Sailing the Vava’u Islands of Tonga
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Last Updated on November 27, 2019 by Amy
Tonga is one of our favorite cruising grounds in the world! It’s underdeveloped compared to many other places we’ve been to. Its people are friendly, and it holds onto its culture. Plus, Tonga is where humpback whales come to give birth and raise their young every year.
Tonga Sailing Itineraries
You should spend at least a day or two in Neiafu. Highlights include swimming with the humpback whales (A MUST DO!), hiking Mount Talau, and attending a Tongan feast.
Sailing Itinerary for 7 Days in Vava’u
If you have seven days for sailing in Vava’u, here are the most important things to do:
- Anchor in Port Maurelle and swim Mariner’s Cave
- Snorkel at Vaka Eitu
- Get remote in Kenutu
Sailing Itinerary for 14 Days in Tonga
If you have 14 days, and the weather permits, get down to sail the Ha’apai group. It’s more remote, stunningly beautiful, and you have the chance to see whales in your anchorage!
Sailing Guides for Tonga
There’s a very common map of the anchorages in Vava’u. Each anchorage has a number assigned to it, and sometimes you’ll hear people refer to the anchorages by the number instead of the name!
There is a Soggy Paws Compendium for Tonga.
Sailing to Neiafu
This first year we visited Tonga, we sailed from Niue. Since most cruisers sailing the coconut run come from Niue or other points east, this is the pretty common way to enter Tonga.
Sailing From Niue to Neiafu
On our way, we crossed the international date line – meaning we lost a day. Which got me thinking – if we just kept doing an east to west circumnavigation over and over again, we would just keep losing days….wtf??
The passage was easy – we left Niue around 8 pm Thursday and arrived in Neiafu early afternoon Sunday, so the trip only took us about 40 hours.
We didn’t have any luck fishing out there. Both nights my watch was pretty clear and star-filled as the moon wasn’t rising until David’s shift in the wee morning hours.
One thing that amazes me about the South Pacific is how different these islands really are. The Marquesas and Societies are ruggedly mountainous, while the Tuamotus are flat shallow atolls. Niue is a giant coral rock with steep cliffs and a wide plateau. Here in Tonga, once again the land is an elevated plateau, but it’s rock instead of coral.
On our approach in, we encountered a whale – the closest we’ve ever been to one. We were sailing into the entrance of the Vava’u group, and I spotted the spout just off our starboard bow. He was headed in the opposite direction of us, and I spotted his spout a few more times coming towards us, until he broke the surface with his fin, arched, and then flipped us his fluke. He was about 50 feet off our bow at this point, but we knew he’d be diving down and out of sight now. It was stunning!
The Vava’u group is a unique island formation – the largest island provides a very protected but deep bay.
Clearing into Tonga in Vava’u
Monday we focused on clearing into 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 its 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 for 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 first, 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 worked just fine. Tonga wants our letter to be officially registered and stamped.
Anchoring or Mooring in Neiafu
The harbor is very protected, but also very deep. The east side of the harbor has mooring balls, run by several different companies. We always picked up a Beluga Dive mooring. The moorings are fairly cheap.
On the west side, you will often see boats anchoring.
The Cruising Community in Vava’u
Vava’u is an amazing hub of cruiser activity. Almost everyone running through the South Pacific east to west stops here. It’s also a popular place to start the season for boats headed north from New Zealand.
Neaifu is the main harbor in Vava’u, and where you must come in to clear formalities into the Vava’u Island group. You do have to check in if you are coming from Tongatapu or Ha’apai.
The island has provided repeaters all over Vava’u for channel 26 on the VHF, and there’s a daily morning net.
Neiafu with Friends in 2016
The cruising community here has been fantastic, And there is so much going on. We want to especially thank Sandy from Vava’u Adventures. Sandy is the go-to person on the VHF for anything and everything. We heard three medical emergencies while we were in Vava’u, and Sandy helped each one out. Sandy won’t hesitate to call anyone for you or help you with anything. Sandy, you are awesome!
I joined the ladies luncheon at Vava’u Villa, were 46 of us had a fantastic three-course lunch and I was able to make new friends (Eileen from Wavelength, Miri from Enough, Gita from Aros Mear, and Gail from Cetacea) as well as catch up with old friends (Marg from Margansie and Lilah from Privateer).
One morning I went for a run with Simon and Marg. Cetacea is from Nassau Bay, just 10 minutes from our old home, so we had them over for drinks one night. We had drinks and dinner ashore with Julian. We caught up with Lanny and Ginger from SwiftSure over drinks (we originally met them in Panama). La Vagabond came over for brunch, Margansie had us over for dinner. You get the picture! It’s hard to be a lonely cruiser in Neiafu.
Return to Neiafu in 2017
We were leaving our boat unattended in Neiafu for about 6 weeks, so 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.
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.
When we returned to Neiafu, Starry Horizons was safe and sound – except for some electrolysis that damaged the sail drives. We hauled out to fix the drives and do some more projects.
After launching Starry Horizons from the Boat Yard, we spent a few nights on our friend’s mooring, doing some smaller projects and cleaning the boatyard off our boat. We socialized with friend boats Whistler (Margy and Monty) and Mustang Sally (Mark and Di) and the couple that own Faleleu Deli, celebrating Canada Day with Bloody Caesars and dinner at Mango Cafe.
We enjoyed a great dinner at Bella Vista with Kjell and Adriana (from Milla and Mystic Sands). They have been so helpful to us during our stay, and we look forward to seeing them out sailing sometime.
Repair Work in Neiafu
While sailing from New Zealand to Tonga in 2017, we ripped our mainsail.
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.
Port Muerelle, our Favorite Anchorage
We first arrived into Tonga via our sailboat, Starry Horizons, in the port of Neiafu. After clearing in and sorting out other new-country errands, we moved to a small anchorage called Port Muerelle, or anchorage number 7 It came to be our favorite anchorage in Vava’u.
Anchoring or Mooring
We anchored on the north side of Port Muerelle, in 60′ of water. I hopped in to check our anchor, which was a little silly because with no sun and 60′ feet, I couldn’t see anything! But, I snorkeled our swing area to make sure we wouldn’t find any bommies if the wind shifted. The sides of Port Muerelle are cliffs, covered in vegetation. In the water I found coral, but after the small reef, there was an immediate drop to at least 7′ of depth – no problems.
I also snorkeled over to the moorings. When we arrived, a boat (S/V Privateer, Americans) was leaving and told us they had just replaced the line on one of the moorings. Sure enough, I checked out 2 of the 3 moorings and the lines looked good, with chains running down and around a huge concrete block.
I didn’t see too much that was interesting on the snorkel – starfish, sea cushions, usual small reef fish. I did see a jellyfish – not a box or blue bottle.
Friday was mostly a project day. We worked on things while we watched the anchorage fill up – from 7 boats to 14, including our friends Blowin Bubbles and Red Thread. Port Muerelle had a beach at the head of the bay, and Kyle suggested it would be perfect for a beach get together. Neil dinghied around to all the boats to invite them. Someone built a bonfire and by 5:30 dinghies were rolling onto the beach. About 25 people joined us for the bonfire and drinks. This even included a family from one of the Moorings charter boats, who were visiting from NZ and invited us to a party when we get there!
The crowd dwindled to about 10 and those of us that brought food (me, Jessie, and Jill from Romano) pulled out and shared. It worked out perfectly – pasta salad, rice salad, and sausage and cabbage. We retired at 8:30, a late night for cruisers!
The next morning we had Jessie and Neil from Red Thread over for brunch – French toast. Jessie and I had both gotten up early to bake bread and neither loaf rose! The flat, dense bread still made pretty great French toast, though.
Our next plans after Neil and Jessie left were to gather up Kyle and Shelley from Blowin Bubbles and head over to Swallow’s Cave. It was about a 1-mile dinghy ride, and we puttered our dinghy into the cave, tied up, and swam. Upon entrance, we spotted a very small Portuguese man o water in the water (David panicked). There is a small path going up the cave, and we spotted a sea snake slithering up the path (Shelley panicked). We all made Kyle get in first to scope things out.
The big attraction here is the school of fish that live in the cave. They swim in a very tight school, reminiscent of the school of fish in Finding Nemo that make the shapes! Unfortunately, visitors to the cave have painted graffiti and clouds hid the sun so our visibility was not great.
Shelley and I also climbed into the cave to see a large cavern where ceremonial meals were held, with the food being lowered into the cave via the hole in the roof. On the way back, there was a fish caught in a tide pool, and the fish was flipping out! In fact, he launched himself out of the water, only to get caught in a teeny tiny tide pool barely big enough for him. He was out of reach for us so we couldn’t rescue him, and hopefully he survived despite his stupidity – he should have just hung on waiting for the tide to rise!
Diving Mariner’s Cave
During the dinghy ride back, the wind and swell had picked up, so we sat in LD shivering and debating our next move – Mariner’s Cave. A 3-mile dinghy ride with dive gear weighing us down didn’t sound so good. So we changed plans. Kyle and Shelley are dive instructors and carry 10 sets of gear on board. We loaded up four sets of gear on Starry Horizons. Neil and Jessie brought their own dive gear aboard and we upped our anchor and took off for Mariner’s cave.
We knew the approximate location for the underwater cave, which is in a sharp cliff, with nowhere to anchor or tie up. Kyle got his gear on and did an exploratory look. He found the entrance about 2 meters down, under some orange striping on the cliff that may have been graffiti. Neil and David dove in, while us ladies held down the fort on Starry Horizons. I was able to turn off our engines and let the current carry us slowly away.
The guys dove for about 40 minutes, then we switched off. Shelley led us ladies and we easily found the cave and went in. Once inside the cave, you can come up to a large, round cavern and pop the surface of the water. Enough light comes in from the entrance to create a soft blue glow – almost like lights in a pool.
The other crazy cool things about Mariner’s cave is that as the swell rolls in, the air in the cave pressurizes, popping our ears and creating a mist over the surface of the water. The mist instantly disappears as the swell rolls back. I loved it!
We came back out and continued our dive along the wall running southwest from Mariner’s cave. The coral and other cnidarians were really stunning, but the best part was that for the ENTIRE dive we could hear whale songs! It made me want to stop breathing so I could hear better!
It was David and I’s 10th dive and our first time to dive separately other than our classes. We are so glad that we have such good friends here to have fun with. As a side note, it’s funny to find things you have onboard to give to others. We didn’t stop in the Cook Islands, but Blowing Bubbles did. They didn’t have a Cook Islands flag and wanted one for a keepsake so we gave them ours. Neil and Jessie were running dangerously low on peanut butter (if you didn’t know, peanut butter is probably the most American food ever, no one else eats it). We traded a jar of peanut butter for some sprouts that I’m going to attempt to grow!
That was a pretty awesome Saturday. We were all exhausted, and once we got Starry Horizons anchored on the south side of the bay in 20′ of water, it was 5:30 and everyone eagerly went home for an early bedtime.
Return to Port Maurelle
Weeks later, as we were waiting for a weather window to leave for Fiji, we returned to Port Maurelle. We’d been hanging out with our sub-40 group: six boats, 16 people, six languages, and everyone’s under the age of 40.
We anchored in Port Muerelle with Carthago and La Vagabond and quickly made new friends. Our friends Jordy and Julia on Ritme were there (we met them in Taha’a), and we met the boat My Dream, from Italy. The owners of My Dream were Claudio and Augusta with their 4-year old daughter Maeva. They have crew members onboard – Ina from Germany and Frazer from Scotland. Next, we met Roberto (Italian) and Ivon (Chilean) from S/V Hansen. These three boats (Hansen, My Dream, and Ritme) have been traveling together for a while. For three nights we were the only private boats in Port Muerelle.
As there is a fuel shortage, we have pretty much suspended our use of our outboard, preferring to either row LD or take our kayak, Aquila.
I filled the three days in Port Muerelle with snorkeling, kayaking and socializing. Almost every morning I took Aquila out to paddle over the crystal clear water in the lee of the island. Here are some of the highlights I saw in the water:
- Blue sea stars
- Cushion stars
- A large speckled moray eel
- Red slate-pencil urchin
- Greenfish sea cucumber
- Spotted worm sea cucumber
- Lionfish (my first one in the Indo-pacific!)
- Two baby stingrays
- Golden guineafowl puffer
Nature is so fun!
Wednesday night after dinner David and I went ashore to try some night photography. It is interesting to compare these photos to the one we took in Dominica. In this case, there is hardly any light pollution, but that means we can’t really see the boats. It was hard to tell with the naked eye, but there were still clouds off to the west and they reflected the setting sun, creating an orange glow.
Walk to Town
Thursday I took Aquilla out for a paddle, then Julia and Augusta swam over and I swam to shore with them. Augusta’s daughter was already onshore with Frazer, so Augusta and Maeva snorkeled around while Julia, Frazer and I walked to the “town”. Just parallel to the beach is a small road, and the town is a cluster of houses. We didn’t see a single person!
Some of the men had gone spearfishing and returned with two snapper – one about 7 lbs and the other closer to 15! That evening, we built a bonfire on the beach. Ina and Roberto found coconuts, husked, grated and squeezed them for milk. The men threw the fish on the bonfire, one in foil packets and the other just laid on a grate. When the fish was done, some of us picked the meat off and mixed it with coconut milk, rice, and curry. We had brought sides, dinner was delicious, and we played music on the beach.
Social Hour on Starry Horizons
Friday night we had everyone over to Starry Horizons for drinks – 15 people, including Maeva. She’s a little spitfire. She ran around our boat, exploring, causing no trouble. Occasionally an adult would stop and play with her, tickling or playing keep-away with a balloon. At some point, we must have all tired her out, as she asked for a cartoon and I put on a Disney movie for her.
Beach Yoga and Town Again
Saturday morning six of us got together on the beach and Ina led a yoga session. Later, we watched as our five friend boats filtered out to anchorage number 11 – Tapana. We would join them that afternoon but first, we hiked to the town together. This time, we saw people – school kids running around asking for lollipops or books and men working on installing a new water cistern. We walked all the way down to the dock and beach on the other side of the island.
Return to Port Maurelle – 2017
Our favorite anchorage in Vava’u is Port Maurelle on Kapa Island. It’s well protected, hardly has a building in sight, and is fairly easy to anchor in. While there are bommies (coral heads) all over the seafloor, they are low to the ground and the water is so clear you can pick out a patch of sand to drop your anchor. If you are so inclined, there are four free mooring balls. Plus the water gets a stunning electric blue color when it’s sunny out. Friends on Privateer, Kaia, and Milla were there, so we had them over for sundowners one night. That was three kiddos onboard – 4-year-old Christian, 1-year-old Joshua, and 4-month-old Chance.
I went snorkeling and kayaking, and even managed to get a walk in! Running perpendicular to the beach is a road (path?), which can take you to a few different villages. I walked to one of the southern villages last year, so this year I walked north. I didn’t go that far. The road is very overgrown, and really the beach is much more interesting. I even saw a small blacktip reef shark feeding in the shallows!
Then the rain came. We had about 3 straight days of rain and boredom on board the boat. Ok, not total boredom, because there’s always books. Finally, on Saturday, July 8th the rain stopped and we decided to take off for a new anchorage – Kenutu.
Anchorage 11 was more populated. There are about 10 moorings here, managed by the Ark Gallery, a houseboat-cum-art galley. There isn’t much onshore.
We kept quiet Saturday night, but Sunday I paddled around our new anchorage for a few hours, then stopped by My Dream and picked up Maeva to come over to play. I stalked her around our boat keeping an eye on her as she climbed all over and ran around because I was worried she might get injured. It was so fun to watch; she is so comfortable, and was like having a monkey running around!
Sunday night Gina organized a ladies’ movie night on Carthago. All 7 ladies came and we shared popcorn and watched Chocolat (one of my favorite movies). The guys gathered on La Vagabond for a poker night.
Next stop was Hunga lagoon, an extinct and collapsed volcano crater, and an extremely well-protected anchorage. The pass is tiny, maybe 35′ wide. In Hunga lagoon, we grabbed a mooring at Hunga Haven, a small home and business owned by Barry and Cindy, two expat Canadians. The moorings were cheap, the standard $15 TOP a night, and with no cell phone service, you can buy wifi from them ($15 TOP for two hours).
Barry and Cindy, as well as their dog Rocky, were very welcoming. They’ve lived there for 4 years, starting on just a tent, while they built their home. They have an orchard, mostly full of papayas and pineapples. They also have two small fare, or outdoor sleeping rooms for rent.
The challenges Barry and Cindy faced getting their home up are astounding. They told us stories of getting proper supplies and tools here, sometimes shipped to Neaifu then to Hunga via a small transport boat and then via kayak to their house. They had to buy and install a repeater on a nearby island to get internet. I think it’s pretty neat to have a little safe haven and crushing outpost in the middle of nowhere.
Barry instructed us on hiking the island. We took the footpath to the ridge of the island, where there was a dirt road. One way led to town, about 20 minutes, and the other to the beach, about 25 minutes. We did both.
The town is just a handful of buildings; two churches, a community center, and a school. Dogs and pigs run loose. The houses are small and bare. Rainwater cisterns provided by USAID provide public freshwater and solar panels donated from Japan provide electricity. We were at the village dock in time to see the ferry loaded up, looking terrifyingly top-heavy, with people and even a piglet on a leash.
The beach is small and has a large swell ripping in. The rock has been carved by the wind and waves into interesting shapes. You can hike a little way along the shore on either side of the beach.
Vaka Eitu is the best snorkeling we had in Tonga.
Anchoring in Vaka Eitu
Sunday, we arrived into anchorage #16, on Vaka Eitu island, and it took us three tries to get settled in. The first our anchor didn’t set, and the second we realized we were too close to another boat.
Meet the Neighbors
Once we were set I took a good look around the crowded anchorage and noticed a boat named Gypsea Heart. Something in my mind clicked, and I realized that this boat was connected by three degrees to us – my uncle’s friend’s friends. I had been told that they cruise between the South Pacific and NZ and I should keep a lookout for them. What are the odds??
We also had two dingies stop by and say hello – kind of unusual. One of them was S/V Cowabunga, whose crew consists of Ron, from Oregon (like David was born) and Shannon, who lived in Plano (where David went to high school in Texas). So in this tiny anchorage on Tonga, we’ve got 5 Texans!
The anchorage thinned after our first night, with new people coming and going every day.
Vaka Eitu’s Shore
The shoreline increases greatly at low tide, with a lot of land drying up. This is perfect for taking Aquila, our kayak, out. Her draft is so low I can glide over the reef at high tide. I also went snorkeling along the shore, and while most of the reef is dead, occasionally there will be a large colony of soft coral to enjoy. There are also very large collections of black long spine sea urchins, as well as frequent sightings of granular sea stars, cushion stars, and blue sea stars. My favorite sighting was a golden phase guineafowl puffer (really, anything in the Odd-Shaped Swimmers category is fun to find).
David actually hadn’t left the boat since we arrived. He banged his foot up in Niue, and after all the excitement of diving in Port Muerelle, he’s trying to let the scab finish healing. He’s been working on videos.
Snorkeling Vaka Eitu
Friday, we felt like David’s foot had healed enough. We finally got our butts in gear and did the one thing we wanted to do here: snorkeling the coral gardens. Just north of our anchorage, there is a “pass” out to sea. It’s not really much of a pass. At low tide, some coral or rocks break the surface. At high tide, there are a few feet of water. All the time, the swell from the ocean rolls in and breaks over the reef. We’d talked to people about getting over to the ocean and it’s a bit tricky. I approached via kayak and decided it was too rough, so David and I took the dinghy. We used a combination of lifting our outboard up and paddling to get out.
Once we were on the west side, we put our gear on. Out in the deep water, a was whale breaching, slapping, and fluking not far from us. Once we had our gear on, we dove in and pulled LD behind us. It’s easy to see the edge of the shelf, and there is a fairly gentle slope that runs down to about 25 feet or so. While the coral wasn’t 100% live, it was still pretty dang good. There wasn’t a lot of fish, definitely not a lot of large fish, but we did also see a turtle and a barracuda.
We swam almost the entire length of the reef, for about an hour. We did see a boat do like what we had done at Mariner’s Cave; at least one person stayed on the boat while the boat drifted and another group went in for the swim. If you’ve got more than 2 people, that’s a pretty good idea. In fact, this reef was just down the same island as Mariner’s cave, so it would be a perfect two-tank dive off a boat.
We got plenty of socializing into our schedule while we were there. We had the crew of Gypsea Heart (Rankin and Sandra) over for cocktails one night, and then Bob and Judy from Kinabalu another night (we met them in Bora Bora), and our last night Margansie sailed in and invited us over for sundowners.
In chatting with Kinabalu, we realized we were both in Nova Scotia last summer but our paths didn’t (that we know of) cross. It was fun the reminisce over that cruising time. And it was sad to realize it was over a year and approximately 100 anchorages ago, and our memory is starting to get fuzzy…
Internet Service at Vaka Eitu
While we didn’t have cell phone service in Port Muerelle, we have good service at anchorage 16. Not only that, but a few days ago there was a wide scale upgrade to the 3G cellular service system in Vavau. We heard about it on the net, but before that noticed a nice increase in the data speed. Yay!
Flying the Drone
Of course, we got Pheonix up when the weather was good.
It came well recommended by our friends on Whistler, but the entrance is tricky. Thankfully we had some waypoints to follow and our new SAS Planet to guide us in. A piece of cake!
About an hour after we anchored, it started raining again. By Monday afternoon, the rain had stopped, and we made it ashore just after lunch to enjoy the tide pools that low tide brings. During low tide, you can actually walk from Kenutu to either of the two neighboring islands. The tide pools look a bit like rice paddy fields, and there are tons of interesting critters living in them! I picked up a lot of shells, and even though I very carefully inspected them, I put them in saltwater once I got back to the boat and kept an eye on them. Sure enough, each of the four shells had tiny hermit crabs living in them, so I had to put them back. There is also a trail over the ridge of the island, so you can walk to a cliff on the ocean side and look out over the waves crashing into Kenutu. If you are lucky (which we weren’t) you can see whales.
Diesel in Vava’u
In Neiafu, you can order diesel from a tanker to come to the dock and fill up, but you have to order a minimum of 200 L and most people do it when they clear out so they can get duty free diesel. We wanted to top up as much as possible before heading down to the Ha’apai, because as we have learned, windless days are pretty common. We brought SH over to the dock, which required a pretty tight parallel parking job. Under the eyes of all the local fishermen who were already parked at the dock, I got SH in nice and tight!
Tongan Fuel Shortage
We had some pretty tense times on Starry Horizons as we try to figure out our plans towards the end of our first visit. We’ve done all the major things we want to do in Tonga, although like with every country there are plenty more things to see and do. Ultimately it’s David’s decision and he was between a rock and a hard place trying to make up his mind.
We knew we wanted to stay through Saturday to attend a dinner and thus stay through to Monday since we can’t clear out on a Sunday. However, two factors have contributed to us deciding to extend our stay in Tonga.
There was a tiny bit of wind through our region on Monday, but now it has died and stay dead for the next seven days.
If we really needed to get moving we’d go without having any wind and just motor but unfortunately, we don’t have enough fuel, and that’s not for a lack of trying on our part.
Normally, you can order diesel through the amazing Sandy at Vava’u Adventures, and the diesel will be delivered to the dock via fuel truck. If you clear out before taking fuel from the truck, then your fuel is duty-free, which can be a hefty saving if you are ordering 400L.
Apparently, the Tongan government bought a new tanker to deliver fuel around the islands, but someone screwed up. The tanker can not make the turn into Neiafu Harbor. There is no other place on the Vava’u group to dock and pump out.
First to go was the petrol (or gasoline in the states). When we first caught wind of the shortage I filled up our dingy tank from the nearby gas station. The gas was not high quality, as for a little while the outboard kept dying and belching smoke.
Sandy said it was only a matter of time for the diesel to run out. Saturday David and I decided better safe than sorry; we need diesel to run our generator and watermaker, so we got our jerry cans out, hailed a taxi and went off to the one gas station that had diesel.
On the way, we passed another gas station that had petrol coming in via barrels on a supply ship. The road was lined with cars, and about 60 people were sitting around waiting with jerry cans to purchase petrol.
This is not just to run their cars. A good number of people live outside Neiafu, and thus off the grid. While government donations from Japan have provided some of the people with solar panels, many homes are outfitted with generators.
To top that off, we mentioned earlier that the fuel shortage caused a price increase in our whale swim. Imagine the economic impact this shortage is having on Vava’u in the peak of tourist season. With no tour boats going out, no money is coming into the locals who work here. Prices are increasing across the board, as getting food and staff into work at restaurants becomes more challenging.
Once again we are reminded how lucky we are to have been born in America. Tonga is the poorest country (via GDP per capita) that we have been to on Starry Horizons with a GDP per capita of roughly $5,000 (compared to the US at $55,000). However, it won’t be the poorest on our circumnavigation; that will go to Madagascar with $1,400, the 10th lowest in the world.
Provisioning in Neiafu, Tonga
When we agreed to cross the Pacific on S/V Julia, we decided to leave Starry Horizons in Neiafu. It was only an afterthought when I realized that meant leaving Starry Horizons’ fridge and freezer empty. Upon returning, I would need to provision a full boat in Neiafu before taking off to the Ha’apai group, where provisioning is extremely minimal.
Every place we visit I have a general sense of provisioning: Niue – everything is NZ products and brands, just more expensive; Tahiti – a giant Carrefour where you can purchase anything you want with excellent subsidized French imports; Neiafu – excellent produce market, mediocre dry goods, and extremely poor meat selection.
Traditional Tongan Food
The traditional Tongan diet, like most Polynesian people’s, is fish, starchy vegetables, and coconuts. Locals roast pigs for feasts and chicken seems to be the main meat available. Taro and yams dominate the plate most of the time.
Shortages occur frequently. For example, last year there was no sugar to be had in the stores, and apparently a Great Onion Famine of 2012.
Learning from Last Year
Looking at provisioning for two months in Neiafu, I knew produce was no problem. Dry goods were hit and miss. I remember seeing ginger beer for the first time in 9 months. Jasmine rice was available. I also remember the ritz cracker knockoffs with a funky aftertaste. I DIDN’T remember if I could buy any of the name-brand cereals David likes or dried fruits and nuts for trail mix. Next time, I’d take better notes!
But it doesn’t matter that I didn’t. A lot has changed in Tonga in the 9 months we were gone. I’ve definitely done more shopping in the past few days in Tonga than I did the entire time I was here last year, and now I know what I’m doing. Here are some tips for those future cruisers out there planning on coming through Tonga.
Most of the stores don’t have visible names out front. Cruisers kind of nickname them. I’ve taken some pictures so you can see what the shop looks like. Chinese immigrants own most of the bigger stores – I’m not really sure why. They speak Tongan better than they speak English, so sometimes it’s a little hard if you are looking or something specific. There are no prices on anything. When you check out, the cashier adds everything up on a calculator that pronounces the letters in (I’m assuming) Mandarin, and they show you the total. Stores do not accept credit cards.
The stores can be hit and miss. Goods are typically brought on the ferry or shipped over, so when they run out, they run out. Stores won’t restock till the next shipment (or the one after that).
The main road is Fatafehi, which runs along the shore. Tu’i Road runs perpendicular to Fatafehi, starting from the market.
The Blue Store
This is where I’ve done most of my shopping. It’s visible from the small boat marina, and hard to miss, on the main street. There’s no name, but a big Coca-cola sign on the side. I’ve had good luck finding a good variety of meats here.
The name is Luke’s, but when pronounced in a Polynesian language like Tongan, all the vowels are audible, so it sounds like Luca’s on the Tongan tongue. Luke’s is across from the police station and says “Vava’u Shopping Center” above the doorway. Luke also rents out cars for very cheap. New in 2017, Luke’s has a dairy case. Meats are available thawed, along with a selection of cheese, whipping cream, and even sour cream. I bought two small things of whipping cream; both had passed their expiration date (not uncommon). However, when I opened them, they had solidified (perhaps they’d been frozen?). If you are looking for whipping cream, go for the bigger UHT packages that have not been refrigerated or frozen.
The newest Chinese grocery store, Sunny’s has provisions but also a lot of household goods. I was able to find fabric there, as well as lots of handcraft items. It is located up Tu’i Road in a big gray building.
This is where I buy my bread. The window with the bars on it is often opened and they sell their bread directly to the street, but you can also buy it from inside. This store is Tongan owned. On it’s right side is a Chinese grocery store, and on the right side of that is the MBf bank. There is a dairy case, with a variety of NZ cheeses, and is the only place I’ve found cream cheese.
No, not an actual Costco. To find this little shop, walk down Fatafehi and turn at the Blue Store and it’ll be on your right. It’s a small, Tongan-owned store, but with products straight out of Costco. I saw large jars of artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, Jiffy peanut butter (!!), and many more American-style items.
A Canadian couple moved to Neiafu and opened a new deli. They sell made-to-order sandwiches, as well as frozen house-made sausages, stuffed pork, and other premade meals. Their lemonade is stellar!
The Dancing Rooster bills itself as a provisioning center for yachties. They have a daily board with their meat offerings, and you can place an order to be picked up the next day, frozen or not. I ordered two packages of two scotch fillets (ribeyes for Americans, four steaks total). The cost came to $100 TOP ($50 USD).
Behind the ‘Utukalongalu Market is a seafood market, but every time I’ve been in – even as they open at 8 am – it’s been empty. Instead, go to the commercial wharf in the mornings and you will find pop up tents selling whole reef fish – hogfish, parrotfish, groupers. As of 2017, the government created new sanctions for fishing, so check with the Tongan Environmental Protection Agency (next to Dancing Rooster) before you fish.
The market is open every day, but it is best to go early and go the morning or the morning after the ferry arrives. Produce is readily available all the time. Some of it, like the big orange carrots, bundles of herbs, oranges, and apples, have been imported and previously refrigerated, meaning they need to be stored in your fridge. But, there are many items available that are locally grown and don’t require refrigeration:
- Carrots (you can tell the difference between locally grown carrots and imported ones)
- Onions (possibly imported, but don’t require refrigeration)
- Potatoes (ditto)
- Kumala (sweet potatoes)
- tomatoes (mostly green)
- long beans
- large zucchinis (courgettes)
- butternut squash
- peanuts (!!)
Tips on Meat
Almost all grocery stores carry meat, but it tends to be “mystery meat” – bags of frozen meat, with no description and poorly packaged. It’s smart to freezer dive – check all the freezers in every store. New things come in, or sell out. If you see something you like, buy it right away!
Here are some meats I’ve seen out and about:
- ground beef (can be from NZ or from Tonga, NZ beef is better packaged)
- misc steaks (low-quality cuts)
- imitation crab meat (very popular)
- chicken breasts (from the US)
- pork sausages (flavored, Heller’s brand from NZ)
- beef sausages (Tongan)
- ham slices
- frozen blocks of chopped ham
- frozen bags of chicken quarters or legs
Almost all the grocery stores sell bread. It is unsliced, in plastic containers. It is already bagged two loaves per bag, but you can take a loaf out if you only want one. It’s typically $1.50 TOP ($.75 USD) per loaf. The bread does not last very long – just a few days – if left out on the counter, so we’ve started storing ours in the fridge.
Eggs are available at most of the grocery stores, and at the market. They can be sold in flats of 30, roughly $20 TOP for a flat. Butter is available in the fridge or freezer of most grocery stores.
Example Shopping Trips
The Blue Shop
- 2 lb butter from NZ
- package (12) slices cheddar cheese from NZ
- loaf unsliced locally made bread
- bag mystery beef
- package (14) beef sausages from Tonga
- bag (2 kg) chicken wings from NZ
- packages Tongan ground beef (1 kg?)
- bag chicken legs (turkey??)
- package (3) chicken breasts, from US
- bag (1 kg) Hellers NZ sausages
- package Table brand (1 lb) sliced maple bacon USA
- 3 lb bag pepperoni
- 5 lb bag shredded mozzarella
- Long beans
- Head of cabbage
- Five large carrots
- Five limes
- Two cucumbers
- One papaya
- Small bunch of bananas
- Bunch of lemon basil
- Six large carrots
- Long beans
- Large papaya
- Five limes
- Bag of onions
- Two cucumbers
We have friends who came back up to Neiafu from the Ha’apai group because they ran out of food. There is NO provisioning in the Ha’apai group, so you can bet we will have a full fridge and freezer before we leave Neiafu.
Hello thank you for this great info. If the shopping is all cash based, is there an ATM to withdraw cash? I’m in a position now to buy what I need, what items would you have brought to get you through. Maybe can meat before we leave?
Thanks in advance
Deb SV Coastaldrifter
There is an ANZ bank and ATM in town! Easy peasy. 🙂
Meat is definitely harder to find recognizable pieces than most places I’ve been. I’d have as much meat as you can, though you can find good “western” meat at the Dancing Rooster or at Falaleu Deli. Of course, there’s always seafood.
Great post, we are heading to Vava’u in October so this is incredibly helpful.
Thank you! Glad you understand it useful. We love Tonga. Have a great time.
Nice haul shopping. I bet it is super hard getting enough for a long outing on the boat!
Better than last year! We are headed to the Ha’apais this week, so I’ll be stuffing us to the gills with food!