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Through our years of travel on our sailboat, Starry Horizons, Tonga has been one of our favorite stops. We spent a month in Vava’u in 2016 and liked it so much we came back in 2017 for another month.
Tonga is undeveloped when compared to Tahiti, Bora Bora, or Fiji. There’s less tourism here, and the islands are not overrun with hotels and resorts. At the same time, the reefs and water are beautiful, and add in being able to swim with whales….it’s nearly perfect!
Like most of the island nations in the Pacific, Tonga consists of four groups, from north to south: Niuas, Vavau, Haapai, and Tongatapu. Tongatapu is the capital.
Vava’u has an international airport, but the only international flight is to Fiji on Fiji Airways. Alternatively, there are ferries or flights from Tongatapu, but domestic travel in Tonga is unreliable. Flights are run by REALTonga. On our third trip to Vava’u, we worked out a schedule to fly directly in from Fiji (oh, what an excuse to have a layover in another beautiful South Pacific nation).
Walking through town in the afternoon gives you a wonderful introduction to the people of Tonga. While the adults tended to be quieter, but friendly, the children would always say hello and goodbye, waving and even shouting from passing cars. The afternoon is full of school children in their uniforms. The girls wear pinafore-style dresses, while the boys wear what is called a tupenu, a knee length skirt.
For adults, it seems more of the men dress in traditional formal wear, but maybe that’s just because it’s unusual for us to see men in skirts. The women wear longer tupenu, with a belt called a kiekie, which is a narrow band with decorative material dangling off of it. Men wear a taovala over their tupenu , a woven mat wrapped around their waist and tied with rope. Maybe I’ll get up the courage to ask some locals to pose with me so you can see the traditional wear!
There are two cell phone providers in Vava’u: Digicel and TTC. We bought a Digicel SIM card ($36 TOP for 2 GB). Since our visit, Vava’u has gotten a new optic cable and their internet speed has increased dramatically. That being said, the outer islands don’t often have cell phone service.
Vava’u is not a touristy place. Accommodation choices are interesting, and there aren’t any major hotels. The Flying Annie Moa is close into town and is well reviewed. We stayed at Mystic Sands Resort, a short drive from town in a nice quiet location. Vava’u Villa is not as far out of town, but still a short drive in (I dined at Vava’u Villa for lunch one day).
A more upscale alternative in the outer islands of Vava’u is Reef Resort Vava’u.
Wednesday evening we attended a presentation given by two guys who have been in Tonga on a trimaran for the past few months. Craig is with the Floating Foundation, which travels to the outer islands of Vava’u and provides medical training to the medics of the villages. Lorenzo is with UAT, University of Auckland Technologies, and he presented on tracking whales via drone for research purposes. Lorenzo had some amazing drone videos he played for us of whales breaching and feeding.
Thursday we met up with our friends Simon and Marg from Margansie and Ray from Lionheart to hike up Mount Talau. Mount Talau is the highest spot in Vava’u and is about 3 km away from the town center. After that steep walk is about 175 steps up the mountain. Talau is flat-topped, and there are four viewpoints to look down over Vava’u. With the perfect weather we were having it was gorgeous.
We were able to book a last minute whale snorkeling trip for Friday which ended up being one of the most amazing things we have ever done.
We buddied up with Gina and Jose, our friends from S/V Cartago, to head over to Utalei: My Tongan Home, a house across the bay that holds a traditional Tongan feast twice a week. On the way over we met another young couple, Colin and Katie, Canadians who are currently living in New Zealand. The six of us joined Riley and Elayna from S/V La Vagabond at a table. Tupo, our hostess, grew up in Tonga just a few houses down, but moved to Boston to attend school and lived all over the world for her work.
Another local family sang and danced for us. Many of the dances asked for audience participation, so you can see our video below of me participating!
Lastly, we had our first kava circle. Kava is a root with sedative properties, commonly drank like beer in these parts. Visiting Fiji will require us to participate in many kava circles, so it was good to see it in a more touristy setting first.
Finally, Topu opened the buffet. The buffet had a wonderful variety of food; roast suckling pig, seafood marinated in coconut, roast sweet potatoes, salted beef, whole fish, etc. I took a little bit of everything. While I enjoyed all the dishes, it was tough to remember what everything was and when I went back for seconds, I again just took small portions of whatever they had left.
Another option is ‘Ene’io Restaurant, which does a Sunday feast.
The eight of us shared drinks and laughs and poor Tupo had to kick us out! Riley and Elayna left us and the remaining six of us headed to Bounty Bar back in town to watch the last half of the All Blacks (NZ) versus Springboks (SA) rugby game. Lionheart, Margansie, and Kinabalu were there cheering (mostly) for the All Blacks, who won in a sweep. We even picked up some rugby lessons!
After the game, the bar converted to a dance hall, with loud music and flashing lights. We finished our drinks and split ways for the night.
If you are looking for something truly unusual, Bounty Bar hosts a Fakaleiti Show – a drag show.
Since we spent two months in Vava’u, we got to know the food scene pretty well. Bellavista is a great view over the harbor, and serves nice pizzas. Mango Cafe is the social scene, where you are likely to find everyone for dinner. Tropicana Cafe is for backpackers or wifi users, with hearty breakfast offerings. Greg at Tropicana helps travelers with any advice they need.
We spent several weeks out sailing the islands of Vava’u. Most of them are only accessible via private boat or charter boat, so I highly recommend a charter for 7-10 days. If you can charter for 14 days, you might even be able to get down to the Ha’apai group of Tonga.
The only words we learned in Tongan: Mālō ‘aupito, Tonga! Thank you, Tonga!