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SETTING THE SCENE
Tonga is a unique country in many ways. It has never been colonized, it remains a Kingdom until today, and it is known to be the Friendly Islands. But sadly Tonga was on my radar more recently because of the massive submarine volcano that exploded in January 2022 causing apocalyptic storms, surges, and a tsunami that leveled parts of the island chain. Yet the resilience of the people has endured, underscored by their commitment to family, community, and strong spiritual beliefs. This is what I truly appreciated on my trip to the Last Kingdom in the South Pacific.
PLANNING: I decided to use a new tool I had come across through some friends called ChatGPT, which uses AI to respond to any inquiry asked. So I asked the app to build me an itinerary to Tonga for three days and what I got back was a good framework even though for me it was far too basic and general. Since I like to push myself and also seek more serendipitous/authentic experiences I just used the proposed itinerary and built off of it using blogs, vlogs, and asking numerous people while I was there. So if you want a good starting point, you can start with ChatGPT and also google “three-day itinerary in Tonga” and then start to build your own itinerary. But be ready to pivot when you get there since in places like Tonga, nothing is what you can expect!
COVID REQUIREMENTS: Tonga required proof of vaccination. Definitely consult with the local authorities to find the latest requirements as they are still changing. Hack, I usually call the airline I am flying to find out the exact requirements.
FLIGHTS: I flew to Tonga direct from Fiji (started with a direct flight from LA to Fiji, which was quite reasonable). Fiji Airways has direct flights to most of the South Pacific islands, and the airline has a modern fleet with great service. Also, the international airport in Nadi, Fiji is quite clean, with an awesome lounge but an inefficient transit desk.
TRANSPORT: I had tried in advance to find a rental car but it was virtually impossible. No cars were available anywhere on the island. So basically, on my cab ride in from the airport, I told the driver about my predicament and he said that since the day I wanted the car, which was a Sunday, and since no one works on Sundays (more on that later), that he would be happy to give me his car for about $60. That got me thinking, what a hack, to basically get someone to give me their car for the day! The issue with his offer is that he lived on the other side of the island so it would cost me double just to take another cab to him to pick up the car and another to go home after I dropped it off. So when I got to the city, I walked around and bumped into a taxi stand. I proposed having someone lend me their car and BAM I was able to get one for about $25 that would be dropped off at my hotel (more on this in Travel Hacks)! Note: cabs are very few and far between and I did not even see a bus system in the capital.
FERRIES: I wanted to take a ferry to Eu’a, the large neighboring island. Unfortunately due to the low tourist season, slow ferries, and the disruption by the tsunami and cyclone, ferries to the beautiful island were only every other day, and that applied to flights as well. So instead I wanted to take a ferry to one of the very close islands like Pangamotu, but again due to the tsunami most of the resorts were obliterated and ferries were virtually non-existent. That said I walked down to the wharf hoping I would find a local fisherman to take me there. Instead through someone I hitched a ride for the day on a small private ferry that was owned by the family that had a resort on the island (see travel hacks). What luck!
ACCOMMODATIONS: I really lucked out with the accommodation. Initially, I booked through Hotels.com with the Jezami Hotel. But then I got an email from the hotel telling me they were ‘Sold Out’ and could not accommodate me?!? That had never happened to me before! So I immediately called Hotels.com/Expedia and they set about resolving the issue and found me the Tanoa International Dateline Hotel. Wow, what an accommodation! I had a nice room with an ocean view and all the facilities I could want: gym, pool, very helpful front desk, great breakfast, and super centrally located. I would imagine it’s likely the best place to stay in the capital and probably the entire main island. I would HIGHLY recommend this spot.
RESTAURANTS: I wanted to add that restaurants in the capital are not great. I really searched high and low for a great Tongan restaurant but that was almost impossible. And other restaurants were overpriced, had only Western or Chinese food, and really not worth it. The best place I found was Friends Cafe, which was so nice, and tasty with great customer service, and Katea Retreat which had good local food options but a zoo on a Sunday.
SIM CARDS: Thankfully my phone was unlocked so I decided to get a local SIM card when I got to the airport. I opted for Digicell which was GREAT! The cost was about $15 for plenty of data that worked everywhere on the island. Though I did not get local texts/calls which I regret and would recommend you do that to help with coordinating.
CREDIT CARDS/ATMS: I brought cash with me and was able to find ATMs and currency exchanges in the capital. I would advise getting some money exchanged at the airport, so you have some cash for taxis, etc. Note: if you arrive Saturday night you will need to get cash that will last you until Monday since all banking and currency exchanges are closed on Sunday.
The plan for the trip was to spend one day exploring the main island of Tongatapu on Sunday by car since everything in the capital was closed, one day on an island to enjoy the beach, and the last day basically getting more of the cultural experience and doing some shopping. Not that much different from my approach in Samoa’s journey, but it really worked out and gave me a great overview using the 3Es: Education, Exploration, and Entertainment!
Day #1: Nuku’alofa
On the first day after I landed, I decided to check in the hotel and prepare for the fact that Sunday is the universal sabbath on the island and everything is closed (shops, restaurants, cafes, banking, currency exchange, literally everything). The islanders are VERY religious where 90%+ are part of different Christian faiths: Free Wesleyan, Mormon, Jehoviah’s Witnesses, etc.
So I got cash, got the sim card, bought some snacks, and found the car I would use for the day. I then decided to get a haircut (go figure), which was a nice experience:
I then walked around to explore some of the main sites like the Royal Palace. Note: Tonga has been a unified kingdom since the mid-1800s. The king had absolute power on the island until 2010 wherein now it is a constitutional monarchy that is shared with a parliament. That said, the monarchy was revered for a long time and the king still plays a pivotal role on the island.
I then ventured to the nearby Royal Tombs and then called it a day:
Day #2: Exploring the island of Tongatapu
On day two, I got the rental car from Hema the car owner, and mapped out exactly what I would hit up to maximize the day. Some things I had to miss because they were closed or off my driving path but I got a great overview of the island:
I started the day by attending mass. Even though I am Muslim, it is always nice to experience the religious traditions of other nations/peoples/faiths, especially in a country like Tonga, which is so religious — I mean just look at the flag, which has a Greek cross and the red on the flag signifies the blood of Christ!.
In any event, I chose a nearby Wesleyan church that has more singing and hymns and felt would be more welcoming.
What I enjoyed seeing was how Tongans still imbue age-old traditions with their Christian faith. They for example adorn mats around their waists called taʻovala which in many cases are family heirlooms and extremely valuable to each person. They are typically worn for special occasions like church, weddings, funerals, and important meetings.
I then headed east to a beach area near Mu’a, which was the old capital of the country. On route, I saw where Captain Cook landed and declared the islands ‘the Friendly Islands’ since the locals offered him to join their festivities for First Fruit. And then I made my way to an area where pigs “fish” by waddling around the shoreline eating fish at low tide. While the tide was high when I was there I still got to see the pigs who were waiting nearby for the feast (it’s said these pigs are highly prized since the salt consumed by fishing gives them a more savory taste).
My hotel had recommended that I go to Katea Retreat in the southeast of the island to get a sense of a Umu, which is a conventional way of cooking in underground ovens for special occasions like post-Sunday church. I have to say the backdrop was beautiful but there were over 150 people there making it a LONG wait for food. When I did get it, I would say it was good overall (remember you never get exceptional food at a buffet). I still think it’s a good spot to check out, with good customer service.
Mapu ‘A Vaea blowholes
I had visited blowholes for the first time in Savai’i in Samoa and they were remarkable. So when I found out these existed, I made my way to the southern coast and they did not disappoint. While they are not as powerful as those in Samoa, the tide pools were incredible, almost looked prehistoric!
The rock is said to have arrived through a previous tsunami and upon closer examination, you can see the coral embedded in the rock. It’s very close to the blow holes so I thought why not stop by:
Village of Kolovai – Flying Foxes
In search of different things to experience, I decided to try to find the famous ‘Flying Foxes’ or fruit bats that are given protective status on the islands since they are the property of the king. Indeed, they have sacred qualities so they are quite prolific in certain parts of the island. After driving around and asking locals, I finally found them preaching in a tree, and it was worth the search! I have to say for some reason I’m terrified by bats (Dracula, vampires, COVID diseases, etc.) and they make some crazy sounds.
My final stop of the day was Ha’atafu Beach. Now I did not know until I got there and started walking on what was known to be the best beach in Tongatapu how badly it was hit by the tsunami. There was coral debris strewn everywhere on the beach and the resorts that existed (about 4 in total), were completely wiped out! It was an ominous site with pieces of tiled walls still semi-submerged right on the shoreline. Very sad since this destroyed a huge part of of the tourist trade on that part of the island, and after a year nothing has been rebuilt.
What I missed:
- Anahulu Cave
- Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon
Day #3: The island of Pangaimotu
As I mentioned, I found a ferry from the family that runs the resort on the island of Pangaimotu. The island at its peak was one of the best spots for sunbathers from Tongatapu to relax and enjoy a very nice beach environment even though the island is only a few miles from the main island.
But sadly Pangaimotu was directly in the path of the tsunami and while the tsunami had slowed down due to offshore reefs, it still caused a huge surge that destroyed all structures on the island including the famous Big Mama’s Bar. Before going to the island, I was warned there was no food and no sanitation, and truly nothing was left except debris where a once vibrant bar/resort stood.
So I walked all around the island to assess the damage and take it all in. Sadly it seems that very little funding has found its way to the family (the father had been granted a lifelong leasehold on the island and for decades had opened the island to locals and tourists alike). So they had to resort to a GoFundMe campaign and even make a little money from bringing day tourists like us to the island for $20
That said it was beautiful and raw, almost like a deserted island from the past. There is also a shipwreck right off the coast, which I swam and snorkeled around, and even gathered the courage to jump off the bow!
If you are looking for a more raw island experience and want to support the family then definitely go to this island. To book a ferry I would go to the wharf and ask around for someone to call the family to organize a ferry. And it helps support the family so I would definitely do it especially given how nice the beach is as compared to anywhere else on the main island.
Day #4: Nuku’alofa Cultural Immersion
On my last day, I decided to stay local and visit the museum, get souvenirs, and just lay low before catching my flight later that afternoon. After a nice breakfast at Friends Cafe, which to me has the best service, coffee, and food. If you go, say hi to Elvis for me!
I went to the Tonga National Museum. I got a great tour from the local employee and learned a lot about the culture. I would definitely advise making this your first stop when visiting the island so they can give you a good overview of the history and cultural traditions.
Finally, I ended my tour with a visit to the very central Talamahu Market, which has tons of handicrafts, souvenirs, and even a fruit/veggie market. I would certainly make this your last stop to grab stuff for your loved ones!
To truly maximize your experience in Tonga you need at least a week so that you can visit the outer islands like Vava’u, where you can literally swim with whales during whale season, and explore the island Eu’a with its national park or even Tofua which is a carter island.
That said, the time I did spend in Tonga opened my eyes to the ways of the people, their struggles, the history of the monarchy, and their deep-seeded connection to their faith. In the process, I met locals and saw how the nation still holds true to its namesake, the Friendly Islands, while also taking in the scenic beauty of the country that during low season and post-tsunami felt was all mine to explore and appreciate. Malo!
RENTING A CITIZENS CAR
So as I said before, I needed a rental car and there were no rental cars available at any agencies, so I went to a taxi stand and asked if anyone was willing to rent their taxi or private car to me. One guy called another and presto, I had a car for $25 a day. Now warning, I did not sign any paperwork, no contract, no insurance, nada. So it’s risky for both parties but in this case, I guess he just trusted me and knew where I was staying (in the future probably better to meet at a cafe instead of at one’s hotel). But if you are in a bind and can’t rent a car and getting a driver and car is too expensive and you feel comfortable driving in the country and you feel the car you are about to rent is safe, then this is a great hack and definitely worked for me on this trip!
GETTING A ‘PRIVATE’ FERRY
At my hotel, I was told there were no ferries to the island of Pangaimotu even though it’s only a 10-minute boat ride. So I asked around and was directed to the local wharf where there are fishermen. I then asked a dive boat if they knew how I could get to the island, and one of the people there was super helpful and called the family on the island who told me there was a couple going at 11 AM on their little ferry boat and they could take me! So the point is, if you want to go somewhere by boat find out where the local fisherman and dive boats etc dock and you can always find someone who is willing to take you to where you want to go, within reason of course, and hopefully for a decent price (I ended up paying $18 roundtrip).
If you are still reading this blog, then thank you for your support and I hope you found it useful for your trip to Tonga. It also hopefully means you are interested to read more! In this case, may I recommend the Samoa Blog, as part of my South Pacific series?
~ Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next Final50 Journey! ~