The Kingdom of Tonga is a collection of specks in the vast Pacific Ocean. It’s also one of the few remaining absolute monarchies in the world, and a land of immense churches and modest houses. A place where you can swim with baby humpback whales by day and quaff kava by campfire at night. So why is there nothing to do on Tongatapu, the main island, where you’ve inevitably just landed?
Backpackers should absolutely visit the other island groups of Tonga, and you probably will in due time. But before you write off Tongatapu and the scars of its pro-democracy riots, here’s five things to do while you’ve got the time.
1. Take an Island Tour with Toni’s Guesthouse – Tongatapu is a small island, but the major tourist sights are geographically dispersed around the island perimeter. You can take tours arranged by the visitor bureau or Friends Cafe in downtown Nuku’alofa, but you’ll pay more and see less than on a tour arranged by Toni’s Guesthouse, a popular hostel. Irascible Toni is almost a tourist attraction in himself. The exact circumstances that led him to a life of Tongan exile from Lancashire in northern England are a bit murky, but his reputation is almost legendary on the backpacker circuit. Toni leads a full-day van tour that costs half the price of other companies. Prepare to gaze at the world’s only three-headed coconut tree, watch the surf break at Ha’atafu Beach, or mill at the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, a Tongan version of stonehenge.
2. Jump a boat to Pangaimotu – Sunday in Tonga starts at 5 a.m. when the first church bells peal in the predawn calling worshipers to service. If you’re so inclined, go to a mass and listen to the soaring voices of the Tongan people. The rest of the backpacker population will be down at the wharf across from the visitor bureau in Nuku’alofa waiting to catch a boat across the harbour to nearby Pangaimotu island. There’s a small resort there with a bar and restaurant permitted to operate on Sunday when everything on the mainland is closed. Leave lunch at home; the 15-minute ride is only TOP$20 because you’re not permitted to carry food and must buy it once you get there. You’ll have the day to wander the soft sand beaches, hire some snorkeling gear to explore the half-submerged wreck offshore, or tilt back a Mata Maka beer with your fellow travelers. It’s not necessary to book in advance, as the ferry makes runs to the mainland throughout the day. Better still is a visit on a weekday; you’re virtually assured to have the island almost to yourself.
3. Check out the blowholes at Keleti Beach – The surf on the southern shore of Tonga rolls in unimpeded for thousands of miles, crashing on the rocks with enough force to be felt underfoot. Small vents and tubes in the breakwall relieve the surging pressure and shoot seawater into the air in a spectacular display that can be seen along the length of the coast. The blowholes are best viewed from the overlook south from the village of Houma. At Keleti Beach, the breakwall is robust enough to permit swimming during in the placid pools, but remain wary of venturing too close to the suction of the spurts. Above the beach is a simple resort with a restaurant and bar that are also open on Sunday.
4. Hire a car and explore – The natural sights around Tongatapu are interesting, but the challenge is the relative distance between them. There’s a bus service from the city centre of Nuku’alofa, but timetables are difficult and the routes aren’t always convenient. Instead, try pooling some money and hiring a car to explore for yourself. You’ll get way off the beaten track, and have a better chance to see parts of the island few tourists have. Two cautionary notes: the speed limit is often only 40 km/h and police are out in force. Second, roads in Tonga are often in terrible condition. Take it slow and steady.
5. Island and culture night – Polynesian cultures are renown for their singing and dancing, and Tongans are no exception. Every hostel has a favorite show they recommend, but for ambiance it’s hard to beat the performance in Hina Cave at Olehi Beach, held in a natural subterranean amphitheater. Get a seat up front for the fire dance.