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So, you’ve landed on the main isle of Tonga: Tongatapu, taken the 40-minute taxi from the airport through coconut and taro fields, serenaded by the dulcet CD strains of ukulele and Pacific song, peering wide-eyed through the window as signs of a town approach and then … probably looked around in mild despondence.
Nuku’alofa is the financial and commercial hub of Tonga, but that’s about the only reason why tourists end up there. But, Nuku’alofa and the island in which it sits, Tongatapu, have a lot to offer if one knows where to look.
We’ll start with the island resorts of Fafa (70 TOP for round trip and lunch), Pangaimotu (20 TOP round trip only, but drinks and food can be purchased at the super chill bar/restaurant rambling over the water), Makahaa (20 TOP round trip and lunch) and Atata (70 TOP round trip — I think), all of which are popular destinations on Sunday, when the island of Tongatapu more or less shuts down.
All four of the island “resorts” (food and drink logo) are reachable via ferry service that is located just beside the fish market off Vuna Road, before the restaurant locally monikered “Fresh” and/or “The Beach Hut”(ferry logo).
Fafa is by far the most upscale, with eco-friendly cottages tucked between the trees, cocooning the lucky visitors with enough cash to stay a night or two.
Pangaimotu and Makahaa (an island just behind Pangaimotu), are lower key, and even better, they are reachable by kayak should you wish to skip the ferry and rent a paddle instead.
Kayak rentals can usually be made just before the fish market, where the “Deep Blue” diving boat sits in the wharf.
I’ve never been to ‘Atata, partially because the ferry service schedule was a bit unpredictable. But I’ve been told that if diving to see giant clam shells (and by that, “giant” is a literal adjective) is on your agenda, then ‘Atata is the place to go.
Tongatapu, Nuku’alofa (City Center)
Should you find yourself in Nuku’alofa on a day other than Sunday, there are lots of options for your entertainment, many within walking distance of city central. First up:
Shopping: The great downtown Market of Talamahu as well as the Fish Market down Vuna Road (shopping basket logos on map) offer excellent opportunities to mingle with locals and take in the array of fresh food, arts and crafts that Tongatapu has to offer. Tonga’s excellent Tourist Information website provides details on other stores and handicraft centers.
Public Fairs: If you are in Nuku’alofa on Saturdays, two “fairs” (flea markets for US folks) bloom into full swing and are a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. One fair is held near town, starting at the parking lot adjacent to the Fish Market (and ferry terminal to the resort islands) and stretches down Vuna Road some distance. Here, you’ll find all sundry of nick-nacks, t-shirts, used clothing, rotisserie chicken and who knows what else. The other main fair is located further from town, down Taufa-ahau Road, just past Vaoila Hospital. Here’ you’ll find much the same things as the Vuna Road Fair, with occasional offers of livestock, as well. (Friends of ours received a cute little piglet as a wedding gift some time ago and the pig was purportedly procured at the Vaoila Fair by visiting guests of the bride and groom who walked around Nuku’alofa with a cartoon image of a pig on their i-phone until a helpful soul led them here!)
Other activities around Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu include:
If cycling is your kind of thing, you can pick up a cheap rental at the ramshackle house just past the International Dateline Hotel (bicycle logo on map). The bicycles aren’t exactly highly maintained, but they’re inexpensive and hey, if your chain pops off, chances are whomever happens to be nearby will help get you going again. A few words of advice: if you want to ride around the island (and I highly recommend it), pick up a map at the Tourist Center (info logo) to help with your whereabouts and also, carry a couple of rocks with you. Stray dogs are often a nuisance and sometimes aggressive. Often, pretending to throw a rock will ward them off. Alternatively, you can wave an umbrella around and yell like a crazy person. This works sometimes, too. Or … so someone told me.
Walking: the western side of Vuna, starting just beside the Royal Palace has a lovely mixed-use cement trail that follows the coast. This is a great place to enjoy a stroll, watch fisherman collect their nets and catch an impromptu rugby game (or if you want try your hand at Tonga’s national sport, chances are you’ll be welcomed with enthusiasm). A few restaurants line the strip as well.
Swimming and Snorkeling: Two main swimming sites are in the Nuku’alofa area. The first (and my favorite) is the American Pier (a/k/a Yellow Pier) right smack in the down town (swimming logo). If you follow this pier to the end, you’ll spot a metal ladder leading into the sea. Or, you can make your entrance Tonga-style, by performing an elaborate leap into the water!
From here, you can snorkel along the approx. 2-kilometer stretch of reef that teems with fish and coral, bordered by the American Pier on one end and the new cruise ship terminal on the other. The snorkeling is pretty decent and best of all, it is within walking distance of accommodations downtown.
The second swimming area is the “outdoor swimming pool” (also indicated by the swimming logo), just past the fish market area and up the road from Sam and my old house! A narrow track follows along the pool for walking, and while the water quality may be dubious, it’s a great place to come in the late afternoons to meet locals diving and swimming about, then stay for the sunset.
Caveat: Because both the American Pier and the outdoor swimming pool are in town, it is customary to wear one’s clothing to swim rather than a swimsuit. At the resorts, a swimsuit fits in just fine, but in town, you’ll blend better in shorts and a t-shirt (although this standard is becoming increasingly relaxed).
Kayaking: Kayak rentals can usually be had at the pier on Vuna, right before the fish market. You can kayak to one of the island resorts of course, or just splash about and find your own little island for a picnic. The water is unbelievably pristine, and even the abandoned boats add a unique feel to the experience.
Dining: Nuku’alofa has more choice for restaurants than anywhere in the Kingdom, save possibly Neiafu, Vava’u.
Inexpensive: Dining out is pricier here than most developing countries, as is the cost of most store-bought items. Still there are lots of frugal options, such as the fish-and-chips stalls that dot the downtown (2 are marked on the map). On such stall is across the street from Meketi Talamahu and adjacent to the new Molisi Supermarket (also marked on the map) while another newer fish-and-chips restaurant with better ambiance and excellent value is located at the wharf where the Eua Ferry terminal sits, next to Pacific Sunrise.
Other inexpensive options include the BBQ stalls and restaurants (our pick: Sabrina’s Chicken, where delicious barbeque or fried chicken is served on a bed of boiled tapioca and topped with sweet chili sauce. Don’t knock it ’til you try it, because it’s pretty tasty!)
Self-Catering: Molisi Supermarket (2 locations — one across from Meketi Talamahu (the downtown market) and one across from the Peace Corps Office on Tupoulahi Road) is probably your best bet. Also, Cowley’s Bakery, just down Salote Road from Meketi Talamahu (also marked on map) serves up inexpensive baked goods as well as dairy and sodas. And also? They’re open on Sundays — a huge plus.
Mid-range: Without a doubt, Marco’s Pizza Pasta, located down Unga Road (marked on map) was our favorite place to order out, and now that Marco and his wife have set up a nice outdoor garden dining area, complete with the soft strains of local music on the weekends, it became the place to dine-in, too. Great pizza, decent prices and super friendly staff (also, he makes his own Gelato — need I say more?) Should you so desire, you can bring your own beer and/or wine, and save a little cash.
Another mid-range option is the excellent Evergreen Chinese Restaurant, located on ByPass Road (marked on map). The food is amazing and the price affordable. They offer a great dim-sum brunch on Sunday’s too!
Upper-range: For special occasions, our favorite place to go was the Waterfront Cafe, on Vuna Road, just across from the fish market (marked on map). The fish is fantastic, and the steaks are good too. The price might be a little on the high end, but you definitely get bang for your buck as the servings are huge. The ambiance is great, too, as the cafe serves as a gallery for local art, and the wood floors and open windows provide a real Polynesian feel.
Sight-seeing around Nuku’alofa: The main sight-seeing attractions (indicated by the camera logo) in Nuku’alofa are the Royal Palace (a white-Victorian structure facing the sea and surrounded by wrought iron gates) the Royal Cemetery (also called “Royal Tombs” but not to be confused with the Royal Tombs of Mua, discussed in the next post) and a few impressive churches.
The churches can be visited, but the Royal Graveyard is off limits excepting a royal funeral, such as the one held for King George Tupou V when he passed away in March of 2012. The Royal Palace is also closed to the public excepting special occasions.
Handicraft Classes: Both the Langafonua Handicraft Centre (the white building, just past Friends Cafe and Tourist Centre (info logo on map)) and the Tongan National Cultural Center (across from Viaola Hospital and shown with a drama logo on the map) offer classes and demonstrations on traditional arts such as weaving and tapa-making. Just stop by or call to find out what’s available.
The Cultural Centre complex also contains a small museum with a few artifacts, some interesting photographs and a small display on Lapita pottery, evidencing the theory that Tonga — and much of Polynesia — was originally settled by Lapita people hailing from Taiwan and other parts of southeast asia from 1600 to 500 BC.
Performances: The Tongan National Cultural Center offers dinner-theatre certain days of the week, usually in the form of a Tongan buffet and cultural dance. Also, Queen Salote Hall frequently hosts cultural interchanges, expos, dances and the like. The Tonga Chamber of Commerce keeps a calendar of events, or you can ask the tourist information center (either the one on Vuna or the Tongan National Cultural Center) for details.
Church: If it is Sunday, you will be spoiled for choice. Just pop into any church that catches your fancy and be a part of one of Tonga’s favorite past times: singing!
One note that may be of use: When Sam and I lived in Tonga (February 2011-February 2013), the Tonga guidebook we referenced stated that the magnificent Centenary Chapel was the church attended by Tongan Royalty.
This may have been the case at some point in time — and of all the churches in Nuku’alofa, this one is the most imposing by far — but while we were there, the modest, white (albeit expansive) Free Wesleyan Church downtown (alas, no picture, but it is near the Royal Cemetery as well, in the Kolomotu’a area) was the spot to go to worship with His Majesty.
Charter Fishing and Boating: For those with a little extra cash, renting a yacht or chartering a deep-sea fishing vessel are certainly options. Restaurants such as Fresh (by the Fish Market) and Friend’s Cafe (by the Langafonua Handicraft Centre) carry fliers advertising various vendors. Try the visitors/tourist center for information, too.
Tonga is famous for its stellar diving, and many claim it is a waste to visit the kingdom without giving scuba a go. Sam and I never did, however, mostly because we couldn’t really afford it and also, we’ve never been before. Scuba certification is an option for the un-initiated, although keep in mind that, if you are dreaming of those deep water caverns, as of the date of this post, Tonga does not have a decompression chamber in the event of a diver getting the bends.
Whale-watching: From June to November of each year, whale watching is Tonga’s biggest draw. If you’re on a budget, whale watching can be achieved gratis from vantage points along the bluffs near the Natural Land Bridge, from the terrace restaurants of Liku-alofa and Vakaloa on Tongtapu’s Northeastern end, and on a few occasions, Sam and I have even spotted whales traversing the channel between the outdoor swimming pool and Pangaimotu Island!
If you’ve got a couple hundred Pa’anga to spare, whale watching becomes another activity altogether. Whale-watching tours sail visitors off to the outer islands of the Tongatapu group, where captains scan the waters for pods or the random cow and her calf. Snorkel gear is almost always part of the charter deal, and most grab the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with the whales. A picnic lunch is also included. Tour packages are listed with most hotels as well as local cafes, dive shops and the tourist information center.
Golf: I do not golf, so I have little to offer in terms of personal insight. The Tonga Gulf Club is located a good ways down Taufa’ahua Road from the city center (golf logo on the map), so transport will definitely be needed. The club is open Monday through Saturday from 7 am to 7 pm and amenities include a full bar.
In the next post, we’ll look at resorts on the North-western side of Tongatapu, destinations in Tongatapu central and the ancient sites scattered about the far eastern side. But in the meantime, enjoy Nuku’alofa and all the fun things it has to offer. You might have to look a little harder and walk a little longer than you’re accustomed to, but that’s part of the adventure of travel, isn’t it?