I didn’t even know Tonga existed before I spent hours googling flights to pacific islands in an attempt to find one that was somewhat within my price range. I mean, it would be a crime to be on this side of world and not see a pacific island, right? Originally I had Fiji on the brain, but several people guided me in other directions, saying Fiji was too expensive and too touristy, and that a place like Tonga might be more what I was looking for.
And right they were! A few clicks and a short plane ride later and I landed in Nuku’Alofa, the “big city” on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island. I walked through the tiny airport, having to stop only to explain to the security guy that yes, my little backpack was indeed all I brought for the week. I didn’t know having too few belongings was suspicious, but I guess I looked odd mixed in with the throngs of people lugging multiple suitcases and huge surfboard bags behind them.
Outside, I spotted the Heilala Holiday Lodge sign and walked toward it, meeting a nice Tongan named Leo who gave me a fresh flower necklace and drove me and several other travelers to the lodge. I tried to ignore the obnoxious family in the back seats talking extremely loudly about how undeveloped and impoverished everything was. For the record, they were not Americans. Also not American was the crazy Kiwi military guy I met later on who said “That’s bullshit!” when I told him I hadn’t tried NZ lamb yet and said “best not say any more about that” when I told him I had been at a yoga center recently. There are obnoxious people everywhere, folks–not just in the good ol’ US of A.
On the way, we stopped at a market where I hoped to stock up on food so I wouldn’t have to pay for meals at the lodge. Unfortunately I came out with only a few sad looking potatoes and a packet of rice noodles. It wasn’t quite the gourmet feast I had imagined, but I soon learned that meals at the lodge were extremely cheap in Tongan dollars and extremely delicious by any standards. Never much of a seafood eater (I blame growing up in Vermont for this), I was singing a different tune by the end of the week. Fresh mahimahi, tuna, snapper, lobster… you name it, I tried it in Tonga. And it was awesome. All that plus the fresh fruit breakfasts and pure Tongan coffee and I was living on a culinary cloud nine.
I’d like to say that I had crazy adventures in Tonga like swimming with whales or something, but honestly the best part was just laying on the beach sipping fresh coconuts through a straw. And I wasn’t the only one with that thought. I managed to befriend two adorable ladies in their late eighties who traveled to Tonga together since their partners had passed away, and I overheard them by the snack bar debating what to get. “Oh, let’s be devils!” one said, “two coconuts it is!” I hope I’m still adventuring like that when I’m pushing ninety.
I did manage to do a bit more than lounge around, though. But it’s hard to make too many plans when everything operates on Tongan time, meaning buses may or may not leave within two hours of when they’re supposed to and other things of the sort. Kind of like Senegalese time, which I experienced during other travels a few years back. There were also plenty of three-legged dogs and the smell of burning trash to make me feel like I was back there, as well. Not to mention the proposals of love from young Tongan men hanging off the backs of garbage trucks, blowing kisses as the driver whisked them away.
Nevertheless, I made it into the city one day just to have a look around. Much of the city is comprised of burnt ruins due to the political riots of 2006, which contrast greatly with the huge, fancy Mormon temples that simply look like they don’t belong. And taking the trip provided me with the lovely opportunity to use public transportation! I boarded a rickety bus with an crumpled paper sign in the window with the name of a place written on it that I was at least 90% sure I wanted to go, and hoped for the best. Luck was with me that day, as it seems to have been this entire year (knock on wood), and I made it back in one piece feeling uncomfortably white and only two Tongan dollars poorer.
Back at Heilala, I wandered down to the beach just in time to see a whale from shore, jumping and diving just beyond the breakers. I saw another a bit later, making me think that maybe they were swimming laps around the island. Why pay for whale watching when you can do it for free from the comfort of your hammock? The next day brought another adventure, when I used one of the lodge’s rusty cruiser bikes to pedal around the island, missing my turn and ending up on a three-hour tour through tiny villages and deserted farmland–without a map or a good sense of direction, might I add. After that, I rewarded myself by hopping in a kayak and doing more floating on the waves than paddling of any kind, followed by a bit of snorkeling. Once I got over the creepiness of seaweed, I was awed by the array of colorful fish and the rare sightings of still-living coral.
And now, for a few interesting tidbits:
- Women cannot purchase land in Tonga
- Friends Cafe has the best mango smoothie you will ever find
- If you attend Island Night at the holiday lodge next to Heilala, the traditional dance section will end with a Tongan rendition of “What Does the Fox Say?”
So overall I’d say Tonga is a great place to go if you want beautiful beaches, nice people, and a chance to experience true island culture outside the tourist realm. It’s on my list to return to just for more coconuts!