly we were greeted by a dancing goat then by the rather Morticia-like wife and silent husband. Dinner however was very good gazpacho followed by tortilla, jamon, salad and paella all prepared on the spot just for us. They only had 2 bottles of beer. As we were preparing to leave we realized the advertised live music show was being set up. This consisted of Maria playing the maracas and Eduardo singing to his guitar while the goat and dog cavorted around the dining room. The whole thing might have been embarrassing with just the 3 of us had not Eduardo’s singing and playing been so exquisite. His rendition of classic Brazilian and Spanish ballads was really moving and he had a real talent for switching from one genre to the other reinterpreting Blues and Rock as well. It turned into a great night out and made up for my disappointment at the Tongan Feast being cancelled due to too few participants.

Sadly our sailing holiday was coming to an end and we had to bring the boat back to base. We really had an excellent time and no complaints with either the boat or Moorings. Our boat, a 37.32 Beneteau Oceanis customized for Moorings was extremely comfortable for the 3 of us, both inside and out but I would not recommend it for more than 4. It had 2 double cabins and one enormous shower room. The galley was well equipped and functional as was the saloon. The cockpit was very comfortable only the bimini was a bit of an impediment to visibility while steering and badly designed we thought.
There was plenty more to see and do in Vava’u and despite not normally being a sailing enthusiast I would gladly have stayed another week.

More to come.......
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Jan 24th, 2010, 03:01 AM
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Once back in Neiafu we were picked up by our host Grey who drove us to the Sovereign Residence an unusual 2 room accommodation belonging to HRH the Princess of Tonga. The house is very 80’s royalty with marble Jacuzzi and ultra kitsch furry furnishings but with a splendid view of the Port of Refuge. After drinks on the terrace we were escorted by Grey for a night out on the town drinking and eating in all the right places despite it being a Sunday – quiet day by law in Tonga.
Very sorry to be leaving Vava’u next morning we embarked on the highly efficient Chatham Pacific Airlines flight back to Fua’ amotu Airport and arrived at the ferry terminal in front of our old lodgings in time to catch the boat to Fafa island, a pleasant 40 minute sail from Tongatapu. Fafa Island is yet another little paradise. A small atoll with white sand, home to the closest thing in Tonga to a luxury resort. Fafa Island Resort is run by a German family with great warmth and elegance. The 12 Bungalows are entirely made of wood and palm fronds with outdoor bathrooms and plenty of privacy and comfortable places to sit. Not a plastic chair to be seen! There is no hot water, TV or swimming pool but plenty of the necessary luxuries like free drinking water, tea and coffee, good simple lunches and very good dinners, a library…birds…..the perfect place to relax. The staff were all very friendly and in the evening we joined the Tongans in their private Kava party where we ceremoniously drank the root of the pepper tree and listened to singing and ukuleles.

This too ended all too soon and after just 36 hours we headed back to Tongatapu for our last night. To celebrate we had a lobster dinner at the top rated Sea View Restaurant which was very delicious and portions were enormous.
As a finishing touch to our wonderful stay in the Kingdom, we saw the King himself in his London cab (he is too large for normal cars) and all the Royal retinue driving past in a fanfare of police sirens and flags. They waved goodbye to us, one more happy memory to take home!
Next morning we boarded our flight to Auckland. Our first time in New Zealand...but that is another story.
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Jan 24th, 2010, 06:40 AM
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Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventure.
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Jan 29th, 2010, 07:36 PM
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Great trip report. When I was a kid, I had a Sunday school teacher from Tonga and I've been interested in that place ever since. Thanks again!
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Jan 29th, 2010, 09:28 PM
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Thanks for the great trip report I really enjoyed it.
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Jan 30th, 2010, 02:32 PM
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Thank-you everybody. This is an encouragement to write my next one!
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Feb 1st, 2010, 05:46 PM
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What a feast for the senses, Carrom. Thanks so much for your beautifully written report.
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