Tonga is one of the most unique places in the world, having never been formally colonised this provides a rare treat for visitors to this far-flung island in the South Pacific.
Although the island has the last surviving Polynesian monarchy, within recent years there have been calls from the younger population to modernise. With high unemployment many are forced to move abroad to places like New Zealand and Australia, earnings are often sent home to feed relatives still living in Tonga.
With approximately 170 islands covering a space the size of Japan, it’s no wonder that most islanders are forced to move around by only boat or plane.
Tourism is a lifeline for the country, known as the “Friendly Island” you’ll be treated warmly by the locals who are intrigued where you come from and why you are visiting their country. Although the main island Tongatapu is small I still took a local bus north towards a secluded beach area with a few other tourists I met at a hostel I was staying in. We were treated like celebrities, the school children we met wanted photos with us and were genuinely intrigued!
As mentioned earlier Tonga was never formally colonised, although it was a British protectorate which gained independence in 1970. Tongan’s highly value their relationship with the British monarchy, having last received a visit from the Queen in 1970, many speak of their fond memories from experiencing seeing her on their island. Tonga is now a fully-fledged member of the Commonwealth of Nations, although it uses its own monarch as opposed to H.R.H, giving locals a huge sense of pride.
Why did I visit Tonga?
Well, a few reasons really, who could resist a tropical paradise! Thankfully as one of the least developed South Pacific islands, this makes it a pleasure to explore and discover.
British explorer Captain James Cook once visited these remote islands in 1773, although he received a warm welcome at the time he wasn’t aware that the islanders had planned to kill him, sadly for them they couldn’t make their minds up when to do it and he left Tonga alive and unaware. There’s a tourist information board on one of the sites he landed at.
Due to its location, Tonga suffers from a tropical climate. When I visited it was November, this is the start of the cyclone season in the South Pacific. For the first few days on the island it constantly rained, although this made it feel like home.
My accommodation in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, was a small family-run hostel. Although it wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury, far from it (one night I woke up to the sound of rats), it was cheap at approximately £5 per night making it incredibly reasonable. Staying in a hostel enabled me to meet other travellers from around the world. After a short trip to another island I returned to the hostel and was given a “cabin” in the garden, I arrived in the dark and was woke up in the middle of the night by screams! I literally froze, not knowing what it could be, I half expected to be murdered, thankfully for me when it was daylight I discovered several little piglets living under the hut I was staying in…phew!
Tonga is split in to five main regions, Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Vava’u, Ha’apai and the Niua’s. Unfortunately I was unable to visit the last three, although these are where some of the most pristine, unexplored islands exist.
One place I wanted to discover was Eua island, a more rugged and smaller island than Tongatapu. Thankfully some of my fellow hostel travellers also had the same idea so we booked on the daily ferry to hop across. Usually this crossing takes just over two hours, however on the day I travelled it was more like four!
The reason…the weather! When we left Nuku’alofa harbour all was well for the first hour, then we hit a storm and before we knew it the boat would rise over the intense waves and then crash back in the water. It was incredibly scary although I never once felt at risk, it was when I noticed the locals being sick over the side of the boat that I started to panic that it might be more serious than I first thought.
I remember being really ill, my head was hanging out of the window and the image that now sticks in my mind is lifting my head up to see flying fish in the sea! Even though I felt awful, this did put a smile on my face. When we finally docked at Eua island everyone looked green and ill, but we had survived the storm.
Eua Island is much smaller than Tongatapu, but in my opinion is much more beautiful. Whilst staying at my hostel in Nuku’alofa I’d noticed a leaflet for a guesthouse on Eua which looked like a proper home stay, I wasn’t wrong!
Taina’s Place is everything I’d dreamed of on a South Pacific island, just a short walk from the beach whilst being set on the edge of a rainforest, this place was like a traveller’s dream. Taina very kindly met us from the harbour and drove the 7km to her guesthouse, when we arrived, even though all of us still felt very ill from the boat it was a breath of fresh air in the tranquil surroundings.
When it came to breakfast, you could either allow Taina to cook you a breakfast or simply go and pick a banana fresh from the tree outside…amazing!! As Eua is a very small island with very few restaurants, she offers home cooked food at her house, which for me was an amazing opportunity to eat with locals and discover proper Tongan cuisine. Let’s just say Tongan feasts are something else, later on in my trip in another part of Tonga I was treated a full spit-roasted pig, it was HUGE!
After arriving by boat I didn’t want to take the same risk and end up in another storm, so I opted to fly back to the main island. At the time when I visited, Chatham Pacific Airline provided the link between the islands however they no longer offer this route. It has however been reinstated by Real Tonga Airlines.
It’s believed that the flight between Tongatapu and Eua is one of the shortest passenger flight in the world at just eight minutes long.
To embrace the proper Tongan experience, I highly recommend having dinner in a cave whilst seeing a dance show. Not only do women perform their incredible routines but men are also hugely involved, one even did fire eating, not something I’m about to try.
I’m sorry for the photo quality, it was in a cave and it was 2009!!
If you visit Tonga make sure you purchase one of the amazing tapa postcards, tapa mats are a traditional cloth made in the South Pacific. It takes a lot of people a long time to produce high quality goods, although I bought a postcard, most tapa is used for clothes for events such as weddings.
I can’t believe it’s now been six years since I visited the beautiful island of Tonga, it seems like only yesterday. I had a fantastic time and I highly recommend that if you visit any of the South Pacific islands, Tonga should be your number one priority!
Travelling to Tonga
It’s not exactly the most connected place in the world, but it’s not impossible. You can fly into Tonga from Australia, New Zealand and even some flights from the United States.
Due to the expense and lack of competition, at present I’m not aware of any inter-island flights in the South Pacific, although this routinely changes when new companies set up new airlines, so keep an eye out for flights from Tonga and Samoa, Fiji and vice-versa.
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.