***We apologize – we sent three posts to the blog via email while on passage from New Zealand to Tonga and they got lost in the beyond. Suffice it to say, we did make it to Tonga just fine, and when we get back to Tonga (and our old laptops) I will publish our passage report. And we have tested our email-to-post and they are working properly again. ***
Geography lesson: Tonga is made up of four main island groups. The southern island group and big island are both called Tongatapu, with the capital named Nuku’alofa. The biggest cruising port is in the Vava’u island group, on ʻUtu Vavaʻu island, the town of Neiafu.
The Fun-to-Suck ratio gets all out of whack sometimes – cruising life can be pretty stressful when things don’t go as planned. I try to make sure if the suck portion of the ratio is getting out of hand, we stop and do something to increase the fun portion.
We didn’t give ourselves much time for a turnover in Vava’u. Since we arrived at 3:30 am Sunday morning and had a flight out Tuesday, we needed to quickly get the boat ready to be left behind. When we decided to leave Starry Horizons in Tonga, we asked La Vagabonde what they did, and they put us in touch with Kjell, former and future cruiser, who currently owns Mystic Sands Resort in Vava’u. Kjell has been a big help, and we appreciate the advice he has given us.
We cleaned and did laundry on Sunday. Our big repair project was fixing our main sail that ripped on passage. The sail repair means removing the mainsail and taking it to the sail loft. The sail has been removed twice by contractors, but never by us, so David set to work trying to figure out how to get it off. The sail has connections to the track cars which are supposed to be removable, but our dear friends Corrosion and Oxidation have rendered most of them immobile. Instead, David took off part of the track and removed the cars – still attached to the sail – from the track. The track cars have small bearings in them, and of course, in the process of removing them, we lost a bearing.
Removing the sail took about six hours, and I was impressed with David’s tenacity to get the job done before we left. It would be great to come back to a repaired sail – one less thing to worry about.
Monday we focused on clearing in to Tonga, a challenging task in this country. Unfortunately it was also the cruise ship day, so the wharf that sailboats normally use was occupied. There is a larger commercial wharf but it’s wall is not made for a sailboat. Instead of tying up, we hailed on the vhf and were told we could dinghy in, but the official wasn’t even there, he was out on the cruise ship. We waited about a half hour and came in, stopping at the ATM first.
The clear in was much more difficult than last year. We went to Customs, who told us that Quarantine would probably require us to bring our boat in, so we should go talk to them first. We walked next door, filled out our paperwork, paid our fees, and got cleared by Quarantine with no trouble. Quarantine told us to go back to Customs, do our paperwork with him, and he’d call Health. Customs said no, Quarantine was supposed to call Health for us. With some reluctance, he did our paperwork and said he’d call Health. We needed to go to Immigration, a five minute walk away to pay more fees. We also needed to type up a letter regarding our plans. Oh, and would we do all this and come back to Customs at 2 pm? Sure.
Customs signed and stamped our letter. We brought three copies, although he didn’t tell us to. Somewhat conveniently (or was it?) Customs gets a copy, we get a copy, and Immigration gets a copy. Customs explained that the Health official didn’t answer his phone, so would we please go to the Health office when we get back and pay the $100 TOP fee?
It’s worth noting last year everyone came to our boat on the wharf in relatively short order. That was a much better check in process.
The complication with leaving the boat is firstly, most countries want to make sure we aren’t “abandoning” our boat. That’s where our new friend Kjell came in handy. He is our agent, which really doesn’t mean much in the eyes of the Tongan government. Kjell says they have rules in place to prevent people from abandoning their boat, but no real enforcement. Secondly, when we fly back to Tonga (or any other country for that matter) they usually require some sort of proof of onward travel, meaning that you have to show your intent to leave the country in a timely manner. In some countries you have to pay a bond, or in other countries a letter from us and a copy of our boat documentation works just fine. Tonga wants our letter to be officially registered and stamped.
We were able to insert some fun into our short time. Kjell invited us out to dinner with his family so we could meet in person. We met at Bella Vista cafe and chatted over pizzas.
On our way back from dinner we stopped by our friends’ boat, Prince Diamond, who had just been launched from the Boatyard. We had first met Brian and Carol back in Niue, but hadn’t crossed paths since.
This time of year, apparently, Neiafu (only the deep parts) are FULL of moon jellies, and they glow! There are other smaller bioluminescent beings too, and we had a beautiful, clear night with the milky way above and bioluminescents lighting up like fireflies down below. It was amazing!
Every time we leave the boat there’s always a panic of last minute rush, regardless of how much planning we do or how much time we leave ourselves. Our flight was scheduled for 10 am originally with a stop in Ha’apai. As I’d put Kjell’s number down as my contact info, he’d received a call that our flight was moved, and we needed to call to confirm. In the morning I called and got no answer, but was able to log in to manage my reservation and see that our flight was moved back an hour and a half.
Price Diamond helped us get to shore and Kjell drove us to the airport. We were especially thankful because it was POURING rain.
At the airport we checked in and waited in the tiny seating area. And waited. It was announced that the flight from Tongatapu was rerouted back to Tongatapu due to the weather. If we wanted to leave the airport we could, and they would call us back for the flight. We didn’t really want to deal with the hassle of getting back out to Starry Horizons, so we opted to wait the weather out. By 1 pm, it was sunny, the rain and sunshine combining to make the air muggy and stifling. But still no plane.
Around 3 pm we were told that all the flights were canceled. We would not be making it to Tongatapu to catch the rest of our flights (four flights total). Real Tonga would call us to make alternative arrangements and we were given a number for Fiji Airways to call to reschedule our other three flights.
Many Tongan locals and ex-pats were pretty skeptical regarding the reason behind canceling our flight, and most of the talk was well, this is Tongan business! It should be noted that it actually was a holiday – ANZAC day – and I think the pilot are all either Kiwis or Aussies.
I received three phone calls which each ended with a “I’ll call you back” before our Fiji Airways flights were rebooked for Thursday, but I still hadn’t heard from Real Tonga for the domestic flight. The rep from Fiji Airways also told me I needed to go to the Fiji Airways office in Neiafu. “Where is it?” I said. “Ask a local” she said, which I took to roughly translate to “I don’t know”.
We still hadn’t heard from Real Tonga and it was approaching 5 pm. David and I were nervous that we weren’t going to get a domestic flight to make our rescheduled flights, so we took a risk and went online and booked the next flight available to Tongatapu – Thursday morning.
We didn’t hear from Real Tonga until almost 9 pm. They got us booked on the 2:30 pm flight Wednesday afternoon, which we gladly took, and they canceled our Thursday flight.
To pass the time and even out the fun to suck ratio, we had dinner with Brian and Carol up at the Aquarium Cafe, and coincidentally Kjell and his family were also there eating. What can we say, Neiafu is a small place.
Keeping in mind that we had no food on Starry Horizons, David and I went to shore Wednesday morning to eat a great hot breakfast at Tropicana Cafe and walk to the Fiji Airway office. Unfortunately we walked right passed it, and way out of town. It should have taken us only 15 minutes, and instead it took an hour. Opps. Guess what the lady at the office did when we got there?
Printed out the email confirmation. Smh.
We got to the Vava’u airport on time and made it through our flight. We had been a bit worried about our luggage – the policy is that you get free checked bags ONLY if you have an international flight within 24 hours. Technically with the new schedule, our second flight was 30 hours after our first flight, but they didn’t charge us for the luggage. There was no security, no one even checked our ID! The plane was tiny and hot, but we made it to Tongatapu. One flight down, three to go.
Now we had an overnight layover in Tongatapu. The closest hotel to the airport is the Scenic Hotel, so we booked a night there. The hotel is actually between the domestic and international terminals, with a complimentary shuttle to get you there. The grounds has a great pool, restaurant, billiards room, kids playground, even a putt putt course and a driving range. It’s basically designed for those of us who have a one night layover in Tongatapu.
I thought it would be fun to actually go do something, so I booked us for the Oholei Beach Dinner and Show. The evening was $40 TOP per person and the shuttle was $10 TOP per person, for a total of $50 TOP per person ($22.50 USD). For an all you can eat buffet plus entertainment that’s pretty good!
The restaurant was down on the beach, a large bamboo shelter with a stage and wooden tables and benches. There was a band playing Tongan music with modern instruments, some songs in English, some in Tongan. We listened for about an hour as people filed in. This is the off season, and most of the crowd was Tongan. As we got closer to dinner (8 pm), the owner joined the band with a ukulele and played. He talked a bit about the history of Tonga and his family. His father had started this show in the 60s, with the foresight to see an opportunity in Tongan tourism. Amazingly, Tonga’s major industry is tourism, which stuns us because Tonga is NOT a touristy place – it is certainly not a top vacation spot for Americans like Fiji or Tahiti. The owner of Oholei Beach is a very religious Christian. They prayed. He talked about the blessings of Christ and the importance of religion a lot. It was a bit too much – we were almost uncomfortable with it. Also, a bit of historical inaccuracies. I cringed when he said that Tongans before King Tupou I were atheists; they weren’t. Tongans had their own ancient polytheistic religion but Tupou I forced his subjects to covert to Christianity.
The buffet dinner was a wide variety of the traditional Polynesian foods – roast pig, fish in coconut sauce, salted beef wrapped in taro leaves, etc. The food was pretty tasty, and typically on par with what you see at these kind of buffets.
Afterwards, everyone moved into the Hina cave. We watched about 7 dancers perform traditional dances, many of which were similar to what we saw last year at My Tongan Home in Vava’u, but on a much bigger scale. The Tongans have a seated dance, which is pretty unique. In general, the women are very reserved in their movements, while the men are very energetic, often doing jerky movements and vocally yipping. Then, we got to the fire dances!
Thursday morning we had a lazy day around the hotel – we played pool, read, had our meals at the restaurant, and made it to the airport in plenty of time. To fly back to the states, we were flying Tongatapu to Fiji, Fiji, to LA, LA to Seattle. We had looked at flights to Portland, but it was much cheaper to fly into Seattle.
In the Tongatapu airport, we walked up to the customs officer – he looked at us, we looked at him…the officer and David both said “you look familiar…”. It turns out the young man had cleared us into Neiafu last year – he even remembered our boat name! He reviewed our letter and stamped it before giving us the go ahead to proceed to our gate.
The Tongatapu airport is small (technically 3 gates) but nice. Nadi (Fiji) is slightly bigger (8 gates) and nicer. Then a 10 and a half hour flight to LA and we are back on US ground. Having Global Entry has really come in handy this year, since this is our third flight into the states in four months. And, hey, we saw Arnold Schwarzenegger at the LA airport!
After talking to a few people in Vava’u, I know what I would do differently if I was rebooking my flights. I had just assumed that there are only domestic flights out of Vava’u, but in fact there is an international flight from Vava’u to Nadi on Fiji Airways. This flight is once a week (Saturday) during off season but increases to twice a week during peak season (which just started this week). It would have eliminated one flight and negated having to fly with Real Tonga Airlines. There is also talk of adding a direct flight from Vava’u to Apia, Samoa. Also, if I had a better memory I would have remembered that Del Viento recommended giving yourselves a night in Tongatapu between your domestic and international flights. Smart advice.
We had a great two days in Seattle, literally spending all of our waking time with David’s grandma. We gave a presentation at her retirement community to an audience of about 65 people, including my Seattle cousins, some more of David’s family, and future star chasers Moritz and Diana.
We took the train down to Portland, and man, what a deal! $35 pp includes two checked bags, two carry on bags, free wifi, and no rescheduling fees.
Davids parents hadn’t been back to Oregon since they moved away in the 90s, so they took the opportunity to fly up and spend a long weekend in Portland. We spent all of our waking time with them, including going to the Portland Saturday market and having the delicious Voodoo Doughnuts for breakfast. We also met some of David’s more distant relatives – Allison and Chris hosted the four of us for dinner with her brother Roger and mother Betty. That would be David’s first cousins once removed and great aunt.
And all of a sudden we are productive members of society again, working a 9-to-5. Well, ok not really. But we are officially on the job, having reported to Julia Monday morning. We are looking forward to writing about our adventures with Susan and Tom. By the way, I had the wrong link in our We’re Hired post – I did correct it a few days later, so if you are interested in following Julia’s adventures, THIS is their proper website.