The South Pacific Ocean is known for its crystal blue waters and amazing marine life. It’s also known for pristine beaches on resort islands. But probably one of its best-kept secrets is the tantalisingly tropical Tonga island chain. If you haven’t heard of the Kingdom of Tonga before, it’s about time you did! The archipelago of 169 islands in Polynesia that form the Kingdom of Tonga lie to the northeast of New Zealand.
Logistics of Getting to Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga
To be honest, none of the South Pacific island countries are known for being easily accessible by sea. Unless you have your own boat. In fact, the most efficient way to move between them is to fly. Although quick, these flights do not come cheap, no matter when you book them. The flight from Nadi in Fiji, to Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga in the Tongatapu group of islands, took just over one hour but cost US$250.
The Fua’amotu international airport in Tongatapu is rather small. Interestingly, the runway is only graded to handle smaller jet aircraft, so you’ll never see a 747 there! Even though the airport is classed as international, don’t expect to be able to get a flight there from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the only connections are to and from Suva and Nadi in Fiji, Pago Pago in American Samoa, Sydney in Australia or Auckland in New Zealand. Perhaps the strangest thing about this airport is that it closes on Sundays. Let’s just say it takes a bit of planning to get there.
Arriving in Tongatapu
Once you’re there, you’ll be given a welcome serenade, as seems to be the island way. This had also happened in Fiji but somehow the Tongan welcome wagon was a bit lackluster. Or maybe they were just too cool. As you would expect from a small airport, immigration was quick and the officers were really friendly.
The capital Nuku’alofa, is around 20 kilometers away from the airport but there was a slight problem. There was no public transport from the airport to the town. Taxis were, of course, available for 40 Tongan Pa’anga (TOP)/US$17.50. I had decided to do things a little differently. While researching for this trip, I had come across quite a few comments about hitchhiking being a viable way of getting around in Tonga.
A Hitchhiking Adventure in Tatilisingly Tropical Tonga
I’d barely even made it out of the airport grounds before a minivan stopped. This minivan was full of ladies who, almost in unison, motioned for me to get into the car. The ladies were very talkative and very interested in why I’d decided to go to Tonga. They seemed quite surprised that I would choose to go there. I got the impression that they believed Tongatapu was the most boring island in the Tongan chain and that there was nothing to do there.
After a while of chatting, the lady driving pulled over onto the side of the road. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Perhaps we were just waiting for someone? I couldn’t see any buildings around though. Just then, a lady seemed to appear out of nowhere and joined us in the car. It was at that point that the driver turned to me and asked if I had a license. I indicated that I did, then she opened her door and said, “I don’t like driving in town, so you can drive!”.
I was so surprised that I think I agreed before I really knew what was going on. But hey, I do like driving, so why not? The ladies directed me to their village, just outside of the town, where we had to drop someone off.
We stopped at a house where there seemed to be an impossible amount of people residing. At least 4 generations of people. They invited me in for dinner, but I had a host waiting for me in town, so I had to regretfully decline. My host Jasmin, who I’d meet from Couschsurfing, was infinitely amused that my hitchhiking adventure had turned in to a driving adventure. I guess that’s not an everyday occurrence.
Food in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga
I was fairly hungry when I arrived and it was around dinner time. Luckily, Jasmin knew where the good local food was made. But what do you do when you’re waiting on a tropical island? Drink from a coconut, of course! A coconut straight from the fridge, no less.
Cliche coconut consumption aside, I was looking forward to trying a local delicacy. A popular dish in the area consists of meat wrapped in taro leaves that have been soaked in coconut milk. There are two variations; Lu Pulu (beef) and Lu Sipi (lamb). I grabbed the Lu Sipi and it was super rich and delicious. Given all the meat and coconut milk it contained, it was also a very heavy meal. I was barely able to finish it!
Tongans also love having dessert after their super heavy meals and I was interested to see what Tongan desserts looked like. Unfortunately, pretty much everything was closed because I was on a small island after 7pm. I did manage to find an ice cream shop open though. It seemed to be the only place open besides a couple of bars. I’m not sure if that’s why it was so crowded, or if it was just because locals really love ice cream? Even if the only flavours available were vanilla, strawberry and blitz.
Another imported food that Tongans love is KFC. Tonga is too small for KFC to open there, but all Tongans know what it is. To the point where anywhere that sells any kind of fried chicken refers to it as Kentucky. Jasmin informed me that when locals fly back from New Zealand, where there are KFCs, they will bring back buckets of the stuff for the family.
Nightlife in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga
When Jasmin was ready to retire for the night I decided to have a little walk around the town. Except for a few cars here and there, the town was very quiet. It wasn’t long until I’d found my way to some roadside tombs. They were quite ornate and it looked like people added flowers and tended to the graves every day.
As I wasn’t far from the sea, I decided to take a walk down to the waterfront. That didn’t go as I had planned. I could barely walk a few hundred metres without a car stopping to ask if I needed a lift. Tongans are a very caring bunch and seemed worried that a foreigner was out walking by themselves at night. After the fifth car stopped and I hadn’t even managed to walk 500 metres, I gave up and found some local beer.
Animals of Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga
Of course, you would expect tropical islands in the South Pacific to be full of tropical animals like birds and colourful fish. I promise I’ll show you some of that later. Tonga also had its fair share of introduced animals wandering around. There were some stray cats and dogs, which you might expect to see almost anywhere in the world. But chickens weren’t really on the list of animals I’d expected to see. Never-the-less, they were everywhere and normally had a couple of chicks in tow.
Other much larger animals that I was not expecting to see were boars. Obviously these had been introduced by European explorers and were eventually left to roam the islands. They generally seem quite docile and are always happy to eat any food you might leave out for them.
There are stories of fishing pigs. These are boars that have lost their natural fear of the water and can be seen wading out at low tide to catch themselves some dinner. If you were thinking of going to Tonga for some sun and sea, you could end up staying to watch the fishing pigs!
Wandering Around the Town
As I’d been unsuccessful in reaching the waterfront at night, I decided to try it during the day. This time I was able to do it in a respectable five minutes! That’s how small Nuku’alofa is! On my wander, I was able to see some palm trees as you would expect.
But one of the more interesting things I saw was the Centennial Church. This church was run by the Free Church of Tonga, an organisation set up by the Tongan King and a missionary in 1885.
Unfortunately, Cyclone Gita hit Tonga a few months after I left, causing widespread damage. The church was one of the buildings damaged and as a consequence, is no longer in use. The royal tombs across the road fared better though.
As I got closer to the waterfront, there were a few memorials around.
And of course, as it was coming up to Christmas, some seasons greetings.
I’d come for the water though. While there was no beach to be seen, the area was calm and peaceful.
Tourist Attractions in Tantalisingly Tropical Tonga
As the Tongan island chain is particularly remote and not the most easily accessible, tourism hasn’t had a big impact on the area. That means that literally every tourist attraction on Tongatapu is listed on this roadsign.
That’s not to say that Nuku’alofa has not been set up with tourists in mind. There are actually a few informational signs around to guide you on your way. Like this handy map of the island, near the waterfront.
Under The Sea
After Jasmin finished work, she asked if I wanted to join her for a swim. She had two bikes so we rode down to the waterfront. Given the absolute flatness of Nuku’alofa, the ride was rather quick and enjoyable.
We left the bikes up near the carpark and walked along some rocks to the local swimming spot.
I spied this little fella in a rock pool on the way.
But the view was definitely better under the water!
The fact that Tonga is a little bit off the tourist radar and a little bit harder to reach makes it all the more enticing. The absence of the big resorts seen on other islands gives it a more genuine and homely feel. It’s definitely a must-see!