So…guess I’m boutta go jump off a bridge. Of all the extreme sports/activities New Zealand has to offer, bungy jumping somehow seems the scariest. I could comfortably jump out of a plane with another human attached to me, I think parasailing and white water rafting look rad, but I’m not sure I can will myself to jump off a bridge. We’re about to find out.
My wonderful family has come all the way from Canada to be with me on Christmas, which has become somewhat of a tradition since my first time living away from home in Australia 6 years ago.
Tonga probably isn’t at the top of your travel bucket list – could you point to it on a map? I certainly had to Google it… but after spending 10 days there, I’m here to tell you why you should get out your atlas (and maybe a magnifying glass) to start planning your trip.
Here are 10 reasons to visit Tonga:
1. The Natural Beauty
I probably don’t have to do too much convincing here. Tonga is a tropical island in the Pacific! You’ll find impossibly clear blue water, unspoiled coral reef, exotic wildlife, rolling waves, blow holes, white sand beaches, thick lush jungles, deep caves, and so much more.
2. You Can Swim with Whales
Tonga is one of the only countries in the world where you can swim with humpback whales, and as it stands right now, you can do it guilt-free because there are ethical standards in place that keep the animal’s best interest at heart. Nothing like swimming next to a 30 ton mammal in the middle of the ocean to remind you how small you are.
3. No Tourists
I mean it. You can have the whole beach to yourself. Sometimes the whole bar, whole road, whole boat, and the whole hostel, too! Granted, I went at the end of the tourist season, but still. You’d never find yourself alone on the beach in Fiji or Thailand, would you? I felt like an explorer the whole time and I love that. Isn’t that why we travel?
4. The Friendly Islands
They’re called the Friendly Islands for a reason! Everyone is always smiling and keen to chat. A bonus if you’re not into haggling, is that no one is ever trying to rip you off. You may do a wee bit of bargaining at a market, but even taxi drivers are honest about what they charge! Imagine that! It’s not just that everyone is happy, but we were welcomed in to someone’s church on Sunday for an afternoon feast, and given a free lift into town by a neighbour. Tonga is all about good vibes!
5. It’s Cheap as Chips!
Depending on where you are in the world, the flights will be your biggest expense, but even then are super affordable if you fly from somewhere nearby like New Zealand or Australia. Swimming with whales is a bit pricey at 480 pa’anaga (200USD), but considering how cool the experience is, I consider it very reasonable. Otherwise, everything else is a breeze. 5 pa’anga bbq dinner? 30 pa’anaga hostels? Even renting a car is cheap at about 60 pa’anaga per day, and 40 for gas.
BBQ Meal: 5 pa’anga = 3NZD, 2USD
Local Beer: 6 pa’anga = 4NZD, 2.5USD
Hostel: 30 paanga= 20NZD, 13USD
Car Rental: 60 pa’anaga = 38NZD, 25USD
6. Experience Collectors Unite
If you’re an experience collector like me there are a few things here to tick off the list.
You can take the shortest flight in the world, from the capital of Nuku’alofa to neighbouring island Eua….in just 6 minutes.
Be the first to catch the sunrise! Tonga is so close to the international date line that it technically sees the first sunrise in the world every morning. It’s in the same time zone as New Zealand but geographically a little further east, so we’ll count it.
Have the first beer! The slogan of their local beer, Ikale, is “the first beer in the world, every day”
Get relaxed with a little kava! Popular in Fiji as well, but I’m told Tonga’s is different.
And, obviously, swimming with humpback whales is a top bucket list item.
7. Genuine Island Experience
I didn’t get the feeling anyone was putting anything on for me, there’s no big tourist gimmick, people are just going about their lives. It’s not all beach bars and resorts, no brand name shopping, just a beautiful little island. Even as far as the tourist activities go, the only big thing is swimming with whales – I don’t think a lot of locals do that in their free time. Otherwise it’s things like the 3-headed coconut tree, and it’s not surrounded by trinket shops and your booking agencies. The most played song when I was there was “Mate Ma’a Tonga”, which is the name of the Rugby team and literally translates to “Die for Tonga”. I heard countless different versions and remixes, and I think it’s cool that they rep their own country so hard. …Without being imposing like *ahem* some other places.
8. It’s Safe
As with anywhere you go in the world you have to take a reasonable amount of care, but you don’t have to be on edge or clutching your bag to your side the whole time. I was totally comfortable walking down the street alone. You have to look out for the dogs a little, sometimes they’ll chase you on your bike, but if you lift your hand and/or yell at them they’ll go running off. Tonga is a poor country, but theft and violence are not of major concern. “Pride over money” was posted around on many banners, which I thought was charming.
You may want to look out for lion fish, wasps, swimming snakes, and jellyfish, though!
9. History & Culture
I’m not much of a history buff but Tonga is really interesting. It’s the only country in the world to never have been colonized! They’re now under British protection, but not under British rule. Go Tonga!
Culture wise, there are many different legends, some of which span the Pacific islands, like Maui and his hook, for example.
Traditional dancing is slow and features intricate movements of the hands and face.
Fakaleiti is an old tradition that still applies today, also referred to as fa’fafine in Samoa. In short, if a woman had only sons she would choose the youngest to be raised as a girl from birth in order to help with “women’s work”. They are treated as women in every way throughout their entire lives and even marry men. It’s a social norm which I think is especially interesting for such a religious country, where homosexual relationships are illegal.
10. It’s Unspoiled
It’s one of the few places in the world you can still go and not see a McDonalds, Starbucks, or Apple store. The coral is still healthy and intact, the greenery is lush, and the air is clean. It’s refreshing, and I sincerely hope it stays that way.
What are you waiting for? Island paradise awaits.
We have been picking up some shells to bring home because Tonga has some rad shells, and they’re free souvenirs. One from yesterday keeps going missing. I found it in the corner of a shelf last night and thought maybe it had rolled away so I put it back with the group. When we found it on the floor this morning, half way across the room, we realized there’s a little guy livin’ in there.
Our last full day in Tonga! I’m gutted. 10 days sounds like a decent amount of time but it flies by so quickly!
Last time we were on Tongatapu we drove most of the west side, so today we’re going to hit everything east. One of our priorities is to visit the flying fox sanctuary, but our hostel host tells us that a recent cyclone caused all the bats to move and it’s now closed, which explains why we had so much trouble finding it last time. Conveniently though, there’s a family living in the tree across the street, fully visible from our balcony! Ches is almost as nerdy about the bats as he is about the fish.
While sipping our morning tea and coffee on the balcony of our Air BnB we hear our host’s grandson screaming below us. Not like he’s distressed or anything, but just because he can, I think. We lean over the balcony to say good morning, and he replies “hello palangi” which is the best thing that’s happened to me so far today.
We have a full day to explore Vava’u on our bikes, so decide to cycle out as far as we can to make the most of it. The Botanical Gardens are at the furthest east end of the mainland and seem like the only real thing to do today.
One last boat ride through the crystal clear waters between Kapa and Vava’u mainland. The sky is overcast and it’s windier than ever so I think we’ve really killllled it with the weather. Our poor boat driver is getting absolute smacked by waves and is soaked by the time we reach land. So sorry mate.
We’re getting in a kayak when our mate from last night hops over the fence to the resort to tell us lunch is almost ready. We thought we had another 2 hours to kill but I guess the service ended early!
I’m excited to be attending a Sunday afternoon at a Tongan church. Sundays are a mega day of rest here. No shops are open, no one works, not even lucrative whale watching for tourists. The country goes into rest mode, and everyone goes to church.
It’s finally clear enough to catch an amazing sunrise outside our bungalow. The weather forecast has been unreliable, but is looking up!