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The Pacific’s last kingdom is a paradise for seekers of pure peace. Its beautiful islands, divided into four groups, are scattered like pearls across 700,000 square kilometres of ocean. There is no shortage of deserted beaches and pristine anchorages here, and the swimming, snorkelling and diving are exceptional.
The main island, Tongatapu, is home to the capital, Nuku’alofa, and to most of the kingdom’s resorts. Many of these are family-owned and personal, because Tonga likes to welcome its visitors in low-key style – this is a place for simpler living and genuine encounters with the local people. Tongans know that what they can offer visitors doesn’t need dressing up. It’s already perfect!
If possible, do try to see more during your stay – head out to the scenic archipelagos of Vava’u and Ha’apai. Tonga’s tropical waters are renowned for their abundant marine life, including large schools of humpback whales which breed around Vava’u in winter. If you want to see these magnificent creatures, be sure to book your visit for some time between July and October. It’s even possible to swim with them: a truly unforgettable experience. Vava’u is also a sailor’s dream destination, with beautiful natural harbours and sheltered coves. The best known of these is the deep-water Port of Refuge, where you’ll find Tonga’s most picturesque town, tiny Neiafu. And of course, the opportunities for relaxation – right throughout Vava’u – are endless. Even more remote and completely unspoiled is the Ha’apai group, with its coral atolls, glistening lagoons, pure white beaches and just a handful of inhabited islands. The way of life here really is timeless, and while it can’t offer any luxury resorts, Ha’apai is ideal for adventure and brilliant for kayaking – paddle up to a near-deserted shore, stay at beachside fale and tuck into a traditional feast with the friendly islanders!
Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, will be almost certainly your first taste of the kingdom. With about a third of all Tonga’s population living here, Nuku’alofa can be a surprisingly bustling place but its size also means there’s a great array of restaurants, nightclubs and dynamic cultural shows. There’s plenty to see too, such as the Talamahu Markets with its mounds of fresh produce and selection of handcrafts, including wood carving and jewellery. Although the Royal Palace is not open to visitors, you can admire this white-timber 19th century building from the waterfront. Try to time your visit to town to include a Sunday. Tongans are ardent churchgoers and their singing is legendary. Everyone’s welcome but make sure to pack your Sunday best. (Image: ©Tonga Tourism)
Ha’apai, on the other hand, has no towns at all. It’s a faraway world of atolls, lagoons and white sand – an untouched slice of pure Polynesia, where most islands are tiny and uninhabited. The main centre is the
friendly village of Pangai on Lifuka, with a lone bank and a few small stores. Ha’apai is way off the beaten track, and if you’re looking for somewhere untouched by time, you’ll love it here. Sea-kayaking, either for short island-to-island hops, or multi-day adventures, is an ideal way to explore these islands. Whale watching, swimming with whales and kite-surfing are on offer and there’s history too: it was in these islands that the Bounty Mutiny took place. Life is simple in Ha’apai so accommodation for visitors is also no-frills. But there’s nowhere better for that back-to-nature island experience and for a genuine introduction to traditional Tongan culture.
If you’re in search of empty white sands and brilliant blue waters, Vava’u is your perfect choice. This tropical archipelago has one large island and a host of smaller ones, all with shimmering lagoons, hidden coves and superb diving sites. Neiafu, the main centre, lies on the shores of the Port of Refuge, a magnificent deep-water harbour. It’s the prettiest town in Tonga, and has a Saturday market, plus shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. There is spectacular diving and snorkelling among coral gardens, shipwrecks and in mysterious sea caves. With a reputation as one of the best game-fishing locations in the Pacific, Vava’u has boats available for exhilarating searches for marlin and tuna. While Vava’u is a magnet for lovers of the outdoors, there is no need to rough it as accommodation ranges from camp sites to comfortable resorts. (Image: ©James Blackwood)
The lush tropical islands of Vava’u and Ha’apai are home to Friendly Islands Kayak Company. Whilst the islands are separated by reefs or open water, they are not great paddling distances apart so there’s plenty of time to kayak the warm waters, snorkel amidst colourful coral and inside legendary marine caves, and observe the traditional way of life of the Tongan people. Your most difficult choice will be deciding on which kayak tour to do. Vava’u’s hilly terrain is perhaps more interesting and scenic and it’s relatively sheltered waters are conducive to more reliable whale sightings between July and October. However if it’s white sand beaches you’re after, there’s no shortage of these in Ha’apai. Snorkelling’s superb in both island groups, but soft corals and sizeable fish are more abundant in Ha’apai waters. There are a range of itinerary’s available including 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 days for Vava’u or 7 and 11 days for Ha’apai with various departure dates throughout the year, so you’re sure to find something to suit.
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The best thing about Tonga is the authentic, unspoilt and genuine feeling you get while experiencing a real taste of Polynesian life. From July to October large schools of southern humpback whales take shelter in the tropical-reef protected waters of Tonga to give birth to their young. These shallow and warm waters provide the perfect viewing platform with excellent visibility from which to admire these beautiful creatures. You may hear the occasional singing of courting male humpbacks, a natural symphony that can carry up to 100 kilometres through the open ocean and for those lucky enough to swim alongside these gentle giants it is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tours take up to a maximum of 12 passengers with only 4 at a time being able to swim with the whales, it’s likely you’ll need to take turns in the water. Whale watching and swimming is prohibited on Sundays.
Tonga’s protected coral reefs, atolls and safe anchorages make it one of the best locations for sailing and Neiafu Harbour on Vava’u is one of the Pacific’s key sailing hubs. The Moorings and Sunsail are part of the largest skippered charter boat operations in the world. They operate 20 yachts, all modern, fully equipped and spacious with well trained staff onboard to ensure a fantastic sailing holiday.
From July to October Humpback Whales travel up from Antarctica to Tonga to enjoy the warmer waters. There’s an array of interesting behaviour to be seen from the boat from graceful spyhops, powerful tail slaps and full body breaching or curious approaches to the boat. This can be a life changing experience, one that few people will ever get the chance to enjoy. Thrill-seekers can get into the water, up close and personal with these beautiful creatures.
Take a day cruise out to Pangaimotu Island to enjoy a day of snorkelling, soaking up the sun and diving off a ship wreck – the islands main attraction where the brave can jump from the hull of the ship. The island is just a 10 minute boat ride from Tongatapu so you’ll be off the boat and in the water in record time. A tasty lunch at Big Mama’s Yacht Club is included.
This fun walking tour is a great way to familiarise yourself with the kingdom’s capital, Nuku’alofa. See the Royal Palace and Royal Tomb as well as the Talamahu Market, the kingdom’s main fresh produce hub. It’s a hive of activity here, especially on Saturday mornings. Visit the Langafonua Handicrafts Centre which has the best range of traditional Tongan handicrafts and fine arts including tapa cloth, jewellery and wooden carvings.
Board your dive boat and head out to one of the dozens of nearby reef systems which offer some of the South Pacific’s most unspoiled and rarely visited dive experiences. Regular sightings of sharks, tuna and manta rays are common as you meander through the soft coral gardens. A full range of dive courses are on offer from one day dive experiences for the non-qualified diver right up to the full open water courses.
Kingdom of Tonga
Current time in Tonga
Same as New Zealand
Tongan Pa’anga (TOP)
Current is 240V, 50HZ. Plug is a 3 point rectangle-pin adaptor
English and Tongan
ANZ has ATMs in Nuku’alofa and Vava’u.
Hospitals are located in Nuku’alofa, Neiafu and Pangai.
If you’re travelling on a NZ Passport, a Visa is not required but you are required to have proof of return or onward ticket.
2 hours and 50 minutes from Auckland to Nuku’alofa, 5 hours and 20 minutes from Wellington to Nuku’alofaand 5 hours and 30 minutes from Christchurch to Nuku’alofa.
Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia
Are you planning your next trip to Tonga? Want to learn more about this destination? Or looking for ideas and inspiration for your next holiday? Here is where you can find our featured articles on Tonga.
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