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Idyllic Islands Destination Specialists 4 weeks ago

Tonga Destination & Travel Guide

  • Beachside view of Tonga

Essential Facts

Currency 

The official currency of Tona is the Pa’anga. Cash is king in the South Pacific’s only kingdom. There are ATMs on Tongatapu and Vava’u, however, you won’t find them on the other islands. Banks are also pretty much non-existent outside the capital, so it is recommended to take out cash when you arrive in Nukuʻalofa. Credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard are accepted in main tourist areas.

Language

The official languages of Tonga are Tongan and English. Even though English is taught in school, it is best to learn a few words of Tongan for the more remote islands and to greet the friendly locals.

Best Time to Go

The best time to travel to Tonga is May to November. Tonga has two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season is May to November when it is also less hot and humid. The main draw for tourists travelling to Tonga is to swim with the humpback whales, which migrate to the islands from July to October for breeding and birthing their young, so if you are hoping to see some whales make sure to travel during these months.

Climate

Tonga has an inviting tropical climate with warm temperatures year round. December to April can be wet and humid with the potential for cyclones. May to November is the dry season with cooler temps and low humidity. The lows in Tonga do not usually fall below 18°C and the highs do not get above 35°C.

Ideal Traveller

If you like discovering hidden gems where hardly any tourists have boldly gone before, then you are an ideal traveller to Tonga. Tonga also attracts vacationers from Australia and New Zealand, although not to the same degree that Fiji and the Cook Islands do. The white beaches and blue waters of Tonga bring in the yachting and sailing crowd to its sheltered lagoons. Tonga is also a destination for the laid back traveller who doesn't mind that the buses do not run on a schedule, that the country literally shuts down on Sundays, and that there isn’t much of a commercialized tourist industry.

Getting There From North America

Sunset in Tonga

Major airports or ports of entry

Fuaʻamotu International Airport on the main island of Tongatapu is the major point of entry. 

Major Air Routes from the United States

Travelling from the United States, you will need to fly from Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji with Fiji Airways and then from Nadi to Tongatapu.

Major Air Routes from Canada

Travelling from Canada you would also fly to Los Angeles, and then from there to Nadi and on to Tongatapu.

Essential Sights of Tonga

Tongan huts on beach

Tongatapu

The main island and the jumping off point for any Tongan adventure. Tongatapu is home to the Tongan Royal Family and is where most Tongans live. Tongatapu offers little pockets of hidden adventures such as underground swimming holes, a stretch of beach perfect for snorkelling and surfing, blowholes, ancient archaeological sites, authentic Polynesian markets, and warm friendly people.  

Fafa Island

Fafa Island is home to Fafa Island Resort. The resort is the perfect getaway for honeymooners and vacationers offering luxury with a rustic Polynesian touch. The 13 traditional bungalows are set on a gorgeous white sand beach with views of the lagoon’s multiple shades of blue. The waters are calm and safe for swimming and snorkelling around the island, as it is protected by a coral reef. The resort takes up a small part of the island. The rest is an untouched lush tropical forest that can be explored on hikes. Fafa is an easily-accessible island from Tongatapu, making it perfect for a day trip as well.

Pangaimotu

On Sundays, most of the country shuts down as the day is reserved for church and family. It is illegal to exercise on Sundays. There is no jogging, swimming, kayaking, snorkelling, or cycling. You cannot be loud or play loud music. So with that said, what is one to do on a Sunday? Visit Pangaimotu, the closest island to Nuku’alofa and easily accessible by boat. You will be able to enjoy the beach, restaurant, and some great shipwreck snorkelling, as there are several sunken ships surrounding the island.

Vava'u Islands 

The Vava’u Islands are known for their stunning lagoon, which is famous with sailors for its sheltered waters and known as a yachting playground. Make sure to get out on a boat, sailing, game fishing, whale watching, or swimming with humpbacks. The underwater visibility is amazing for snorkelling and diving with up to 30 meters of clear Pacific visibility. Guesthouses are available as well as the Tongan Beach Resort, which offers you the isolation you crave and the modern amenities you desire.

Other Highlights of Tonga Off the Beaten Path

Traditional Tongan boat

If you have made it to Tonga from North America, you have already stepped off the beaten path. Tonga is authentic Polynesia and far from the tourist trail. However, there are less-visited islands in Tonga that are definitely worth checking out. 

Ha'apai Islands

Ha’apai are a group of 62 scattered Islands in Tonga, 17 of which are inhabited. If you’re looking for a breathtaking deserted tropical island reminiscent of the Captain Cook days, then Ha’apai is for you. You’ll find some guesthouses, eco lodges, and the Ha’apai Beach Resort for accommodation. There are not really any restaurants as locals do not eat out. Instead, they go to barbecue take outs. Ha’apai offers you pristine beaches that are virtually empty, amazing snorkelling and diving, sea kayaking, swimming with humpbacks, cycling, and utter relaxation. This is the place to unplug.

Eua

Known as the forgotten island, Eua is not really that far from Tongatapu. However, few venture in its direction. You can take the seven-minute flight to get to Eua, which is one of the shortest flights in the world, or the inter-island ferry. Both the ferry and flight schedules can be very unpredictable. Eua does not have a lot in the way of tourism infrastructure. There are just a handful of guesthouses and any excursions are organized through your accommodation. Eua is the eco tourism destination of Tonga with hilly hiking trails, rainforests, caves, sinkholes, lookouts, whales watching, snorkelling, and some of the best diving in Tonga; the cathedral cave off Eua is well known in the dive community.

The Niua Island Group 

If you're adventurous, flexible, and have time on your hands, or if you're travelling by personal yacht, you can make it out to these remote Tongan Islands. Your efforts to get here will be rewarded with a truly unique Polynesian experience that most Tongans have never witnessed. Life is still lived the traditional way and most locals live in thatched fales. For those who venture to these islands, white sand beaches, sparkling Pacific waters, snorkelling, swimming, and volcanoes that are perfect for hiking await.

Top Activities and Experiences in Tonga

Humpback whale in Tonga

Swimming with Humpback Whales

The main reason most venture to Tonga is to swim with the humpback whales. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where this can be done. It is an incredible experience that will leave you speechless.

Water Sports and Adventure

If you’re an adventure sport enthusiast that doesn’t like crowds then Tonga is your place to revel in the waters and hiking trails. Snorkel or dive in crystal clear water without anyone bumping into you. Kayak, kite surf, or take out a stand up paddleboard and take in the silent beauty of the remote islands. Bicycling or mountain biking is a fantastic way to explore inland. On the main island of Tongatapu you can even swim in an underground cave (Anahulu) that is lit by candle light.

Archaeological Sites

The islands of Tonga offer fascinating archaeological sites to explore, where you learn about its rich history, such as the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, known as Tonga’s Stonehenge, and Mu’a, ancient burial sites dating from 1200AD.

Talamahu Market

The market offers fresh fruits, vegetables, traditional handicrafts, and a look into the local way of life. Visiting the Talamahu Market is a nice cultural highlight to a Tongan holiday. Bring cash and be ready to bargain.

Essential Tongan Foods to Try

Bananas in Tonga

Ota’ika

The national dish of Tonga and one would say the dish of the South Pacific. Ota’ika is a traditional Polynesian dish found throughout the Pacific islands consisting of fish marinated in lime juice and then mixed with coconut milk and diced vegetables. 

Kapisi Pulu

Kapisi Pulu is a popular Tongan dish made with canned corned beef, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, coconut cream, and roasted in a banana leaf. 

Lu Pulu

Similar to Kapisi Pulu, Lu Pulu uses canned corned beef (usually imported from New Zealand). The corned beef is mixed with onion, tomatoes, and coconut milk and placed in a taro leaf to bake for two hours. It is served hot with rice or yams. 

Lolo'i Feke

Octopus in coconut cream served with yams or green bananas, which have also been boiled in coconut cream.

Tips for Sustainable Travel

Tongan beach

Tonga, similar to other island nations, is trying to battle the plastic waste beast. There is not much infactruction for tourism, let alone waste management, so as a visitor to this far flung island group try to do your best to reduce your plastic waste. If you are travelling to Tonga to swim with the humpback whales, be respectful and listen to your guides. Never touch anything in the ocean, especially the coral.

Where to Go Next

Tonga is generally the “next place” for South Pacific-loving travellers who have experienced Tahiti, Fiji, the Cook Islands, or Samoa and are looking for something more raw and authentic. Tonga is the place for people wanting to get away from mass tourism and experience the beauty of remote paradise islands.

Tonga is an excellent option to pair with Fiji. Fiji offers amazing diving, beautiful full service resorts and stunning beaches. To get to Tonga, you will need to fly through Nadi from North America, making Fiji and Tonga a lovely combination of pampering 5-star resorts and off the beaten path exploration. As well, if you're a diver or marine life enthusiast, you can dive the famous soft coral in Fiji and then travel to Tonga to swim with the humpback whales. Tonga can also be paired nicely with New Zealand. Take in adventure tourism in New Zealand and then  plant yourself at the Fafa Island Resort or the Tongan Beach Resort to truly unwind.

Most Popular Itineraries for Tonga

After you land in Tongatapu, take a couple of days to explore the main island. You will want to base yourself on Ha’atafu Beach, the island's only beach. Your next stop should be the Fafa Island Resort or the Tongan Beach Resort in Vava’u. If you have come all this way to Tonga, it is recommended to experience both.

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