Can you really be disappointed if you know you set your expectations too high?
I keep asking myself that. To say I was disappointed by Tonga – my first experience of real tropical islands – would be doing a huge disservice to that beautiful country. I had a wonderful two-and-a-half weeks there back in 2014, but there was a slight sense of something missing during that time, that there was something I just wasn’t getting. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was because when I imagined Tonga I thought of sandy white beaches at every turn, lying on said beaches in a bikini every day, lush rainforest to trek through, stunning corals to snorkel and marvel at.
Every one of those things can be found in Tonga. The only problem? Getting to them. Being the most budget-of-the-budget travellers, car rentals and day trips on yachts were off the list, especially seeing as I was already splashing out on a flight to the outer Vava’u island group and a day swimming with humpback whales.
Unlike it’s neighbour Fiji, the Kingdom of Tonga isn’t really inclined towards catering for backpackers. This is a yachtie country, but that doesn’t mean a simple backpacker like myself couldn’t have an amazing time. Though Tonga isn’t exactly a large country – you can easily drive around the main island in a few hours – it’s not like you can walk everywhere. Buses do run around the island, but I’ll admit I had reservations about how to handle them and so avoided them (although I did meet one girl who used them a lot, and quite enjoyed the experience with the locals). And once you’ve covered the main sights, there isn’t a whole lot else to do if you’re not staying at one of the resorts where the beach awaits you each day.
The main sites on Tongatapu each represent a different part of Tonga’s history. There are two famous landing sites, one where Abel Tasman (supposedly) made landfall in 1643, becoming the first European to discover the island, the other where Captain James Cook (again, supposedly) landed in 1773. This second site also has an inscription on the other side of the marker stone commemorating the visit to the site by Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne in 1970.
Before the “discovery” of Tonga in the 17th century, there was over 3000 years of Polynesian history, very little of which is recorded or remembered. This period in their history is represented by the 13th century Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon – the ‘Stonehenge of the South’, and the Langi at Lapaha, the royal burial mounds of the Tu’i Tonga, the old kings of Tonga. Like many things I found in Tonga, they were somewhat disappointing. These are no pyramids. A few quick snaps and that’s pretty much it.
On a more natural note, there are the Mapu’a ‘a Vaea blowholes, that you can see stretching right along the coast to your left and right, the Pigeon’s Gateway, a large sea-formed arch, and lush fields of tall coconut trees wherever you turn. This is a beautiful country of coconuts, farms and churches.
Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, is the smallest city I’ve ever been to. All the buildings are single or two-storey, the roads are wide, and gardens are everywhere. It’s a pleasant place to walk around, with several historic buildings, including the Royal Palace and the two main churches, both of very different architectural styles and a really nice contrast to each other.
Once you leave the main island of Tongatapu, it starts to feel a little more like what I had imagined. In the Vava’u island group, a two hour plane journey away, or a 22-hour ferry ride (both exciting in their own way – I did one journey on each), I still found it hard to find that tropical island experience I was looking for, but it came close. There’s much more of a sense of community in Neiafu, the main town. Here, whale swimming and diving are the main attractions, but there’s also the local food and craft market (coconuts for breakfast – yum!), and at night there are quizzes, karaoke and fakaleti shows. This last one is NOT to be missed – it’s an experience like no other! Tonga’s fakaleti are…how to put it…their version of drag queens. This group of men live and dress like women, and put on a dancing show every Wednesday night (some dances are traditional, some modern and sexy, some comedic). It’s worth going just for the look on the faces of the men in the audience!
Here, I did manage to find those white sand beaches I was looking for, by taking a day trip out around the islands with the hostel owner, and also by getting a lift out to one of the resorts to spend a Sunday on their small beach. All beaches on the larger islands have been claimed by a resort, there are no public spots. But they are happy to let non-guests come by for the day. Lying in a hammock with a good book under the shade of coconut trees, watching the sun set? A pretty good way to spend a Sunday (and a very good way of making your sister back home jealous on her birthday!).
In Tonga, I also had one of the most magical and unforgettable experiences of my life. Tonga is one of only two countries in the world where you are allowed to swim with the migrating humpback whales. For a pretty heft price tag (but worth every cent), you can go out by boat and jump (or, rather, slide gently) into the water with these amazing, gigantic creatures.
If Tonga taught me one thing, it was to be optimistic, but not to expect the pristine, perfect images that the internet, television and films throw at you. If I hadn’t expected so much from this country, I might have enjoyed it more. Actually, enjoyed might be the wrong word here, as I very much enjoyed myself. Appreciated might be more appropriate. I might have appreciated Tonga more, and it’s a shame that I now look back on those two-and-a-half weeks and think that.
Although Tonga does have some of the cutest little piglets wandering around. There’s always that.
There are some hostels on the main island of Tongatapu, some in near Nuku’alofa, the capital city, some further out. I highly recommend Noa’s, lovely place and owners and very convenient to the city. I also stayed at Toni’s – nice place, not-so-convenient location.
Round-the-island tours are available from several tour operators and also by the one-and-only (in)famous Toni. Some people I met hated the guy and his brusque manners, but I didn’t mind him too much. It’s a cheap option, and you get what you paid for.
Flights are available between the different islands groups within Tonga with the national airline Real Tonga, though if you want to go the Niuafo’ou or Niuatoputapu islands, you might need a bit more planning in advance. These flights are not cheap, costing at least a few hundred dollars.
A more budget-friendly option for travelling to the Vava’u or Ha’apai islands is to take the ferry. While much cheaper, this is not a fun experience, with travel times of up to 24 hours each way. There are no cabins – you either make the best of the hard plastic chairs inside, or find a spot with the local families on deck. I recommend the latter as you can lie down and the Tongan people are really friendly and keep offering you food.
Have you ever had a similar experience where you expected too much from a destination that otherwise would have been fantastic? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.