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We’ve been full-time traveling around the world since October 2014. Tonga was our 21st country/territory to visit on our boat, Starry Horizons, and it’s definitely on my Top 5 list – because of the Ha’apai group.
Tonga is divided up into five island groups. The capital of Tonga is Nuku’alofa, located in the Tongatapu group. The Ha’apai group is just north of Tongatapu. It’s the second-largest island group, but the second least populated. The islands are spaced out over a large area, with only 17 of the 51 islands being populated. There’s a lot of space, but not a lot of people.
The capital of the Ha’apai group is Pangai, a small town on the island of Lifuka. Pangai does have ferry service and an airport.
The biggest and best reason to come to Tonga is approximately 40 tons – an adult humpback whale. Humpback whales migrate to Tonga to give birth to their young. Peak season is August and September.
However, the other reason to travel to Tonga, and especially the Ha’apai group, any time of year is that Tonga is an untouched South Pacific paradise. We’ve traveled extensively in the South Pacific – 21 months of travel including French Polynesia, Niue, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. There’s just something special about Tonga that we loved. The Ha’apai group is white sandy beaches and clear water, and in the peak whale season, I’d guess that whales outnumber tourists.
One trick we learned about travel in Tonga is that the domestic airlines, Real Tonga, is less reliable than the internal airlines that fly into Tonga. For that reason, unless you are going to Tongatapu, consider flying directly into Vava’u from Fiji on Fiji Airways. Vava’u is another great stop in Tonga, although very different from the Ha’apai.
From Vava’u, you can fly Real Tonga to Pangai, or take the ferry, offered through Friendly Island Shipping Agency. We have no experience taking the ferry, but it’s common for locals.
The typical Tongan accommodation is a fale, a one-room bungalow with a thatched roof.
There are two resorts on Foa Island, owned by the same family. Darren and Nina own both Matafonua Lodge and Sandy Beach Resort. While we didn’t stay at either of these resorts, we did dine at both restaurants and explore the grounds. Based on my visit to the Ha’apai Group and my research, I believe the Matafonua Lodge is the best value for the money.
Matafonua Lodge is more casual, and therefore more cost-effective. The fales at Matafonua have a shared bathroom facility in the center of the resort. We dined at the restaurant for lunch, sitting with Darren and dining on delicious pizza and burgers.
Sandy Beach Resort is more upscale – with the resulting cost increase. Fales have ensuite bathrooms. Dinner out at Sandy Beach was roasted duck and lobster risotto. With four drinks and sides, out bill only came to 120 TOP (roughly $50 USD).
Both resorts share activities. Kayaks and paddleboards are available to guests, including paddleboards with underwater lights on the bottom! Super cool! There is a dive center in the resort, and snorkeling is available just off the beach. Many of our friends enjoyed kite surfing in the lagoon. The resorts have two boats that take dive trips out, or in whale season, take whale watching trips.
A great thing about these resorts is that it’s just a car ride to the airport and the village of Pangai.
Aside from the resorts, Uoleva is uninhabited. There are two resorts on Uoleva Island: Sea Change Eco-Resort and Serenity Beaches Resort. Both locations are eco-resorts and are more alternative accommodation options.
Sea Change is small – it has three glamping tents and three fales. Each unit has a private bathroom and is solar-powered. There isn’t much information online about the fales at Serenity Beaches Resort, but from walking through, I seem to recall it being a bit more hippie-rustic (making up words!).
Both resorts offer many of the same activities as the ones at Foa: snorkeling, SUPs, kayaks. They also both advertise yoga. Neither has a dive center or kiteboarding instructors, but they do both operate licensed whale swims. Uoleva is a small island, and you can walk all the way around it – about a six-mile walk.
There are two liveaboard boats that we know of that come into the Ha’apai group of Tonga: Nai’a and Whale Discoveries. Nai’a is based in Fiji but comes to Tonga for the whale season and picks guests up in Tongatapu for a cruise up to the Ha’apai group. Whale Discoveries is a Tongan-based sailing catamaran (kind of like ours!) that also picks up in Tongatapu and cruises the Ha’apai group.