Three Days in Tonga

My island hop adventure has taken me from Hawaii, to American Samoa, to Samoa, and now Tonga. I knew nothing of Tonga prior to making my reservations. After browsing my Pacific Island travel guide, I learned the people are devout Christians and island doesn’t cater much to tourists. Not knowing what to expect, I was a little nervous about visiting, especially via Talofa Airways.

Getting to Tonga

I arrived at the Fagali’i Airport in Samoa about two hours in advance of my flight, far sooner than necessary. The gentleman checked me in and suggested that I wait inside rather than outside as the waiting room has air-conditioning. Though the outside has the single snack stand and bathrooms.

After the one man security force (no X-ray system) sifted through my bag, I paid the over weight charge (only 44 pounds allowed), stood on the scale with my carry on for my weight, and filled out the Samoa departure form. I was about to go inside to clear customs at the waiting room when I asked the man at the desk if I stay on the plane in Pago Pago, my connecting city, since I only have one boarding pass.

He said, “No, your flight has changed. There is no connection. You are going directly to Tonga at 10:20. No one informed you?”

With a slightly later departure time, I apprehensively asked, “So then I don’t need this American Samoa declaration form you gave me?”

“Oh, no. Sorry, let me get you one for Tonga.”

With that, I went into the air-conditioned area and waited while others came and went. Soon there were only three of us.

Eventually, we boarded the eight seat plane. I guarantee both my fellow passengers weighed more than me and both my bags combined, but I’m the only one who had to pay for extra weight!😄 Fortunately the plane wasn’t full, so we had enough space.

After about two hours, we landed at the Fua’amotu International Airport on Tongatapu, Tonga’s biggest and most populated island.

Fua’amotu International Airport in Tonga

The airport was nicer than I expected. If I had to guess it was financed by either the Chinese or Japanese who are in a race to fund things. It is believed Japan is investing in the island to get access to whaling, and the Chinese are interested in building a military base on the largely flat island.

Regardless, single, white females don’t get targeted by law enforcement too often, but in Tonga, the two Samoans passed through immigration while I had my bag searched. They smelled my shampoo and sunscreen, inspected my over-the-counter medicines like Imodium and NyQuil that I carry with me in case I get sick. Then one officer asked if I do drugs. I couldn’t help but laugh.

Based on all the questions on the form, I thought they were going to stop me for having my dive gear and pre-packaged food, both of which you were supposed to declare. Finally I asked, “What are you looking for?”

“Drugs.”

Well, keep looking I thought. And thank goodness they didn’t go through my carry on that had my migraine medicine, Excedrin, vitamins and Malarone for malaria. I might not have ever seen Tonga!

Eventually cleared, I met the taxi driver that the hotel sent for me for a fee. The airport is about thirty minutes from Tongatapu’s city center, Nuku’alofa, and no taxi’s wait outside the airport, so it’s important to arrange a ride in advance.

My taxi driver said he went to the USA to learn about tourism and offered me an around the island tour for $200 TOP. I told him my guide book says it’s $60 TOP (with a three person minimum). Minutes later, he offered it to me $150 TOP. I said let me get to the hotel and figure things out. Then he was down to $125 TOP. I wanted to ask if he learned his trade at a USA car dealership! Needless to say, the hotel recommended a different company.

Where To Stay

While there are some primitive resorts on the western side of the island, I stayed in town at The House of Tonga, only a few years old. The staff at the hotel, extremely friendly and accommodating, spoke English well. In fact, along with the Tongan dialect, English is the official language of the archipelago which comprises 171 islands, Niua Group in the North, the Vava’u Group in the middle, and the Tongatapu Group in the South. Of the 171 islands, only 45 are inhabited.

Since I wasn’t planning on renting a car to get around the big, flat island, I questioned Lani and Maria at the front desk about the limited tours offered on Tongatapu. UltimateLy, they arranged an around the island tour for me with Missy on Friday and a kayaking tour with Fatai Kayak Adventures that I had found in my guide book on Saturday.

Initially, however, they helped carry my bag up the stairs to the row of second floor rooms with doors opening to the outside like a motel. The large room with a sitting area and kitchenette (just refrigerator and tea kettle) was immaculate and nicely decorated. The bathroom was spacious too. After I arranged my things, I strolled toward town and the harbor to get the lay of the land, to find an ATM for some pa’anga, and to get lunch.

House of Tonga

Friends Cafe

Friends Cafe is a very Americanized coffee bar that serves a menu of international cuisine. I ordered fish and chips at the counter and waited for my meal on one of its two patios. The coffee shop also has two indoor seating areas, one has a coffee house vibe while the other is closer to a bar. In between is their tourism office. The cafe, which offers free wifi, is definitely the hub of the small, yet interesting downtown which features the Royal Palace, Royal Tombs, some businesses, the Talamahu market, and a harbor.

Friends Cafe in Tonga

The Royal Palace

Once a British protectorate, Tonga is the only Kingdom in the Pacific. The official residence of the King of Tonga, is the Royal Palace located on the harbor in Nuku’alofa. The wooden palace, constructed in 1867, is not open to the public though a decent view can be found at the water front.

Tonga Royal Palace

The Royal Tombs

The Royal Tombs, centered in a large park called Mala’ekula, are also closed to the public, but easily seen from across the lawn. The statue-studded tombs have been the resting place for the royals since 1893.

Tonga Royal tombs

Island Tour With FISH

There are other sacred sites around the island which I visited on my around the island tour with Missy. Missy has been running his tour services, FISH (Friendly Island Service and Hospitality), for 30 years. He picked me up at the hotel Friday morning, and off we went circling the island.

We started downtown seeing the aforementioned royal grounds before we headed west to the flying fox colony. My guide book described the colony as a mind blowing scene, but they recently moved so one tree of bats didn’t seem that grand. After a quick stop on the side of the road we carried on to the northwestern point of Tongatapu to see the first landing spot of Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer, indicated by a marker with a plaque.

Tsunami Rock

Returning down the northwest tip, we split off to the right on Liku Road, where we traveled the southern coast to Tsunami Rock. Tsunami Rock is a 1,600 metric ton boulder full off fossils in the middle of a field of coconut trees. It is thought a tsunami broke it off a reef and tossed it on shore, though many legends are also associated with the rock, and as a result the has had many names.

One such legend claims the god Maui grew tired of the crowing roosters. He thought they were too noisy, and he threw this rock which quieted them. After my recent stay in Tanna, I can relate to this. Who knew roosters crow all night long?!?

Tsunami Rock in Tonga

Mapu’a ’a Vaea

From the boulder, we visited Mapu’a ’a Vaea which means Vaea’s whistle. This five kilometers of rugged coastline features fantastic blow holes and spectacular crashing waves. In a domino effect, water shot upward along the coast. It was one of the best displays of blow holes I have ever seen. My pictures could not do this place justice. Blow Hole Video 1 and Blow Hole Video 2

Blow Holes in Tonga

Three Headed Coconut Tree

From there, we swung inland to the only three-headed coconut tree in the world, or so they claim. I’d never given much thought to a top of a coconut tree, but this rarity featured three distinct branches. Since I’ve been in the islands, I’ve learned to be very careful of coconut trees. Signs were posted everywhere at the last place I stayed, and Missy refuses to park his car under one and most the time drives in the middle of the road away from any trees!

Three headed coconut tree in tonga

Having now covered the western side of the island, we moved to the east as Missy shopped along the way. He looked at a shirt hanging at a roadside stand, purchased a basket of taro that was listed at a good price, and said hi to just about every other person on the island!

Missy

Hufangalupe Archway

We passed by plantations of kava, taro, peanuts, watermelons, and other produce that Tonga exports. Soon, after turning onto a dirt road and talking to a farmer who gave me some fresh taro, we arrived at Hufangalupe Archway, a natural bridge on the south coast. I’m certain I wouldn’t have found this slice of paradise on my own.

Hufangalupe arch

Continuing on around Tongatapu, we made four more brief stops at Captain Cook’s Landing Place, the Royal Terraced Tombs in Lapaha, lunch near the fishing pigs, and the Ha’amonga’a Maui trilithon.

Lunch was definitely authentic. Missy bought some Lu from a guy with a cooler in a roadside shack. There are different types of Lu such as Lu Pulu and Lu Sipi. Lu Pulu is corned beef with onions wrapped in taro leaves and drenched with coconut milk and served with cassava or yams.

Lu

We ate the meal, wrapped in tinfoil with our fingers at a picnic table overlooking the beach near the fishing pigs. The pigs go fishing around low tide which was around 5pm, so seeing them on my tour was a bust, but I would not be denied and searched them out on another day (more later).

Ha’amonga’a Maui Trilithon

Among the other three stops, the trilithon was the most interesting. It is described as Tonga’s stonehenge, though it only has three coral limestone slabs that weigh 30 to 40 tons.

The structure was either built as the gateway to the king’s compound in the 13th century or as an astronomical observatory in the 6th century. It is now the feature of public park that also includes the ʻesi maka faakinanga (stone to lean against), which served as the king’s throne. Local ladies display their jewelry, so shoppers should bring some extra cash.

Trilithon In Tonga

Anahulu Caves

Our final stop on the tour was Anahulu Caves. Missy definitely saved the best for last. The entry fee is $15 Tala which I thought was included with my $120 Tala tour, but as a single passenger and with the price of gas, Missy probably wasn’t making much money.

Anyway, Missy explained, “You walk down to the cave and then you go swimming.”

Somewhat uncertain I asked, “Well, what color is the water?”

Missy replied, “It’s black. It hasn’t rained, so you can swim.”

Swimming in black water did not seem appealing. I hesitantly paid the entrance and walked down the path to the cave wondering what awaited me. Did I need my towel, shoes, mask and snorkel, or a flashlight? All of which I had except for the latter.

With a picture of a lava tube in my head from latest island visits in Hawaii and Samoa, I was surprised to find the entrance of a limestone cave complete with stalactites and stalagmites! Oh my gosh…I LOVE seeing cave formations, and the chance to visit a cave without a guide or restrictions was invigorating. The first thing I did was touch the mineral deposits from the dripping water, forbidden on cave tours.

I followed the short path to the swimming hole with clear, royal blue water. While normally I like having nature to myself, I was thankful to find some seasoned visitors who previously had jumped from the rocks into the cool pool about ten feet below. I soon followed suit and happy to not be swimming alone. That would have been a bit creepy for me! They didn’t stay long though, so I got to explore the lit cave in solitude which was awesome.

Anahulu caves in Tonga

The tour took most of the day, from 8:30-3. Missy commented that he thought it would only last until about 2 since it was just me. I thought to myself it would have if we didn’t do his shopping and stop to talk to all his friends! But that is also what made the tour fun.

Talamahu Market

Fortunately, we arrived back in town with enough time for me to catch the tail end of the Talamahu market. What a great market it is! On display under the pavilion downstairs were handicrafts and vegetables and fruit galore, meticulously arranged. Upstairs featured a selection of clothing. I could have spent hours there. I just love seeing how the locals live.

Talamahu market in Tonga

Russian Checkers

Speaking of which, not far from the market, a group of men were playing checkers with bottle caps. I asked if I could watch and if I could take a picture. Friendly as can be, they invited me to play. Soon enough, I found myself in a duel of Russian checkers which unbeknownst to me has ENTIRELY different rules than American checkers.

Russian checkers in tonga

It is required to jump if challenged, singles can jump backwards, and kings can jump a whole row like a bishop in chess. I got walloped and retired after one round. I bid goodbye and aimlessly wandered to the ferry terminal, built by the Japanese. While the Japanese have invested in the infrastructure, the Chinese are the ones that have moved to the island and opened up small grocery stores and restaurants.

Most the Chinese were not friendly, but that is likely due to them knowing limited English though they could have at least smiled. The exception was at Tigers Inn, where I ordered dinner to go after watching a local net ball game, a new sport to me. It was like ultimate frisbee, only they threw a basketball, and at each end they had to toss the ball in a hoop without a backboard.

Net ball

Kayaking Tour in Tonga

My second day on Tongatapu, I spent kayaking with Fatai Kayak Adventures, though they have changed their name to Taufatahi Whale Swim and Boat Charter as they are promoting their new whale watching business whose season just ended.

I was fortunate Tim and Vila were willing to take a single traveler despite a two person minimum. Tim is a Korean American and Vila is a Tongan American. It was kind of nice to actually hear English with an American accent after being away for almost three weeks.

Vila and their daughter Noralani, picked me up at the hotel and drove me to their home in northeastern Tongatapu near Manuka where we picked up the kayaks. On a side note, Noralani is making a bid for the 2020 Olympics in swimming. The Chinese provide $1,000 a month to the top athletes in each sport as long as they continue to improve their time. Noralani has a year to shave a minute off her freestyle. She has to practice in the ocean as there is no swimming pool in Tonga, though she will get two months of training in China this summer. I’ll be watching for a Tongan Olympian.

Makaha’a Island

But back to kayaking. We took the kayaks to the beach where we paddled to Makaha’a Island. It looked kind of far away, but it only took 30 minutes or so to get there. The island is uninhabited except for a poor lonesome cat! As we strolled the beach for shells it followed us meowing the whole time.

I suggested we take it to the mainland, but Tim was not on board. He said it gets plenty of mice and rats on Makaha’a. It did look well fed, and I can’t imagine any of us would fare well with a cat on a kayak in the ocean.

Makaha’a island

Pangiamotu Island

Anyway, we continued on to Pangiamotu Island. This island is popular among the locals, especially on Sunday when by law every business except resorts is closed and most everyone attends church.

I honestly wouldn’t describe Pangiamotu Island with a beachside restaurant and patio a resort, but it’s all relative. There is some snorkeling around a sunken boat that the locals also climb on and jump off.

Shipwreck at Pangiamotu  Island

Surprisingly, this stop along with the Anahulu Caves might have been the highlights of my trip. Upon sitting down for fish and chips, a man asked Tim and me if we would judge a talent show. Why not!

Talent Show

Kids from one of the Mormon schools had just graduated high school and their present was to come to this island. They had to draw acts out of a hat and then portray the selected talent. The acts included playing a rockstar, belly dancing, and ballet along with some other dances.

Two teams of five danced off. One of the boys on Team 2 was not only a good dancer, but hysterical as he acted out feminine mannerism with his facial expressions and body movements. I wish my videos showed his face better, as we were constantly laughing. The belly dancing was particularly clever. Belly Dance Video

Talent shoe

Tonga vs Australia Rugby Match

After the talent show, we paddled back toTongatapu, though closer to town than where we started, and I prepped for the Tonga vs Australia rugby match. Tim and Vila warned me that if Tonga wins, it will be a crazy night in Nuku’alofa.

The town was very busy with locals shopping for their Sunday lunch before the stores closed. The police were out in force and blocked off the main section of downtown to cars. Locals tuned into the evening rugby match at homes, snack shacks and bars. I wandered the street during the first half of the match, bought a meal for tomorrow, and then took shelter.

I didn’t see the final score of the game, but it was clear who won. Cars displaying the Tongan red and white flag drove up and down the street for hours honking! The Tongans beat the Australians for the first time ever. Fortunately, Sunday, by law, is declared a quiet day of rest, so the celebration of horns and fireworks stopped at midnight on Saturday! Honking Horns Video

Sunday Church Services

With nothing to do on Sunday but visit a resort, I joined a church service for the morning with the locals. The Catholic, Methodist, and Mormon faith are the three biggest. Raised Catholic, I tried to attend the Catholic service, but no one was at the temple type building. Apparently the service was taking place at the cemetery in honor of the day of the dead.

Instead, I visited the Church of Tonga which is like Methodist. I planned on just staying 10 minutes or so to listen to the robust singing, but then an usher locked the door! He unlocked it after about a 10 minute prayer (or something) that was not to be disturbed as late arrivals joined after.

I don’t exactly know because it was all in Tongan, as we knelt with our backs to the altar and leaning on our pew. The sermon was particularly long and the service ended with more singing. For those who don’t wish to attend the entire mass, coming before the service begins or at the very end is best for the music. Clip of Singing

Oholei Beach Resort

After the service, Missy picked me up and took me to Oholei Beach Resort for their 2pm buffet feast of local food. He charged me $80 Tala which is basically the cost of two lunches, his and mine. He really wanted to go there. He says it’s the best food of all the resorts.

I saw the resort offered a free shuttle, so I suppose I could have saved myself some money, but it is more fun to eat and talk with the locals. Missy ran into a few friends, one who had recently returned from doing construction work in Australia, so we chatted for a while over pork, taro, fruit and salad which is served on a banana stalk.

Sunday lunch at Oholei beach

Fishing Pigs

Had the weather been nicer, I might have relaxed on the beach for a while, but the strong, cold wind blew sand into my face, making beach time uninviting. Missy took me back to my hotel via the fishing pigs beach as low tide was around 4:30. I’m pleased to say we saw a few adults and even some babies rooting their snouts in the sand. I had hoped they’d be a little farther out in the water, but it was still a novelty I’d never seen. They say the fishing pigs taste saltier than others.

Fishing pigs in Tonga

Samoa vs Tonga

Anyway, I enjoyed a nice few days in Tonga, and it was interesting to compare Tonga and Samoa. They speak completely different languages, though follow many of the same customs like making and wearing siapos or tupenus (like sarongs) and growing and eating similar foods.

The dogs are treated similarly as well, not as pets, but just as protectors. None have collars and they wander the streets, though know where home is for scraps of human food at dinner time. Most were in surprisingly good condition given they don’t visit vets.

The homes in Tonga were much nicer than in Samoa, though the landscaping was far less elaborate and they do not have fales for meeting spaces.

Both countries drive on the left, though Samoans are more friendly to pedestrians. In Tonga, watch out. People with a connection in government can buy a license without taking a test. Walking down the sidewalk does not ensure safety as drivers turn into parking areas! Forget crossing a street near a roundabout.

Despite their driving abilities, the locals super friendly and I loved meeting them. Each place offered fun things to do, and now I’m off to Vanuatu. To be continued…ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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