I’m a little out of practice when it comes to taking time out. In fact, it’s been eight years since my husband Dan and I have been away without our kids. Usually my trips to the airport are dropping people off and picking them up; this time it’s me, with a brand-new swimsuit in my bag and a pile of magazines to read. But, as excited as I am to be escaping Auckland on a wet and windy morning, I’m wondering if three days in Tonga will be long enough to really wind down.
Fortunately, Tonga has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to relaxing, the first being it’s only a three-hour flight from Auckland, followed by an easy drive to the main town of Nuku’alofa.
I’ve spent longer sitting in traffic on a holiday weekend and arrived at my destination considerably more frazzled. Before I’ve had time to miss the kids I’m sipping local beer in popular Friends cafe, surrounded by tourists who look like they don’t have a care in the world.
The sun is warm on my back and there’s a three-piece band strumming guitars in the corner. After our meal we take a stroll around the town, which is gearing up for the coronation of the new king. Houses are strung with colourful bunting and painted tyres filled with flowers line the road. We could while away the afternoon in one of the town’s buzzing bars, but we’ve got a boat to catch.
Life's a beach
Tonga has more than 170 islands – with around 40 of them inhabited – and we intend to make one of them home for the next few days. The boat ride to Fafa Island Resort only takes 20 minutes. We slowly come to an idyllic-looking island with white sand and palm trees, straight out of Robinson Crusoe.
We pull up to a cute little open-air restaurant and bar and are welcomed by the lovely Verena, who runs the island along with her colleague Martin. They serve us fresh orange juice then lead us along a beautiful tree-lined pathway to our fale (Tongan house). I drop my bag on the floor and realise I’ve already forgotten about packed lunches and traffic. This is bliss.
The fale is large and luxurious; wicker walls, a canopy over the bed, open-air shower – and of course, sea views. We have our own private garden with hammock and loungers, and a little pathway that leads to the ocean. At dusk we walk out to the private deck to find the staff have dropped off a lantern in case we want to explore.
It is so quiet all you can hear is the rustle of wildlife and the birds. We find out we have friends staying with us, in the form of small geckos that scamper around. They do a good job of keeping the bugs at bay, we’re told, so we’re happy to let them stay. With no television, limited internet and zero hustle and bustle, I realise Tonga has another trick up its sleeve for tourists like me – there is nothing to do but relax. And eat. At dinner time we wander through torch-lit gardens to the restaurant for a meal of fresh fish, polished off with a New Zealand pinot gris.
Welcome to paradise
Waking up in Tonga is waking up in paradise – coffee included. We find a canister of hot water on the porch so we can get our morning caffeine hit before we’re even dressed. After gorging on fresh mango and pineapple for breakfast we get the boat back to the main island for a day of exploring.
It would be easy to come to Tonga and spend the entire time on the beach, but you would miss out on the kingdom’s more quirky sights. Near the village of Niutōua is the nation’s very own ‘Stonehenge’, a trilithon made up of three coral limestone slabs. Built in the 13th century, it was most likely a gateway to a royal compound. There is no security and no one collecting an ‘entrance ticket’, so we are free to walk through the portal ourselves and marvel at the engineering required to position 50-tonne slabs of limestone without a heavy-duty crane.
We do have to pay an entrance fee of $10T (about $NZ10) when we get to ‘Anahulu cave. We are told to change into our togs before our guide Rick, originally from West Auckland, takes us into the dark, damp cavern, lit just enough to reveal the stalactites and stalagmites overhead.
The slippery steps carved into the rock end at a deep swimming hole so black you can barely see where the surface is. The local guides entertain themselves leaping off high ledges into the pool. You can swim through the cave right out to the ocean… if you like dark spaces. I’m not much of a swimmer at the best of times so I leave it to Dan to plunge in.
Switching to Tongan time
Our next stop is a place you most definitely do not want to go swimming. You can hear the pounding of the waves at the Houma blowholes, on the west of the island, long before you see them. The coastline here is pummelled by a fierce swell that, over the years, has carved its way into the rocks until blowholes have appeared. The water shoots out up to such heights my first instinct is to duck away as the spray heads our way. If the wind was blowing in the wrong direction I would be needing my togs, whether I liked it or not.
We warm up over fish and chips in the open-air restaurant of Liku’alofa Beach Resort before getting the boat back to Fafa Island, which I’ve already started to think of as ‘our’ island. We end the day watching the sun go down from our private garden.
The next day we have every intention of working up an appetite with a long walk around the island, only to discover 20 minutes in that we are back where we started. Alright then, hammocks it is. Since relaxing is the order of the day, I book in for a massage, only to make the mistake of asking if they can get the knots out of my shoulders. OMG, it hurts like hell, and I have to ask for a little respite. My masseuse is very apologetic – he’s used to massaging Tongan men – and in the end I get the best massage I’ve ever had.
By now we are truly on Tongan time. Fafa Island has all the usual activities – kayaking, snorkelling, scuba and sailing – but I prefer to fall asleep in my hammock. Dinner time rolls around and we stroll to the restaurant instead of being in our usual rush to get everywhere by the clock.
We take our time over our meal, savour our wine and start planning our return. It turns out three days is long enough for Tonga to work its magic; that’s the beauty of having a Pacific paradise right on our doorstep.
What the locals know
- Friends Cafe in the centre of town has its own tourist centre and is a great place to plan your Tonga experience with a wide range of activities throughout the Kingdom.
- ‘Otu ‘ika is a favourite recipe of locals and visitors alike – fresh raw fish marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk.
- There are a handful of tour guides – we went with Rick’s Tours – but it’s just as easy to get around on your own. There are several walking tours, but if that’s not your thing, rental cars and scooters are available.
- Sunday is a complete day of rest, when even going for a run is not allowed and working is illegal.
- June and July are the best times of the year to go whale watching.
Words by: Louise Thomson