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My trip from Auckland to the South Pacific’s only remaining monarchy got off to a bit of a bumpy start.
After a very pleasant 2 ½ hour Air New Zealand flight, we’re just about to touch down on Tonga’s sole runway when the plane suddenly jerks upward, straight back into the night sky.
It is at times like this that a reassuring announcement from the captain is in order. But there’s also the concern that he has more important things on his plate at the moment.
As a frequent flier, I’ve been involved in two aborted landings before. The first, coming into Atlanta when another plane crossed the runway before us. And the second, coming in for a landing in New Delhi, India – where I can only assume (based on my observations in Delhi traffic) that a bull must have wandered onto the runway bringing all landings to a halt.
Read More: Nothing Prepares you for India
After a few uncertain moments, the Captain announces that our aborted landing is due to notification from air traffic control of an “unauthorized” person on the runway.
We will be circling somewhere over the South Pacific until Tongan airport officials manage to clear said “unauthorized person.” At this point, visions of a sarong-clad, kava-over-served Tongan doing cartwheels on the runway come to mind.
Thirty minutes later – as I’m nervously pondering where the next closest available runway might be in this part of the world – the captain announces that the situation has been resolved. We’ve been cleared to land.
All hail the King…welcome to Tonga.
Arrival in Tonga
The only Pacific nation never to have been controlled by foreign powers, the Kingdom of Tonga is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy.
The ruling royal family of Tonga can be traced back more than 1000 years. Of the 176 islands that make up the kingdom, only about 55 of them are inhabited. Tonga’s population is just over 100,000.
Once off the plane, all 300 of us wait for 2 customs agents to process everyone’s passports. This takes about an hour.
Finally, around 9pm, I exit the arrivals area and am immediately greeted by Pina, the owner of the Keleti Beach Resort – my home for the next 3 nights in Tonga.
The Keleti Beach Resort
By 10pm Pina has checked me into to one of the resort’s seaside “fales” a traditional south pacific-style accommodation. Though certainly not luxurious, my fale – Pina’s namesake – has everything I need and is actually quite charming.
It’s dark when I arrive so I can’t see the beach. But there’s no mistaking the tranquil sound of waves crashing against the reef nearby. It lulls me right to sleep that night and each one thereafter.
The one I can see clearly at this hour is the blanket of stars covering the black sky. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many stars. It’s so mesmerizing that I almost break my neck trying to walk down a dark path while looking up at them.
Sundays in Tonga
The next morning I awake early, anxious to check out the resort’s beach before breakfast.
Turns out, Keleti actually has several small but equally gorgeous beaches separated by sharp sections of the reef. With sturdy footwear, it’s an easy walk from one beach to the next.
The reef lies just a few feet off the shoreline and runs the entire length of the western side of the island. After a little exploring and a few pictures, I head back up to the restaurant (and prime whale-watching spot) for breakfast.
It’s Sunday morning, so I had to get creative with my itinerary for the day.
Tonga comes to a screeching halt at midnight on Saturday night and stays that way for 24 hours. Tongan law dictates that Sunday is a day of rest and it is against the law to work. There are no flights in or out. Shops and restaurants are closed and the streets of Nuku’alofa (the main town) are deserted.
There are, however, a few exceptions.
Hotels are allowed to cater to their guests. And the law only applies to the main island leaving the offshore islands free to carry on as usual.
Things to do on Sunday in Tonga
In my advance research on Tonga, I discovered that there are two main things to do on a Sunday in Tonga:
1. Attend church with the locals.
2. Head to one of the offshore islands for lunch and snorkeling.
Luckily, on our ride from the airport last night, Pina was kind enough to invite me to church with her family and I gratefully accepted.
So, after breakfast, Pina picks me up and we’re on our way. Though the entire service is in Tongan, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Especially the music from the choir.
I’ve heard that Tongans are well-known for their musical talents but, seriously, I would have thought they were all professional sopranos.
Tonga’s Worst Ferry Tragedy
After church I catch a ride into town from Vini, Pina’s brother, to take the boat out to Pangaimotu Island.
On the way, we pick up Vini’s wife and aunt who are also headed to the wharf for a memorial service for the anniversary of a tragic ferry accident.
On August 5, 2009, Tonga suffered its worst maritime tragedy when the inter-island ferry MV Princess Ashika sank during the night in the waters off Nuku’alofa.
The Ashika was being used only temporarily until the completion of a new ferry that was under construction. It had been in service only a month when it sank. The ship was believed to be carrying 141 passengers, more than half of whom perished.
According to reports from those who survived, the passenger cabin was locked during sailing trapping all inside when the ferry sank. Most who survived were crew members. The king did not endear himself to his people when he left the morning after the accident for an extended holiday. Much grief and anger remains over the incident within the Tongan community.
The community has erected a memorial wall in tribute to all 74 people killed in the accident and today it’s being dedicated in a ceremony near the water. Sadly, Vini’s wife lost 3 members of her family in the accident.
Lazy Sundays at the Pangaimotu Island Resort
After a few stops along the way, Vini drops me off at the wharf just in time to catch the 1pm boat to the Pangaimotu Island Resort.
Just a 10 minute ride away, Pangaimotu is the closest of the offshore islands. Though the resort itself gets mixed reviews, it has a nice beach complete with the half-submerged wreck of the My Lady Lata II that makes for interesting snorkeling.
The restaurant serves decent, affordable food and I enjoy a nice lunch and a swim before heading back on the 4pm boat.
When I arrive back at the wharf, I don’t see Vini anywhere.
But I immediately noticed the massive crowd assembled across the parking lot and realize that the memorial service is still in progress. I make my way over to it, careful to maintain a polite distance since I’m not exactly dressed for the occasion in my swimsuit cover-up.
Vini notices me in the crowd and makes his way over. He asks if I would mind staying until it is over and of course, I don’t.
Though the king did not attend the service, the crown prince it there. He gives a very moving speech after all names have been read from the wall.
After the service, Vini drives me back to the resort. Dinner at Keleti’s restaurant follows with a few of my fellow guests. Then I retiring to my fale for the night.
It’s been a true day in the life of the Tongan people that I feel honored to be a part of.
The next day, my plan is to check out the main town of Nuku’alofa. This includes the market and an up-close look at the memorial wall that I couldn’t get close to yesterday, due to the massive crowd.
Pina drops me off around 11:00am and arranges to pick me up at 4:00pm. I’m not really sure how much time I need to explore “town” but I figure that’s a safe bet.
By 1:00pm, I’d been to the wall, the market, walked all around town, and had lunch.
Satisfied that I’d seen it all, I called Keleti and Pina was kind enough to come and get me just 15 minutes later.
Bicycling to the Blowholes
Back at the resort, I decide to take out one of their mountain bikes to see the island’s famous Blowholes near the town of Houma.
According to Vini, it’s about a 5-6 mile ride. He insists I take his cell phone in case I have any trouble with the bike and need to be picked up.
Once out on the road in the afternoon heat, I have second thoughts around mile three.
But I’ve come this far so I press on along the bumpy road. Eventually, I make it to Houma and find the sign to the blowholes.
Known as the most impressive blowholes in the South Pacific, Tonga’s blowholes are truly a sight to behold. On windy days the coast is shrouded in mist for miles from hundreds of them working at once.
At high tide, waves send geysers of seawater shooting up through natural vents in the coral and create an impressive sight. I could have stood there and watched them all day.
However, I have a 6-mile bike ride back to the hotel and I’m losing light.
The village of Houma
Riding through the village of Houma is a joy.
There are dozens of kids out playing and every last one of them greets me with a wave, a big smile, and a cheerful, “Bye!” as I ride by (trying desperately not to hit potholes).
The adults are very welcoming and friendly as well. I feel very at home in this village just like I have everywhere else on the island.
As I’m riding back through the village, Vini’s cellphone in my backpack starts ringing.
It’s logistically impossible to get the phone out of my backpack while riding and not kill myself. So I let it ring figuring maybe it’s just someone trying to call Vini. A few minutes later it rings again and I realize it’s probably Vini checking to make sure I’m still alive.
I pull over but I’m not quick enough to hit the right button on the phone before it stops ringing. I think to myself, if this really was Vini calling, he’s probably organizing a search party as we speak.
But on his third try, I’m able to answer the call and I can tell he’s relieved. I reassure him I’m doing fine and am on my way back.
Just before sunset, I make it back to Keleti in one piece – to Vini’s obvious relief.
After a quick shower, I again joined my fellow guests on the deck for a cocktail and some whale-watching (a constant activity this time of year & we spot dozens of them go by).
I’m so enthralled with the blowholes that I ask Vini if he’ll drive me up there one more time in the morning.
He readily agrees, and we arrange a time to meet. Then I’m off to bed for some much-needed rest.
Last Day in Polynesian Paradise
It’s 5:00am and there’s loud music coming from somewhere in my room.
I was sound asleep, the room is pitch black and I’m completely disoriented.
It takes me a minute to realize that I must have forgotten to give Vini his phone back. The music is coming from my backpack.
It takes me another full minute to fumble for the phone in the dark and manage to shut it off. Apparently, Vini sets his phone alarm for 5:00am every day.
Hopefully his wife woke him up this morning!
Back to the blowholes!
Later that morning, Vini and I head back over to the blowholes. We’re joined by 3 other guests. They heard we were going and wanted in.
It turns out to be a great idea to go back in the morning. The direction of the sunlight creates incredible rainbows over each blowhole. Talk about great photos!
I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon working from the restaurant before heading to the airport with several others for the flight to Samoa.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tonga.
It’s a small kingdom with nowhere near the tourist infrastructure of South Pacific titans like Tahiti and Fiji.
But after 3 days of sharing laughter, worship, and grief with the local community, I think that’s exactly what I love so much about it.
In the natural resource department, Tonga has all the beauty of the more popular islands with a distinctly old-world-Polynesian feel.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely one for the luxuries in travel and you won’t find it here.
But what you will find is an island community full of vibrant people who are warm and welcoming and make you feel a part of their culture. Coming to Tonga is a unique experience…and one I will always cherish.
I arrived as a tourist but I leave as a friend. Thanks to Pina, Vini, and all the staff at Keleti for making me feel so at home on their island.
It’s a place that can truly only be described as “Perfect Polynesia.”