Far from the tourist trail, natural wonders and cultural riches take the stage in this untouched world of Tonga.
Discover Pacific History
Tonga became known as the ‘Friendly Islands’ because of the warm reception Captain Cook received on a visit to the Ha’apai islands in 1777 – despite the chiefs initially wanting to ‘cook’ Cook (they couldn’t agree on a plan), according to William Mariner. Alongside Captain Cook’s landing site, the island of Tongatapu is also where the mysterious 13th-century Ha’amonga, a Maui trilithon, or the ‘Stonehenge’ of the South Pacific, is found.
Try Traditional Tongan Dress
You will see plenty of Tongans still wearing traditional dress in the kingdom, especially on formal occasions and Sundays. Both men and women wear finely woven mats called ta’ovala around their waists over a tupenu (wrap-around cloth skirt). It’s the equivalent of a Western suit. At other times, Tongans dress conservatively – a man can still be fined for taking off his shirt in public, so garb up modestly, and always cover your knees.
Embrace Sacred Sunday
On the topic of churches, Tonga is a deeply religious nation, and faith forms an important part of daily life. Sundays in Tonga are strictly observed as holy days: all businesses are closed by law (apart from some tourist resorts), and even in rugby- mad Tonga, playing sport is prohibited. The best thing to do is join everybody else and attend one of the various church services, even if you’re not religious, as the melodic Tongan voices are pure heaven.
Take A Short Flight To Adventure
If Tonga feels like a step back in time, a visit to ‘Eua will warp your sense of time even more. The kingdom’s oldest island boasts beautiful hills and rich rainforest, perfect for birdwatching and hikes in the wilderness. This is the place to go for true wild adventure, as the facilities are basic, but you’ll have the place almost to yourself. The seven-minute flight from Tongatapu is one of the world’s shortest commercial flights..
Find Your Inner Robinson Crusoe
Of Tonga’s more than 170 islands, only 36 are inhabited. To visit one and leave your own footprints, the best option is a live-aboard yacht charter, where you can navigate the blue seas and anchor for a swim as part of a day cruise. Experienced sailors liken the northern Vava’u island group to a cross between the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands.
Swim With Humpback Whales
Every year from July to October humpback whales make their long migration from Antarctica to breed and give birth in the warm Tongan waters. Tonga is one of the only places in the world where it is legal to swim with humpback whales (the others being the Dominican Republic; Niue, between Tonga and American Samoa; and some trials in Australia). Swimming with some of the largest creatures on Earth is truly the wildlife experience of a lifetime.
Visit A South Pacific Kingdom
Tonga is the only remaining constitutional monarchy in the South Pacific, and is still ruled by a king and royal family. King Tupou VI is the current ruler, reigning since 2012. On the main island of Tongatapu, you can peek at the Royal Palace, and visit the langis, the terraced tombs of past Tongan kings. You may even catch a glimpse of the royals at the Free Wesleyan Church in Nuku’alofa on a Sunday morning
Dance The Lakalaka
Dance in Tonga is distinctly different from other South Pacific nations. Graceful movements enhance vocal poetry, creating a style that is uniquely Tongan. If you attend a Tongan dance, you’ll probably be invited to join in, or to show your appreciation by giving the dancer a small donation. The traditional national dance of Tonga is the lakalaka, listed by UNESCO as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
Buy Authentic Handicrafts
Mass produced souvenirs are not common in Tonga. Instead, you’ll find interesting and authentic traditional art and handicrafts, often made by the person you’re purchasing from. The kingdom’s two most prominent crafts are tapa, cloth made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree, and mat weaving, which both have great cultural significance. You’ll also find intricate carvings and finely woven pandanus baskets.
Drink In Kava Culture
While you’ll find the ritual of kava drinking throughout the South Pacific, you’re likely to encounter it much more frequently in Tonga. Kava clubs are found in every town, and kava drinking gatherings take place almost every night in the villages, but traditionally only men can participate (women serve). The slightly narcotic drink looks and tastes like dirty dishwater, but sipping a coconut shell full of it at least once is an essential experience.