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 were just about to touch down on Tonga’s sole runway when the plane suddenly jerked upward, straight back into the night sky.
It is at times like this that my desire to hear a reassuring announcement from the captain is outweighed by my 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.
After a few uncertain moments, the Captain announced that he had to abort our landing due to notification from air traffic control of an “unauthorized” person on the runway. We would be circling somewhere over the South Pacific until Tongan airport officials managed to clear said unauthorized person. At this point visions of a sarong-clad, kava-over-served Tongan doing cartwheels on the runway comes 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 and we’ve been cleared to land. All hail the King…welcome to 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 by the population of just over 100,000.
Once off the plane, all 300 of us waited for 2 customs agents to process everyone’s passports. This took about an hour. Finally, around 9pm, I exited the arrivals area and was immediately greeted by Pina, the owner of the Keleti Beach Resort – my home for the next 3 nights in Tonga.
By 10pm Pina had 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 – had everything I needed and was actually quite charming.
It was dark when I arrived so I couldn’t see the beach but there was no mistaking the tranquil sound of waves crashing against the reef nearby. It lulled me right to sleep my first night and each one thereafter. The one thing that could be seen clearly at night was the blanket of stars covering the black sky. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many stars. So mesmerizing that I almost broke my neck trying to walk down a dark path while looking up at them.
Sundays in Tonga
The next morning I awoke 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 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 headed back up to the restaurant (and prime whale-watching spot) for breakfast.
As it was a Sunday morning, 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.
In my advance research on Tonga, I’d discovered that the two best things to do on a Sunday were to attend church with the locals and head to one of the offshore islands for lunch and snorkeling. Luckily, on our ride from the airport the night before, Pina was kind enough to invite me to church with her family – I gratefully accepted.
So, after breakfast, Pina picked me up and we were on our way. Though the entire service was in Tongan, it was thoroughly enjoyable – especially the music from the choir. I’d heard that Tongans were well-known for their musical talents but, seriously, you would have thought they were all professional sopranos.
After church I caught a ride into town from Vini, Pina’s brother, to take the boat out to Pangaimotu Island. On the way we picked up Vini’s wife and aunt who were 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 had erected a memorial wall in tribute to all 74 people killed in the accident and it was being dedicated in a ceremony near the water today. Sadly, Vini’s wife lost 3 members of her family in the accident.
Lazy Sundays on Pangaimotu Island
After a few stops along the way, Vini dropped me off at the wharf just in time to catch the 1pm boat to 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 had a nice lunch and swim there before heading back on the 4pm boat.
When I arrived back at the wharf, I didn’t see Vini anywhere. But I immediately noticed the massive crowd assembled across the parking lot and realized that the memorial service was still in progress. I made my way over to it, careful to maintain a polite distance since I was not exactly dressed for the occasion in my swimsuit cover-up. Vini noticed me in the crowd and made his way over to let me know he was there. He asked if I would mind staying until it was over and of course, I didn’t.
Though the king did not attend the service, the crown prince did and gave a very moving speech after all names had been read from the wall. After the service, Vini drove me back to the resort and I had a nice dinner at the restaurant with a few of my fellow guests before retiring to my fale for the night. It was a true day in the life of the Tongan people that I felt honored to have been a part of.
Bicycling to the Blowholes
The next day, my plan was to check out the main town of Nuku’alofa including the market and an up-close look at the memorial wall that I’d been separated from by the massive crowd the day before. Pina dropped me off around 11am and arranged to pick me up at 4pm. I wasn’t really sure how much time I needed but I figured that was a safe bet.
By 1pm, I’d been to the wall, the market, walked all around town and had lunch. I called Keleti and Pina was kind enough to come and get me just 15 minutes later.
When I got back to the resort, I decided to take one of their mountain bikes out for a trip further up the west coast to the island’s famous Blowholes near the town of Houma.
According to Vini, it was about a 5-6 mile ride. He insisted I take his cell phone in case I had any trouble with the bike and needed to be picked up. Once out on the road in the afternoon heat, I had second thoughts around mile three. But I pressed on along the bumpy road and eventually made it to Houma and found the sign to the blowholes.
Known as the most impressive blowholes in the South Pacific, 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 creating a truly impressive sight. I could have stood there and watched them all day. However, I had a 6-mile bike ride back to the hotel and I was losing light.
Riding through the village of Houma was a joy. There were a lot of kids out playing and every last one of them greeted me
with a wave, a big smile and a cheerful, “Bye!” as I rode by trying desperately not to hit potholes. The adults were very welcoming and friendly as well and I felt very at home in this village just like I did everywhere else on the island.
As I was riding back through the village, Vini’s cellphone in my backpack started ringing. It was logistically impossible to get the phone out of my backpack while riding and not kill myself so I let it ring figuring maybe it was just someone trying to call him. A few minutes later it rang again and I realized it was probably Vini checking in on me.
I pulled over but wasn’t quick enough to hit the right button on the phone before it stopped ringing again. I thought to myself if this really was Vini calling, he was probably organizing a search party as we speak. But on his third try I was able to answer it and I could tell he was relieved. I reassured him I was doing fine and was on my way back.
Just before sunset I made 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 saw dozens of them go by). I was so enthralled with the blow holes that I asked Vini if he’d drive me up there one more time in the morning. We arranged a time to meet and I was off to bed for some much-needed rest. Another full day in Tonga.
Last Day in Polynesian Paradise
At 5am I was awakened by loud music coming from somewhere in my room.
Having been sound asleep and in a very dark and unfamiliar environment, I was completely disoriented. It took me a minute to realize that I must have forgotten to give Vini his phone back and the music was coming from my backpack. It took 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 5am. Hopefully his wife woke him up this morning.
Later that morning, Vini and I headed back over to the blowholes joined by 3 other guests who’d heard we were going and wanted in. It was a great idea to go back in the morning as the direction of the sunlight created rainbows over each blowhole…talk about great photos! So cool.
I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon working from the restaurant (where Pina has free wifi) 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 loved 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 left as a friend. Thanks to Pina, Vini and all the staff at Keleti for making me feel at home on their island which can truly only be described as “Perfect Polynesia.”