Malo e lelei! If you are looking for a true South Pacific experience, there’s so much to see and do in the Kingdom of Tonga. Take a horseback ride and explore ‘Eua, snorkel the pristine water of Ha’apai, sail the seas to the shores of Vava’u and most famously, swim with the whales. Or just travel back in time and enjoy the heavenly sounds of singing choirs during the Sunday services that are echoed throughout every island.
Situated at 20ﾟ00’S and 175ﾟ’W the Kingdom of Tonga is the very first country in the world to see the dawn of every new day. Named the ‘Friendly Islands’ by Captain James Cook in 1773, the Kingdom of Tonga is made up of 176 islands of which only 40 islands are inhabited. There are the low-lying groups of Tongatapu, ‘Eua, the volcanic and moral Ha’apai, the raised and mountainous coral islands of the Vava’u group, and the volcanic Niuas group to the far north.
The Kingdom of Tonga’s history stretches back over 3000 years, beginning with the migration of the Lapita people from the mainland and islands of Southeast Asia. Tongan culture and customs began with these earliest of Polynesians, and many ancient traditions have continued respectfully through to the present day. The arrival of European explorers and navigators from the 17th century saw the introduction of Christianity, now an integral part of the modern Kingdom of Tonga. Experiencing the beautiful harmonies filling Tongan churches every Sunday is an essential experience for all visitors to the Kingdom. Across the ensuing centuries, Tonga’s authentic culture has continued to be reverentially and robustly maintained across the pristine islands of this Polynesian archipelago.
Around 3000 years ago, the Lapita people from Southeast Asia migrated west via the Malay Peninsula and the remote islands of the East Indies to settle in the scattered and pristine islands of the South Pacific. In Tonga, these original ancestors of today’s Polynesian people founded settlements at Toloa – near the present day location of Fua’amotu International Airport – and at Heketa, on the northeastern edge of Tongatapu. Three millennia later, reminders of these ancient times are dotted throughout the islands. The fascinating Ha’amonga a Maui trilithon still stands as an imposing legacy of early Tongan ingenuity. Eventually settling in the far-flung island groups of the Kingdom’s archipelago, these early ancestors also developed a distinctive culture that still underpins traditional Tongan life in more contemporary times.
First European Contact
Initial European contact with Tonga came in 1616, when the Dutch navigators Wilhelm Schouten and Jacob Le Maire discovered the Niuas, the small northern most islands of the Tongan archipelago. Contact with the local Niuas islanders was restricted to a minor altercation with a Tongan canoe. In 1643, the Dutch extended their exploration when Abel Tasman visited the Tongan Islands of ‘Ata, ‘Eua and the largest island of Tongatapu. Unlike the first Dutch contact further north in 1616, Tasman’s ships the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen stopped for water and replenishments, and Tasman also traded with the local communities.
The Arrival of Captain James Cook
In 1773, the British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook visited Tonga’s southern islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua. He returned in 1777 and spent two months exploring and charting the Tongan archipelago, with his legendary skill as a cartographer producing accurate charts still in regular use until recent times. During this voyage, a lavish feast for Cook and his men was presented by Chief Finau in the village of Lifuka in the Ha’apai island group. Cook was so impressed by Tongan hospitality he dubbed Tonga the ‘Friendly Isles’, not realising the amiable and social nature of the locals actually concealed a plan to raid his boats and kill Cook and his crew. The conspiracy was only foiled at the eleventh hour after a dispute between Finau and other village nobles, and Cook sailed away oblivious of his intended fate. Ironically his positive and complementary name for the Kingdom of Tonga remains in common use.
The northern island group Vava’u was discovered in 1781 by Spanish navigator, Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle, commander of the ship La Princesa. Mourelle named Vava’u’s well-protected harbour Port of Refuge, and claimed the beautiful islands in the name of Spain. Over ensuring years early traders continued to visit Tonga and tensions grew between Europeans and Tongans. In 1806, this disquiet culminated in the sacking of the ship the Port-au-Prince in Lifuka in the Ha’apai island group. With the exception of a young cabin boy William Mariner, all the crew was killed. The lad was nurtured by Chief Finau in Lifuka for four years, learning the Tongan language and becoming immersed in the Kingdom’s tradition and protocol. Mariner’s book ‘An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands’ is now recognised as a significant insight into early Tongan life, customs and culture. Another navigator to visit Tongan waters was Captain William Bligh, and Fletcher Christian’s infamous mutiny of the HMS Bounty actually occurred near the volcanic island of Tofua in the Ha’apai group.
The Kingdom of Tonga Today
In 1845, the scattered and pristine islands of western Polynesia became united as the Kingdom of Tonga, and 30 years later officially became a constitutional monarchy and British Protectorate. The first King of this united Tonga was George Tupou I, and the modern Kingdom of Tonga is the only Pacific Island nation never to lose its indigenous governance or to be colonised. Located just west of the International Date Line, Tonga is also the first country to experience the new day each morning. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970, jettisoning the protectorate status in 1970, but still retaining its unique position as the only monarchy in Polynesia. Tradition and culture are still very important in modern Tonga, and across the untouched islands of the Tongan archipelago, visitors can experience a truly authentic slice of Polynesia. Local art and handicrafts continue to showcase Tongan traditions, and most accommodation for visitors is in low-impact eco resorts on pristine islands and beaches, or in village guesthouses and welcoming homestays.
Tonga Island Life and Our People
Tongatapu History – Tongatapu ‘Sacred South’ is the southern starting point for visitors exploring the Kingdom of Tonga. Expect a warm welcome at one of the world’s most easy-going international airports before journeying north across the island to the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa. The harbour-side town is the centre of Tongan commerce and government, and also the residence of the Royal Family in the South Pacific’s only monarchy. Around 70,000 people live on Tongatapu, and Nuku’alofa – ‘Abode of Love’ – is a vibrant introduction to the Kingdom. Ferryboats and trading ships dot Nuku’alofa Harbour, preparing to venture to the far-flung Vava’u, Ha’apai and Niuas island groups to the north. Nuku’alofa’s Talamahu market is a proudly local affair, selling fresh tropical produce and authentic Tongan arts and crafts. On Sundays, the churches of Tongatapu glow with soaring harmonies and a warm welcome to visitors. Ancient Tongan history includes the fascinating 11th century AD Ha’amonga ‘a Maui trilithon and the ancient Langi (terraced tombs) of the Tongan kings. More recent are the Tongatapu landing sites of Abel Tasman and Captain James Cook and on Nuku’alofa’s waterfront you’ll find the elegant Royal Palace. Offshore island resorts effortlessly combine the rustic with the romantic and the ‘Anahulu Caves and the Mapu ‘a Vaea blowholes present Tongatapu’s more rugged natural beauty.
‘Eua History – Hilly and covered in lush rainforest, ‘Eua’s combination of breath taking beauty and rugged landscapes make it the perfect destination for travellers in search of adventure and eco experiences.
A quick seven-minute flight links Tongatapu to the island of ‘Eua on its south-eastern rip, reputedly the world’s shortest commercial airline flight. Passengers probably shouldn’t expect an inflight meal, but they should look forward to landing somewhere very different to the other island groups of Tonga. Geographically ‘Eua is the Kingdom’s oldest island. Look forward to the Kingdom’s best hiking with well-marked trails criss-crossing the pristine ‘Eua National Park. Experience the spectacular cliffs, caves and sinkholes of northern ‘Eua, or venture to the rocky southern coastline. Watch sea birds soaring atop the thermal currents swirling around ‘Eua’s dramatic cliffs or descend through lush rainforest to the ocean below. Keep an ear open for the call of the Koki, ‘Eua’s rare red-breasted musk parrot. Markedly larger wildlife includes visiting Humpback Whales from June to November, often cruising remarkably close to ‘Eua’s rocky shoreline. For divers, ‘Eua’s most spectacular highlight is one of the Pacific’s largest underwater caverns. It is lit naturally, illuminating a huge amphitheatre at a depth of almost 30 meters.
Ha’apai History – Uncrowded, unhurried and undiscovered. Well off the beaten path for visitors, the 62 scattered islands, atolls, reefs and shoals of the central island group of Ha’apai are an undeniably authentic slice of Polynesia.
Looming volcanic islands, warming trade winds and pristine atolls lapped by gentle waters provide a superb tropical backdrop for more adventurous travellers. Experience Tonga’s easy-going hospitality in remote boutique eco lodges or village guesthouses, before effortlessly filling another relaxed day with sea kayaking, snorkelling or horse riding along white sandy beaches. During his Pacific journeys, Captain James Cook dubbed the Kingdom of Tonga ‘The Friendly Islands’ after a warm reception on the Ha’apai island of Lifuka. On the 28th April, 1789 Mutiny on the Bounty took place between the shores of Lifuka and Tofua in Ha’apai. Fletcher Christian who was appointed as a master’s mate on the HMS Bounty seized command of the ship from Captain William Bligh. More than three centuries later, the welcome to 21-century Pacific explorers is equally amicable, and local guides are keen to direct visitors to relaxation Ha’apai-style. That mean more difficult island-style choices between whale watching, diving or sailing. Just take it easy, don’t hurry, and slow right down to ‘island time’.
Vava’u History – Welcome to the adventure hub of the Kingdom of Tonga.
An azure tropical paradise of 61 different islands dotted with coral gardens, deserted beaches and shimmering clear lagoons, the northern Vava’u group presents a bucket list of ‘Must Do’ Tongan activities. From June to November share Vava’u’s warm waters with gentle-Humpback Whales, harnessing the islands’ sustaining environment to care for their newly-born calves and breed for another generation. Take advantage of Vava’u’s worldwide reputation as a superbly sheltered yachting playground. Explore hidden coves and atolls with a friendly local skipper or take charge yourself to make the most of Tonga’s steady trade winds. Accept the challenge of a game fishing expedition, catching or tagging the mighty Blue Marlin and other impressive species. Below the wages, Vava’u’s beauty shines, with crystal visibility of up to 30 meters illuminating remote sea caves and history-laden shipwrecks. Many snorkelling locations make exploring Vava’u’s underwater majesty accessible for visitors of all abilities. After all these authentic Polynesian adventures, relax and recharge in Neiafu’s cafes and restaurants and make plans for the rest of your stay. Ultimately, it will be tough to choose from Vava’u’s extended adventure menu, including jet kayaking, sea kayaking and kiteboarding.
Tonga’s climate is warm, tropical and welcoming. Temperatures are warm all year round and can get hot in the summer, but seldom reach above 35ﾟC (95ﾟF). Trade winds from the East-Southeast bring year-long cooling breezes in the late afternoon and early evening. Tropical rains fall from December through February, coinciding with the warmest summer months. However, there are no significant differences in temperatures between summer and winter. In general, the winter temperatures (April to September) are only slightly cooler than summer temperatures (November to February).
Tonga has a population 103,000 people of whom 70% reside on the main island of Tongatapu. With its unique and cultural heritage that dates back to the arrival of Polynesians some 3500 years ago, Tonga is the world’s only remaining Polynesian monarchy. The monarchy is one of the most important elements of Tongan culture and is the only South Pacific country never to have been colonized by a foreign power. The elaborate and diverse tangible and intangible heritage of Tonga, her unmatched cultural, historical and archaeological landmarks, making the landscape, movement of people over time and space, culturally and historically embedded in her distinctive language, is a case in point. Tonga’s rich and beautiful artistic and literary genres, divided into faiva (performance), tufunga (material), and nimamea’a (fine arts) are themselves exceptional. Therein, both the quality of art and literature coexist, where they are made not only to be beautiful but also to be useful.
Culture and Heritage
The Importance of Family – Tongan society is guided by four core values, all of which combine to ensure a genuine welcome to visitors to the Kingdom. The four core values are Fefaka’apa’aki (mutual respect), Feveitokai’aki (sharing, cooperating and fulfilment of mutual obligations), Lototoo (humanity and generosity), and Tauhi vaha’a (loyalty and commitment). Family is the central unit of Tongan life. Older people command the most respect and each family member knows their role. A typical family unit may consist of adopted children, cousins and other distant relatives, alongside siblings and grandparents. Their respect for family is a reflection of the people’s love of the Tongan Royal Family.
A Nation Entwined with Christianity – Visiting a church on Sunday is a treasured memory for many travellers to the Kingdom of Tonga. Sundays are devoted to church, family and rest. Beautiful clear harmonies, the ringing of church bells and the rhythmic beat of the Lai (wooden drums) are all familiar sounds drifting on the tropical breezes. From the days of the early missionaries until modern times, Christianity has been a vital and influential aspect of Tongan life, second only to the respect for family. Modest dress is necessary for both Tongans and visitors. It is expected that visitors respect Sunday as a day of rest. Businesses and shops are closed by law allowing Tongan families to spend the day attending church for a relaxed day of worship and feasting. No flights are scheduled, and business contracts signed on a Sunday are legally void. It is a very respectful day and sports activities are not permitted, even in rugby-mad Tonga (visitors are permitted to enjoy all of the relaxing holiday activities provided by the resorts).
Tongan Dancing – A vibrant and colourful experience for many visitors to Tonga is the dignified and graceful dancing of the Kingdom. Expressing stories of Tongan history and legends, the Lakalaka (just one of the traditional dances of Tonga) is performed by both men and women, sometimes in spectacular groups of up to several hundred. Dancers wear beautiful bracelets, neck garlands and tekiteki (feather headpiece) to enhance movements and intricate gestures. Dancing is a graceful Tongan art form that’s been recognised by the United Nations as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
ART and CRAFT – It is easy to find a wide range of interesting and authentic handicrafts in the Kingdom of Tonga. Traditional art and handicrafts, intricate bone carvings, tapa products, spectacular woodcarving and finely weaved baskets are available at markets and specialised stores. The stunning work is often sold directly by the draftspersons responsible, so shoppers are also taking home a personal connection to these beautiful South Pacific islands.
Tapa Making and Painting – Made from the bark of the mulberry tree, known locally as hiapo, tapa cloth is of great cultural significance. It’s a very important traditional gift, proudly handmade. The sound of wooden mallets beating out lengths of tapa cloth is one of the Kingdom’s most familiar sounds. Every piece of tapa is uniquely different, making for an extremely authentic souvenir.
Mats – Like tapa making, mat weaving is an everyday part of Tongan life. Women gather in small groups to weave, sing or talk together. Mats are the most treasured possessions in Tongan households and are traditionally presented at births, weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Finely woven waist mats ta’ovala are particularly treasured, and handed down from generation to generation, some dating back hundreds of years.
Tongan and English are the main language in Tonga.
There are no area codes in Tonga. The national area code is +676.
There are internet cafes throughout Tonga and many accommodation facilities have internet access available.
Currency and Banking information
The national currency is the Pa’anga, or Tongan dollar (Pa’anga (TOP) = 100 Seniti). Note are in denominations of TOP 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1. Coins are in denominations of 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 Seniti.
There is limited use of credit cards in Tonga but traveller’s cheques are accepted at banks and at some hotels and tourist shops. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller’s cheques in Australian Dollars or Pounds Sterling. Foreign currency exchange is available at banks and at major hotels. Most banks are open Monday to Friday, 9:00 – 16:00.
The Tongan government provides comprehensive medical and dental facilities for all residents and visitors. There are hospitals in Vaiola (Tongatapu), Hihifo (Ha’apai) and Neiafu (Vava’u), which will treat minor ailments and dispense medicines. You can also find clinics, dispensaries, chemists and pharmacies. However, more serious medical problems need to be taken to Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand or Pago Pago (American Samoa). Visitors pay only a token fee for medicines. There are also competent private medical practitioners. Travel and health insurance is recommended. For emergency services, dial 911. Vaccinations against tuberculosis and hepatitis B are sometimes recommended. It’s important to protect yourself against mosquito bites. Bring bug spray with you or stock up at Neeru’s Pharmacy in Tongatapu before heading to the outer islands. Whilst you are there don’t forget sunscreen.
Shaking hands with someone is an appropriate form of greeting. Tongans also greet each other on the cheek. Remember your smile for the ‘friendly islands’.
A few Words in Tongan
|Hello||Malo e lelei|
|Good morning||Malo e lelei ki he pongipongi ni|
|Good evening||Malo e lelei ki he efiafi ni|
|Fine, thank you.||Sai pe, Malo|
|Thank you (very much)||Malo (‘aupito)|
|Good-by (to someone who is leaving)||‘Alu a|
|Good-by (to someone who is staying)||Nofo a|
Passports and Visas
To enter Tonga, a passport valid for a minimum of six months is required by all nationalities. Visas for Tonga are not required by nationals for stays of up to 30 days, providing they hold a return ticket and are visiting for tourist purposes. However, all nationalities are advised to contact the embassy to check visa requirements for Tonga. A visitor’s visa if required will cost around TOP $130. You can apply to the Consulate (or consular section at the Embassy/High Commission) and allow five+ business days for visa processing. Most travel agents are able to provide information on visa requirements.
Local Time/Business Hours
Local time is UTC/GMT + 13 hours.
From Monday to Friday 8:30 – 16:30 for government sector, and generally 8:30 – 17:00 for private sector. Most stores are open for a half a day (8:00 – 12:00) on Saturday. Please note all businesses close on a Sunday and there are no flights or public transport. Resorts are open for guests on Sundays.
The electricity is 240 Volts, 50 Hz.
What to wear
While casual wear is acceptable, beachwear should be confined to the beach and travellers should be mindful of their dress. It is not legal for men and women to go shirtless in public and remember that Sunday is regarded as a sacred day. Tongan clothing culture is conservative. Tongan’s generally swim fully clothed. It is against the law in Tonga to be topless in public (men and women). If you are a traveller staying at tourist accommodation then this law doesn’t apply. There are times when you need to cover your shoulders and knees, especially if you are planning to participate in an island church service.
Food and Drink
Boiling of drinking water is advisable. Bottled water is readily available. Milk is pasteurized and dairy products are safe for consumption. Local meat, poultry and seafood are safe to eat. It is advised to wash vegetables and fruit with boiled water.
Come and enjoy the rich local Tongan cuisine. In Tonga food is how all food should be, harvested fresh, cooked fresh and enjoyed fresh.
Fine Dining – Restaurants have table service and are found across the Kingdom. Apart from hotel dining rooms, there are restaurants featuring Tongan, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine.
Seafood – Tonga has a great variety of seafood; fresh fish, lobster, crab and octopus are in abundance. Try some of the local delicacies which include sea cucumbers and sea urchins.
Island Flavour – Tongans love feasts. During feasts, a pola (a long tray made of coconut fronds) is used to serve up to 30 types of dishes. A typical feast might include chicken, crayfish, octopus, pork and vegetables steamed in an ‘umu (underground oven), suckling pig, and several varieties of tropical fruits.
Cafes – Make sure you enjoy a light meal at a Tongan café – the perfect place for lunch on the go, meeting friends or enjoying a leisurely bite to eat.
Tonga meals served to visitors will usually be memorable. A token of appreciation, while not expected, is always welcome, especially gifts from the visitor’s homeland.
Driving in Tonga
In Tonga, drivers use the left hand side of the road. There is a good network of gravelled roads and the low speed limits are strictly obeyed. The minimum driving age is 18, a current driving licence is required and is available from the Police Traffic Department in Nuku’alofa (when you provide a valid national or international licence, the fee and your passport). Most petrol stations are open Monday to Saturday until 11pm.