Stay-at-Home Traveler: Destination Rankings, Vol. III – Tonga

After a little hiatus, we’re moving back to the South Pacific for this tropical destination coming in at number four…

#4 – Tonga

My heart smiles when I think of Tonga, and it’s not just because of the sexy flagbearer from the last two Olympics (more on him later). My love affair dates back to my childhood infatuation with its unique postage stamps.

Also known as the “Friendly Islands,” this island nation was the first country in the world to issue self-adhesive stamps…way back in 1963! I can’t even remember the last time I licked a stamp (come to think of it, even using stamps these days is rare), as self-adhesives are the norm today.

Image of a 2 sene banana stamp issued in 1978
One of the many banana stamps from the late 1970s. Image courtesy FFStamps from HipStamp.com.

Tonga’s stamps were often unusual too in that they weren’t just perforated rectangles and squares. Some of their stamps were shaped like a heart, banana, coin, pineapple, a camera lens, and the island itself. These rather large oblong stamps made for awkward placement on letters, but they were indeed used. I’ve been completely fascinated with the country ever since seeing them.

Perhaps because many of the stamps more visually illustrated what the island had to offer, these images stuck in my mind. If they were that creative with their stamps, I could only imagine how awesome life must be like there.

My interest was renewed again after seeing Pita Taufatofua oiled up and wearing a traditional ta’ovala (grass skirt) carrying the Tonga flag at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He returned two years later for the Winter Olympics to become one of the South Pacific’s only cross-country skiers. He’ll be back for his third Olympics to try canoeing. As if that’s not impressive enough, he is a UNICEF ambassador, helps homeless children, and is a fitness guru. Clearly I’m a fanboy and would love the chance to meet him.

OK so what’s there besides beaches and coconuts? As is Samoa, Tonga is culturally Polynesian but it is one of the few remaining that still has a king. Fun fact: thanks to His Royal Highness, commerce is forbidden on Sunday on the main island Tongatapu and no money can be spent on that day! Sounds like the perfect excuse to laze on a beach or pack a picnic and do some exploring.

As with other Polynesian cultures, Tonga has a rich tradition of tattoos as well. Of course, I’d like to get another one. The intricate designs are traditionally familial, but they also signify personality traits and symbols that are important to one’s life. And they are beautiful.

Probably the biggest draw to Tonga is the ability to swim with humpback whales. Some hardcore enthusiasts sign up for week-long snorkeling and diving excursions. I’d prefer a shorter trip on the sea, but the chance to swim with these docile creatures would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

These majestic humpback whales are a prime reason to visit Tonga. Image courtesy of Rohit Kushwaha of Pixabay.

The ocean is not the only place to have a wildlife encounter. Visit the village of Kolovai to see the country’s sacred flying foxes. Officially the property of the king, these animals are technically a type of bat. Apparently you can get fairly close to them, walking beneath their roosting trees, and they’re particularly unfazed.

This kingdom has a few other treasures in store. For example, there is the “Stonehenge of Tonga,” a trilithon that pays homage to the famous Maui (yes, from Moana or “Vaiana” depending on where you live). The Ha’amonga ‘a Maui is said to have been carried by the demigod and may have served as an entrance to his royal palace. It also offered him protection from attackers.

If you are making a Maui pilgrimage, continue to the little island of ‘Eua to visit the Li’anga Huo a Maui, a natural beach-side arch. The blue eye of the arch as seen from the land will have your camera or smartphone salivating for more.

Partially sunken ship in the water on Pangaimotu Island. The side of the ship reads "Big Mama Yacht Club" and "Ofu Atu 201" and there is a small flag of Tonga on the "mast."
Shipwreck near Pangaimotu Island. Image courtesy Adli Wahid from Pixabay.

‘Eua is also the perfect lazy beach destination, with several secluded beaches dotting the coastline. There are some resorts if that’s your thing, but for a truly decadent relaxication, ‘Eua has you covered. Island tours offer a break from the beautiful beaches, with stops for trekking, visiting a cave, snorkeling, and handicrafts in the small villages.

Blowholes are another must-see here, but the ones on Tongatapu island are especially unique. Called “Whistle of the Noble,” Mapu ‘a Vaea is near the village of Houma and features a series of successive pipes that spew water as orchestrated by nature.

Ha’apai island is another lesser visited one of Tonga’s 36 inhabited islets. Other than another do-nothing beach kind of day, you could check out the Uiha burial grounds, 15th-century Velata Mound Fortress, or an old stone quarry near Holopeka Beach. The island has an active and inactive volcano and is known as a good locale for kitesurfing, as well diving, snorkeling, and swimming with whales.

A group of people dressed in traditional adornments of white feathers and shirts, with one woman looking down pensively while everyone else has their backs turned
A cultural performance moment. Image courtesy of Jovi Waqa from Unsplash.

Frommer’s describes Vava’u as the “crown jewel” of Tonga. Despite being the location of Tonga’s second “city” of Neiafu (less than 5,000 people), Vava’u is a sleepy paradise that only comes alive during yachting and whale season. Even so, there are plenty of small islands around to offer solitude to make your South Pacific dreams come true.

An interesting thing to partake in, at least if you are a man, is the faikava, or the kava party. This ceremony is the traditional gathering of men to drink kava kava, a natural root that has been used in alternative medicine as a stress reliever and sleep aid.

Fjords in the South Pacific? Well, that might be a stretch of the definition, but the Ava Pulepulekai is an azure channel leading into Neiafu that would probably make the Norwegians jealous. While you’re there, visit Tonga’s only botanical gardens, the ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden, featuring lush plantlife, birds, hiking, and also a beach. Swallow’s Rock or Cave is teeming with marine and birdlife, perfect for diving.

The capital city of Nuku’alofa is not without its charms. It is also a cruise ship port and the country’s largest city. This also means it’s a good place to go shopping, especially at the Talamahu Market or the Langafonua Handicrafts Centre. While not open to the public, you can stop by the Royal Palace for a photo. Occasionally, they may have special events.

Periwinkle-tinted clouds over a pier somewhere in Tonga
Periwinkle cloudscape over a Tongan pier. Image courtesy of Adli Wahid from Pixabay.

A must-see place for me would be the Tupu’Anga Cafe, where they roast their own coffee beans. It’s also a chance to sample Tongan pastries and snacks. Mingling with the locals and relaxing at the waterfront bars would be second on my itinerary. I’ve got to try Tongan beer, and the city would be the only place to experience “nightlife” in the country.

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t revert back to my infatuation with Tongan postage stamps and mention the far-flung island of Niuafo’ou. Also known as “Tin Can Island” because of its reputation for its unconventional mail collection, the tiny caldera is still an active volcano and is part of a small island group called the Niuas. These are truly unspoiled isles, and if you’re willing to take the time and expense to make it here, you’d be in for a real treat of low key island life, hiking, bird-watching, and marine activities.

A boat glides across tranquil bronze waters of a lake as the sun sets over the palm tree-fringed ridge, all seen from a dock.
Idyllic lake, possibly on Niuafo’ou. Image courtesy of David Mark from Pixabay.

Tonga is one of the few countries with no COVID-19 cases, although it was not spared from the fallout. I like to think of this place as remaining somewhat “normal” while the rest of the world fell apart. At least I have a dream…a hope that there exists such a place still in this world.

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