South Pacific Organizer
Tonga travel with author David Stanley
|Destinations: travel to TONGA|
The ancient Kingdom of Tonga, oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy, is the only Pacific island nation never brought under foreign rule. Though sprinkled over 700,000 square km of ocean from Niuafo'ou, between Fiji and Samoa, to the Minerva Reef 290 km southwest of Ata, the total land area of the kingdom is only 691 square km.
Tonga is divided into four main parts: the Tongatapu Group in the south, with the capital, Nukualofa; the Ha'apai Group, a far-flung archipelago of low coral islands and soaring volcanoes in the center; the Vava'u Group, with its immense landlocked harbor; and in the north, the isolated, volcanic Niuas. The four island groups are pleasingly diverse travel destinations, each with resorts and hotels, and interesting aspects to enjoy: no other Pacific country is made up of components as scenically varied as these.
More than 100 km of open sea separate Tongatapu and Ha'apai, then another 100 between Ha'apai and Vava'u, then it's another 300 km north to remote Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu. In all, Tonga comprises 170 islands, 42 of them inhabited. Even though they're some of the most densely populated in the Pacific, the Tongan islands are set quite apart from the 21st century. Due to the position just west of the international date line, the Tonga Visitors Bureau uses the marketing slogan "where time begins," but they could just as well use "where time stands still."
Tonga sits on the eastern edge of the Indo-Australian Plate, which is forced up as the Pacific Plate pushes under it at the Tonga Trench. This long oceanic valley running 2,000 km from Tonga to New Zealand is one of the lowest segments of the ocean floor, in places more than 10 km deep. Tonga is on the circum-Pacific Ring of Fire, which extends from New Zealand to Samoa, then jogs over to Vanuatu and the Solomons. Where Tongatapu (a raised atoll), Lifuka (a low coral island), and Vava'u (another uplifted atoll) are today, towering volcanoes once belched fire and brimstone. When they sank, coral polyps gradually built up the islands.
Tonga is moving east-southeast at the rate of 20 millimeters a year and the crack in the earth's crust that originally built Tonga has shifted northwest. Thus, the active volcanoes of today are in a line 50 km west of Ha'apai-Vava'u: Fonuafo'ou, Tofua, Lateiki, Late, Fonualei, and Niuafo'ou have all erupted during the last 200 years. (View a map of Tonga.)
The name Tonga means south; it's refreshingly cooler and less humid here than on islands closer to the equator (such as sultry Samoa). December to April is the hot, rainy season, with especially high humidity January to March. June to August can be cool enough to make a sweater occasionally necessary.
Tonga gets an average of two tropical hurricanes a year, usually between November and April, although they can occur as late as May. The southeast trade winds prevail from May to November, and easterlies the rest of the year; in Tonga, west and northwest winds herald bad weather. In February and March north winds bring heat waves and heavy rains. (Check the weather today on Tongatapu.)
In June or July over a hundred humpback whales arrive in Tonga from their summer feeding areas in Antarctica. They spend the austral winter in Tonga, mating and bearing their young, before heading south again in October or November. This annual migration is necessary because there's little food for whales in Tongan waters but the calves require warm seas to survive as they're poorly insulated at birth. During the first few months of their lives the baby whales grow at a rate of 45 kg a day. They're solely dependent on their mother's milk for sustenance, and by the end of the season a nursing female may have lost 25% of her body weight.
As soon as the offspring are ready in spring, the whales return to their summer home thousands of kilometers south to fatten up on a tiny plankton called krill. Pregnancy lasts 12 months, just long enough for the mother to put on adequate weight in Antarctica to have a child in Tonga. Humpbacks prefer shallow waters close to shore, and are often curious about humans, characteristics that have worked to their disadvantage in past. From a population of around 100,000 in the 19th century, southern hemisphere humpback whales presently number only about 3,000, a drop of 97%. Subsistence shore whaling was only prohibited in Tonga in 1979 and the 10 whales previously taken each season did have an impact. However it was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that contributed more to the whales' survival since it put an end to illegal whaling from Soviet ships. Japanese whale boats continue the business even today in defiance of world opinion.
B.C.1000—Tonga settled by ancient Polynesians
Tonga stands out for its living Polynesian culture, which can be traced from the Ha'amonga trilithon on northeastern Tongatapu through the ancient langi or royal tombs of Mu'a to the gingerbread Royal Palace in downtown Nukualofa.
The country's most charming town, however, is Neiafu, which faces Vava'u's magnificent Port of Refuge Harbor. In fact, along with Levuka in Fiji and Gizo in the Solomons, Neiafu is one of the three most picturesque towns in the South Pacific.
Tonga's foremost natural feature is probably its coastal cliffs, especially the striking limestone formations along the south coast of Tongatapu, the east coast of 'Eua Island, and the north coast of Vava'u.
through your nearest online bookstore:
through your nearest bricks-and-mortar bookstore:
Vava'u is a famous sailing locale with one of the South Pacific's largest yacht charter operations. It's perfect for ocean kayaking with lots of lovely protected waterways; a kayak touring company operates in this area. Deep-sea anglers too will find Tonga's top charter fishing boats based here.
The mecca for regular reef-break surfers is Ha'atafu Beach on Tongatapu. In Samoa the surfing waves tend to be far offshore (boat required), while in Tonga you can often swim out from shore. It's no place for beginners, however. Southern swells arrive May to September, northern swells December to February.
Scuba divers are well catered for by professional dive shops in Nukualofa, Lifuka, and Neiafu, with many outstanding diving possibilities. Snorkelers have even more options, beginning with the island resorts off Nukualofa, all of which operate day-trips by boat. The finest snorkeling off Tongatapu itself is reputed to be at Ha'atafu Beach. At Vava'u, visitors can get in some excellent snorkeling by taking a day excursion from Neiafu by boat.
The Vava'u Festival during the first week of May features all sorts of sporting, cultural, and social events to mark Crown Prince Tupouto'a's birthday on 4 May. The Ha'apai Festival coincides with Emancipation Day in early June. Nukualofa's Heilala Festival, with brass band and dancing contests, parades, and sporting competitions, occupies the week coinciding with the king's birthday, the first week in July. The Miss Galaxy beauty contest for fakaleitis (men dressed as women) is great fun and always sold-out.
Visitors in possession of a passport and onward ticket do not require a visa for a stay of one month. Ports of entry for cruising yachts are Niuafo'ou, Niuatoputapu, Vava'u, Lifuka, and Nukualofa.
The Tongan pa'anga (divided into 100 seniti) is worth about the same as the Australian dollar, although the actual value fluctuates slightly. Foreign banknotes are changed at a rate about four percent lower than traveler's checks. The banks will give cash advances on credit cards for a T$6 commission. Cash advances through hotels cost about 10% commission and many businesses add 4.5% to all charges paid by credit card.
Tipping and bargaining are not customary here, although monetary gifts (fakapale) are often given to performers at cultural events (Tongans stick small bills onto the well-oiled arms and shoulders of the dancers during the performance). A five percent sales tax is added to all goods and services.
Tonga's government-owned flag carrier went bankrupt in early 2004. Air Fiji, Air New Zealand, Air Pacific, and Polynesian Airlines still fly to Tongatapu. For details, visit our airlines page. The departure tax on international flights is T$25 (passengers in transit for less than 24 hours and children under 12 are exempt).
Peau Vava'u Airlines has flights from Tongatapu to Ha'apai and Vava'u daily except Sunday. Flights to Niuatoputapu, Niuafo'ou, and 'Eua are currently suspended.
Two companies operate large car ferries between Nukualofa, Ha'apai, and Vava'u once or twice a week. To 'Eua the ferry service is Monday to Saturday.
Local bus services are good on Tongatapu but poor to non-existent on the other islands. Taxis are reasonable but fares should be established before setting out. To rent a car or scooter, you must first obtain a local drivers license (international driving license not accepted).
abridged from Moon Handbooks Tonga-Samoa
|Continue to Finding Tuvalu|