Tonga - South Pacific Diaries

Hi all. As many of our friends will know, one of our hobbies is travel and holidays in general. Being on the other side of the world to our old hang-outs has given us an opportunity to start exploring our new world. And of course, very close to New Zealand is the South Pacific Islands! Now, before you start saying ‘show-offs – going to all those exotic places’ just remember – we are VERY close to them. To put things in context – New Zealanders go to the Gold Coast of Australia where Brits would go to the Costa Brava in Spain. Fiji is the equivalent of the Canaries, and Rarotonga and Samoa are the equivalents of Majorca and Minorca. So where does Tonga fit in to the comparisons? Well, I think Tonga would be a Greek island that the tourists haven’t found yet.Why did we choose Tonga? Virgin Pacific had a special deal on flights – it was as simple as that!I’m not going to go into the ‘tourism office’ talk on Tonga – if you want that, I suggest you search for ‘Tonga’ on Google. This diary is, instead, going to be a travelogue of our experiences in Tonga.

Getting there.

As already mentioned, Pacific Blue do some good deals to Tonga. Pacific Blue is the equivalent to Easyjet – budget, and buy your own sandwiches. Air New Zealand also have the occasional good deal on grabaseat’. The flight is only two and a half hours, so budget works. All the international airlines fly into Tongatapu, the main island (where the majority of the population and the King live). To go anywhere else you need to fly ‘domestic’. There are two domestic airlines – Air Tonga and Chathams Pacific. ALL reasonable advice recommends flying Chathams Pacific. DO NOT fly Air Tonga. Here’s just an example of the reason why: Air Tonga is notorious for never being on schedule. Their planes are notoriously badly serviced. When we were there, all Air Tonga flights were cancelled as they hadn’t paid their fuel bill. Enough! After saying that, flying Chathams Pacific is an adventure. The plane we flew to our second destination in (the island of Vava’u) was a Convair 580. This is a mid-1960’s propeller driven plane. I’ve never seen so many people reading the emergency evacuation card! Baggage collection is pretty unique too – a 10 foot long bench where the cases (and other luggage – see ‘Funerals’) are placed for collection. A real bun-fight.


Our first introduction to funerals was at Auckland airport. There was a large group of Tongans gathered in departure wearing tee-shirts with ‘In Loving Memory of XXX’ all over the back! On arriving in Tongatapu airport, we were greeted by the unusual sight of various brightly coloured wreaths of artificial flowers sailing round the (very small) carousel in place of the usual suitcases (which were piled on a heap on the floor). It reminded me of ‘The Generation Game’ (Cuddly Toy, foot spa, box of hand-made chocolates…). All Tongans are buried – I don’t think there is a crematorium on the island. But there are no gravestones. Instead, the dead are remembered with a pile of sand and an embroidered quilt (more memories of the Generation Game?). Once the quilt rots away – that’s it. This does lead to some very colourful cemeteries though – even if I couldn’t stop humming ‘home on the range’. We did actually get to hear a funeral too. ‘Hear’, I hear you say – ‘not see?’ Well, Tongans are very vocal (see ‘Noise’). We didn’t like to intrude, but you couldn’t miss the very loud (very miserable) singing…


Tonga is VERY NOISY. Did you heart that? It’s VERY NOISY. Tongans (and their animals – see ‘Animals’) can’t do anything quietly. Our first hotel was on the harbourfront in Nukualofa, the main town on the island of Tongatapu. Pretty basic (See ‘Accommodation’), but with one major problem. It was next door to the ‘Billfish’, the local bar and nightclub. On Thursday and Friday they play VERY LOUD house music until 3:00 in the morning….. Saturday and Sunday you get a bit of a break (see ‘Sunday’) then it’s back to VERY LOUD house music on Monday…. Apparently it’s not much better if you’re near the centre of Nukualofa. We escaped to the far island of Vava’u hoping for a bit of peace and quiet. Our hotel (see ‘Accommodation’) was a couple of kilometres out of town, in a bit of a backwater. Bliss! Until 5:30 in the morning, when what can only be described as ‘native drums’ started. This turned out to be the local wake-up call for the local population – similar to the old ‘siren’ used to call the miners to their shift – which was closely followed by loud hymns from the local church hall (see ‘Churches’). Then there were the dogs, the roosters, the children, the churches and singing…..


Animals generally have a very free and easy life in Tonga (well, for the period that they have life…). Most appear to roam unfettered and anywhere they like. A stroll (or drive) along any road will find dogs, chickens and pigs all roaming freely. I’m amazed that more of them aren’t killed – but there appears to be a built-in survival instinct (Darwin’s law maybe – the ones that didn’t learn didn’t survive?) and most drivers do try and avoid them. Cows tend to be tethered, in the odd front garden. Just as well, really, a pig in front of your car is bad enough! Then, of course, there are the whales. Tonga is famous for its whale watching. Around June-time, mainly humpback whales travel to Tongan waters to calve. They hang around until October-November time, then go back to the Antarctic. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where tourists are allowed to swim with them – quite an experience. Whales bring money into Tonga in two ways, in tourism (see ‘Tourism) and, ironically, from the Japanese, who pay for Tongan water projects as long as Tonga doesn’t vote against them in the fight for whaling. My favourite animal of the holiday must be ‘Hobbs’, the dive dog (see ‘Diving and Whale Watching’). He’s a Birmingham lad – half springer/half border collie – brought over by Alex, the owner of Dolphin Dive. Hobbs spends his days keeping the divers company on the diveboat, begging for a morsel of cheese and onion sandwich, and joyously barking whenever he spots any dolphins or whales off the bows of the boat.


Totally coincidentally both the hotels we stayed in were called the ‘Harbour View’. But what a difference! In both instances they did what they said on the can – they were a ‘Hotel with a View of the Harbour’. But the harbour in Nukualofa is a working harbour.

We were opposite a car park with old, rusting containers, and a view of the working ships, covered in plenty of rust. In contrast, Vava’u harbour is full of sailing ships. There is a small ‘working’ port, but generally this is a place of transient travellers using Tonga as a stop-off between America and Australia and the other South Pacific islands. It is very pretty. The standard of accommodation was also very different. We had ordered a ‘Deluxe’ room in Nukualofu, mainly because we wanted an en-suite bathroom. Well, all things are comparative. Our room was very large, and was relatively clean (we heard some real horror stories of some hotels, including some sharing rooms with fellow permanent ‘residents’ such as cockroaches – ugh!). But it was very plainly furnished (one fridge, one table, one bed), had no balcony, and was painted in ‘hospital green’. In contrast, our accommodation in Vava’u was a small resort with 10 small bungalows scattered around lovely grounds. Each was spacious, and had a large balcony on the front. As there was no restaurant on the resort (the Kiwi couple who owned the resort had changed it into their house!) there was a small kitchenette.


There are a lot of churches in Tonga. If you drive down any road on Tongatapu you will pass not just one, but many churches of many different denominations. This reflects the fact that the vast majority of Tongans are active Christians. In fact, church is an integral part of Tongan life. A Tongan who doesn’t go to church isn’t likely to have much of a social life, as life revolves around the local church. Tongans go to church at least twice every Sunday, and many go during the week as well. Every school is associated with a church. The Mormon church is well represented, and every church is comparatively luxurious. According to our guide, that’s because American Mormons have decided that Tonga could be made the first Mormon nation on Earth. But my favourite story is of the Seventh Day Adventist church. Normally Saturday is their holy day. But as our guide Tim pointed out, if they celebrated on a Saturday then nobody would join their church. So very conveniently they decided that the International Date Line was in the wrong place, and if it was in the right place then actually Sunday would be Saturday. How convenient!


If you ARE a Christian then a Sunday visit to a Tongan church is a must-do part of a visit. The churches are full, and the singing is loud. Sunday is a very different day on Tonga. Most places close down, bars and shops are closed. No sport is played. Until recently Tongans couldn’t even drive unless they had dispensation. So the best thing to do is to either book a tour or go and laze on a beach. Dress Traditional Tongan dress for both men and women seems to consist of a wrap-over skirt with a straw mat wrapped round and tied on with a bit of rope. I suppose this is practical – you take your mat to sit on wherever you go! There are variations on this. A very stylised over-skirt of hanging woven string is worn by many young women. On the flight over was a very smartly dressed older man in a black skirt-suit, shirt and tie. The effect was slightly spoiled by the pink raffia mat covering the skirt….


Tonga – and especially the main island of Tongatapu - generally doesn’t cater well for tourists, but there is a little island a few minutes offshore were a pleasant day can be spent. There are very few tours, but without one it’s virtually impossible   to see what Tonga has to offer. We decided to hire a car for the day, but even with a map with things of interest to tourists marked on it, it was very difficult to find places. There are no signposts – anywhere. Let me give you some examples (and we only found these because Tim (see ‘Tims Tours’) gave us instructions: • The Bat Sanctuary. We couldn’t find it. Apparently ‘the bats had moved tree’. • The Beach Resort: ‘Follow the road until you see some power lines. Where the power lines veer off the road, follow the dirt track underneath. Park in the garden of the private house at the bottom of the track – they won’t mind’….. • The ‘Natural Land Bridge’: ‘Follow the road until a road on the left. Look for a dirt track on the right that has ‘TUPU VEVE’ written on it (this means ‘don’t drop rubbish’ in Tongan). Follow the track and park in the second grass alcove on the left. Walk into the field and there it is’ One good day out is to take a ferry from the harbour at Nukualofa to the local resort island of Pangaimotu. It’s a very pretty island that reminds me of the Maldives. There’s a bar and restaurant, a sandy beach sloping into warm blue sea. Vava’u is more geared up for tourists, with some good restaurants, whale watching, diving, fishing and boat hire.

Tims Tours

As mentioned above, if visiting the main island it’s much better to speak to someone who knows what they are talking about so I’m going to end up with a mention of a tour company that we found very useful. The company can be found at the Deep Blue Lodge (, a short walk from the main junction in Nukualofa. But I’m afraid I have given it a nickname – ‘Tims Tours’. Tim and Caroline were so friendly and helpful, and a tour with Tim is SO much more informative than touring round blind in a car. And for the divers out there, Tim can organize diving too. Give them a try!

holidays/abroad/2008_tonga.txt · Last modified: 2011/03/31 11:04 by art
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