The Best Things To Do on Tongatapu Island, Tonga’s Mainland

The blowholes off the island of Tongatapu are a sight to behold
The blowholes off the island of Tongatapu are a sight to behold | © Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy
Antonia Paget

Nicknamed the “Friendly Islands” by Captain Cook on his South Pacific voyage, Tonga has plenty to smile about. This Culture Trip guide to Tongatapu, the main island in the Polynesian kingdom, looks at what makes the island’s residents grin and lists its top attractions – from breaching humpback whales to the wonders of the country’s pristine coastline.

The Kingdom of Tonga is the first country in the world to see the sun and start the day, and there are plenty of activities to fill the daylight hours. The country’s main island of Tongatapu is one of 169 islands that make up this Polynesian archipelago. Once visitors have slowed their pace and adjusted to “Tonga time”, they can discover an island filled with natural beauty and wonder.

The name Tongatapu translates as the “abode of love”, and there is plenty here to love. From the blowholes that stretch along the rugged coastline to the ancient stone monument, which, legend tells, was built by a deity, these are the things not to miss on a visit to Tongatapu.

Marvel at the Ha‘amonga ‘a Maui trilithon

Considered to be the Stonehenge of the South Pacific, the Ha‘amonga ‘a Maui was erected in 1200

Known as the South Pacific equivalent of Great Britain’s Stonehenge, this trilithon is nine centuries old and formed of three giant stones arranged in an arch. The five-metre-tall (16-foot-tall) structure, near Niutōua village, is one of the most fascinating archaeological sites of ancient Polynesia.

The trilithon is made out of three coral limestone slabs each weighing 40 tonnes and held together with mortise joints. Archaeologists suggest it was built in the time of Tu’itatui, the 11th Tu’i Tonga. However, Tongan legends say it was made by the god Maui as the stones are too large for humans to lift, hence the monument’s name: Ha‘amonga ‘a Maui, meaning “Maui’s Burden”.

“The Ha‘amonga is one of our very old historical sites that has stayed with us throughout the years and natural disasters,” says Falemaama Latu, a student at the Tonga Institute of Education. “Our people believe that it is still strong because it was built for one of our very faithful kings, and anything that was built for a loyal royal member was always built to live for centuries.”

Tuck into Tongan fare at Friends Cafe

A Tongatapu institution, Friends Cafe is situated in one of the oldest buildings in the capital city, Nuku‘alofa.

The white-and-red wooden building is open at the sides and has a shady terrace at the back, making it the perfect place to shelter from the midday heat. Tuck into one of its fantastic cheese scones, or try the ota ika, a traditional Polynesian raw fish dish prepared like ceviche but made using coconut milk.

Friends Cafe also has fresh coconut water on the menu, which is blissful in its simplicity – served with a straw poking out the top of a fresh coconut, balanced on a bowl to stop it from rolling away.

Swim with humpback whales

Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales

Every year between June and November, these endangered whales pass through Tonga’s tropical waters on their more than 8,047-kilometre (5,000-mile) journey from their Antarctic feeding grounds. Theirs is the longest migration of any mammal in the world, and they stop to mate and birth their calves off the coast of the Polynesian country.

Tour operators run snorkelling trips off the coast of Tongatapu for visitors to observe and swim with these gentle giants.

“It is Tonga’s waters that attract the whales,” says Frank Leaáetoa, media officer for Tonga Tourism. “Its warmth assures them safety to give birth to their little ones and also mate with their partners in the hope of returning back in the future to give birth. You can really see their beauty when you swim with humpbacks in the deep blue ocean.”

Visit the blowholes

The Mapu‘a ‘a Vaea blowholes were formed over time as holes were eroded in the coral-based limestone

The Mapu’a ‘a Vaea blowholes are found along a 5km (3mi) rocky outcrop on the south coast of Tongatapu, near the village of Houma. The rocks are studded with vents that send shoots of spray up to 30m (98ft) in the air every time a wave hits. These natural blowholes, whose name translates as “Whistle of the Noble’, have been formed over time as holes have eroded in the coral-based limestone.

The volcanic rock outcrops also have several shallow pools where you can bathe as the blowholes erupt around you. However, this should only be done with a local guide; otherwise, you risk being swept out to sea. It is a good spot to look for breaching humpback whales on the horizon when they come to Tonga’s waters during the breeding season.

Visit Anahulu Cave

Swim in the naturally formed underground freshwater pools of Anahulu Cave

The Anahulu Cave, located on the eastern side of Tongatapu, is a large network of limestone caverns. The cave also has a natural, underground freshwater pool where visitors can swim while marvelling at Anahulu’s stalactites and stalagmites.

“Anahulu Cave is a natural cave that stores cool rainwater, where both locals and tourists love to go,” says Sia Tuípulotu, of the Tonga Tourism Authority. “The best thing about this cave is that after swimming in the cool water, you [can] also enjoy the beach right outside the cave – the warm water and white sandy beach there.”

Teta Tours manages the cave.

Sneak a peek at the royal residences

The Royal Palace dates back to 1867 and is a symbol of Tonga

Tonga is the only kingdom in the Pacific and is presided over by one of the world’s oldest monarchies.

Modest is the best word to describe the small palace set on the waterfront of Tonga’s capital, Nuku‘alofa. While this makes the royals appear reserved, their hilltop homes further inland do the opposite.

On Tongatapu’s main road across the island, which links Nuku‘alofa to the international airport, the entrance gate to the princess’s private residence is flanked by two white sculptures of snarling tigers. Neither the princess’s home nor the king’s property across the road is open to the public. But as both homes are on an incline, you can get a good view up and down the hill from the street, where you can also sneak a peek through the gates.

Watch a traditional dance performance

Tonga has several traditional dances, but the lakalaka is the most famous

One of the best ways to learn about Tongan culture and the country’s rich Polynesian heritage is to watch a traditional dance performance. Men and women dress up in grass skirts and often perform a variety of dances from all over the Kingdom of Tonga, including a style of dancing known as lakalaka – the only Pacific performing art that has won recognition from the United Nations as A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Most cultural shows also include a feast, during which guests can sample Tongan specialities, such as suckling pig roasted on a spit, and food cooked in a traditional umu oven dug into the ground.

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