Travel in Tonga podcast
This content was written before the volcanic eruption and tsunami of early 2022 which has dramatically impacted the islands. You can read more and help out through Unicef.
The Kingdom of Tonga is an idyllic collection of islands in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Getting there can be a challenge, and you have to leave your schedule behind, but it’s worth the effort. Relax on white-sand beaches, partake of island food and hospitality, and enjoy the history of the “Friendly Islands”.
To listen, hit play below or find episode 121 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:
Tonga is made up of about 170 islands in the South Pacific Ocean. There are four distinct groups spread out over a large distance. The Tongatapu group is the most southerly, and the Ha’apai group is 100km north. The Vava’u group is another 100km north and the Niuatoputapu group is 300km north of Vava’u. The capital Nuku’alofa is on Tongatapu Island in the southern-most group.
Name: Kingdom of Tonga
Place: South Pacific Ocean, south of Samoa
Languages: Tongan. English is widely spoken
Known for: Beautiful islands, dancing
Temperatures: Winter: 17-24, summer: 23-30
Airports: Fua’amotu International Airport on Tongatapu island, 15km from Nuku’alofa
Price of a pint: $5 Tongan pa’anga (US$2.50 / GBP1.50)
Price of a dorm bed: $20 TOP
Price of a public transport ticket: $1 TOP
Really budget options are limited, but do exist even if you can’t find many listings on the hostel-booking websites. Tongaholiday.com lists many hotels, apartments and guest houses, or you can contact the tourism bureau for an exhaustive, if out-of-date, list. On Tongatapu, Toni’s is a good budget option, especially since Toni runs a great tour of the island.
There are a wide range of resorts for the mid- and higher-range, many of whom will give you a discount if you ask. Choose an off-shore island or a resort near the beach on the main island. There are no really superior hotels in Tonga.
Options are more limited on the outer islands, but you have a choice on all but the smallest islands.
Food is definitely not scarce in Tonga. Most crops are starchy vegetables like taro, yam, sweet potato or cassava – and these vegetables make up the bulk of the diet, supplemented with a lot of fish, pork and coconut. Food cooked in an underground oven (umu) is particularly tasty; the vegetables are thrown in whole, and meat is drenched in coconut milk then wrapped in taro leaves before being placed in the umu to cook slowly.
Since most Tongans grow their own food, the shops aren’t very well-stocked, though there are a lot of them. They mostly stock canned goods like corned beef and spaghetti, as well as soft drinks, UHT milk and juice. Nuku’alofa has quite a few restaurants, and the guesthouse hosts are usually happy to prepare a meal at a price.
Nuku’alofa is small enough to just walk around, and you can catch a bus to other destinations on Tongatapu island. The buses are privately run and don’t have a timetable, so good luck! To explore Tongatapu, it’s easiest to take a tour, or hire a bike, scooter or car. If you hire a car, you need to get a Tongan driver’s licence – just visit the Ministry of Police, show your licence and pay the fee (about $18).
To get from island to island you can either travel by ferry or by plane. Chathams Pacific flies from Tongatapu to ‘Eua, Ha’apai and Vava’u daily except Sunday. Ferries are less frequent but cheaper – there’s a daily ferry to ‘Eua, a weekly one to Ha’apai and Vava’u, and a monthly one to the Niuas.
Attractions — free
There’s quite a lot to do for free in Tonga, including that old favourite – lying on the beach doing nothing. Have a swim or a snorkel, or take a hike through the forests of ‘Eua. Rugby is a big part of the culture in Tonga, so try to catch a high-school game. Church is also a cultural experience, and the choirs will blow you away even if going to church isn’t usually your thing.
Take a walk around Nuku’alofa, making sure to see the major buildings and to visit the Talamahu market and the fish market. There’s no charge to visit any of Tongatapu’s natural attractions, such as the blowholes, the trilithon, and the Pigeon’s Doorway. However, they are a bit difficult to get to, so you may have to fork out for a tour.
Attractions — seasonal
One of Tonga’s main drawcards is the whale-watching from July to October. Many companies offer excursions to see them, or just stand on the beach and watch them migrate. Festivals are also held throughout the year. Vava’u holds theirs in May, Ha’apai celebrates in June, and the Heilala festival on Tongatapu is sometime between June and August.
Attractions — paid
Take a tour of the island you’re on or get a local to take you on a guided hike – most hotels and guesthouses will help you organise this.
The dinner and show packages many resorts run are open to non-residents. Ask around to find out which one is currently the best. They’ll usually organise transport to and from your guesthouse as well, which is really useful.
If you’re a fan of the water, head out on a kayaking trip – there’s a good organisation on Tongatapu that rents kayaks by the hour as well as doing guided trips. Plus there is a huge variety of snorkelling and diving options.
Lonely Planet has a variety of options, including a Lonely Planet Tonga Guide. Moon Handbooks by David Stanley have been highly recommended.
Personally, we found the most useful reference to be the free brochure published by Jasons. You can get one for free before your trip from their website, though you will have to pay postage if you’re outside of New Zealand or Australia.
Where to next?
If you’ve arrived in Nuku’alofa, chances are you’ll have to leave from there too. But make sure you explore Tonga before you go – head over to ‘Eua for some hiking, or north to see the whales and relax on a tropical beach.
When it’s time to go, you don’t have a lot of options. You can fly to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji or Samoa. Flying from anywhere else will mean stopping in one of those places.
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