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When imagining the South Pacific, palm tree-fringed beaches and azure blue waters spring to mind – ask people to name the country they most associate with these postcard perfect pictures, and the answer is probably Fiji or Bora Bora. The grandly named Kingdom of Tonga might not be the first to trip off the tongue, but this Polynesian country has as much to offer as the better known tourist spots of the South Pacific. Here’s everything you need to know.
Nowhere is this more true than Vava’u, a group of islands in the north of Tonga. Vava’u is made up of one large island and 40 smaller islands, trailing off the mainland like jellyfish fronds. Many of the islands are home to white sandy beaches, while others are surrounded by beautiful coral reefs. The deep natural harbour near the town of Neiafu also makes this a regular stopover for yachts sailing around the South Pacific. To make the most of its natural beauty, the best way to experience the islands of Vava’u is from the water.
Cameron Hunt, who runs Dive Tonga in Neiafu, says: “Vava’u is all about the warm crystal clear water and uncrowded dive sites. The 41 islands offer great shelter in most weather conditions and a huge variety of different dive sites. Unique underwater topography which has been formed from ancient uplifted limestone that has been carved out over millennia to form wonderful caverns, archways and swim-throughs.”
From June to October humpback whales swim along the deep ocean trench to the east of Tonga on their annual 5,000+ mile (8,000+ kilometre) migration from their feeding grounds in Antarctica. It’s the longest migration of any mammal on the planet. They stop off in the shallow reefs of Vava’u to mate, give birth and raise their calves, and lucky visitors are able to swim alongside the mothers and their babies as the great beasts majestically glide through the water. Watching them breach the surface and fly through the air is also a spectacular, unforgettable sight. As swimming with humpbacks is such a must-do experience in Vava’u, many people plan their trip to Tonga a year or more in advance. There are several whale swimming operators in Vava’u, but make sure to book early as their spaces fill up months in advance, with many operators reporting that their diaries are almost full for 2020.
This is quickly becoming one of the top restaurants in Vava’u, despite only having two things on the menu: fish and chips, and margaritas. The floating eatery sits on a blue houseboat off the coast of Neiafu and is run by Canadian couple Bear and Charlotte. It’s a favourite among the yachties who park their boats alongside and zig zag back when they’re full of tequila, and landlubbers are also welcome.
“It is a great way to unwind sitting on the floating deck, munching on hot fresh fish and chips while washing it all down with one of their famous ice cold margaritas,” says Hunt.
When the ‘open’ flag is flying in the wind, stand on the nearest pier and wave until Bear arrives in his dinghy, or a sympathetic boat driver offers a lift. Waving for one’s dinner might feel undignified, but it’s worth it to sample Bear’s secret batter recipe. The Hideaway’s opening hours are 11.30am to 11pm, but if there’s a good crowd they’ll stay open later.
The main town in Vava’u, Neiafu, is a dusty high street. Visiting the main sights, including the market and the cathedral, won’t take more than a day or two. Book a bed and get out to one of the 40 surrounding islands instead.
“If you really want to get away from it all you can take a boat ride or even kayak out to one of the many uninhabited islands and pull up on a white sandy beach with a picnic for a day. For those who arrive by sailing boat these islands provide numerous safe uncrowded anchorages,” Hunt says.
There are plenty of resorts that will empty the wallet, and present a bar bill to rival the cost of a room, but there are also backpacker-friendly options around Vava’u, including a guesthouse on Ofu, a small island with only a handful of homes on it. This is basic accommodation – there is no electricity in the small huts, and the showers are fed from the rain tank, so don’t expect hot water. But that’s part of its charm: see starfish lazing in the shallows, sleep so close to the beach that you wake to the sound of waves and enjoy a view of the stars uninterrupted by light pollution.
The best way to experience the diverse marine life of the South Pacific is to strap on an oxygen tank and go underwater. Cliffs faces below the water’s surface in Vava’u are magnets for coral, and the waters are home to scores of tropical fish. One minute a clown fish can be seen scrubbing itself on an anemone, the next a humpback whale could swim past. Don’t expect to see a whale during every dive though, as it is an incredibly rare experience.
“The coral is healthy and vibrant with a good variety of hard and soft corals and fish life,” says Hunt. “There is great diving for new divers through to advanced divers wanting to go deeper.”
For unqualified divers, or for those who prefer to keep their heads above water, snorkelling is the next best thing. The water is so clear that visibility is strong even from high above the seabed. Join a dive boat for a snorkel among Vava’u’s more remote atolls or seek out one of the organised snorkelling tours on offer along Neiafu’s high street.
There are lots of ways to get to Swallows Cave, on the north-west corner of Kapa Island. It’s a staple on snorkelling trips, and certain scuba dives enter through the underwater tunnel. Hiring a kayak for the day and paddling there from Neiafu is also possible. The cave has tall ceilings worthy of a cathedral dome, and is bathed in a soft light filtering through the canopy growing over a hole in the top. Under the water is just as spectacular, as the cave is often used as a shelter by thousands of sardines in what is known as a ‘bait ball’. Watch as they sparkle in the sunlight, or watch them scatter during a free diving practice. There is also an added bonus cave to the left of the entrance waiting to be discovered.
“This huge open-air sea cave is sheltered from the prevailing wind making it glassy calm for snorkelling,” Hunt says. “Inside the cave you often find a large school of bait fish slowly swimming around seeking refuge from the bluefin trevally that patrol the entrance. In the late afternoon the sun’s rays reach into the back of the cave giving a wonderful light show as it sparkles off the bottom.”