There is a place surrounded by an ocean, almost entirely flat with 80 degree temperatures every day. The beaches are beautiful pounding waves beating on lava rock formations plus miles of pristine sand lapped by azure, crystal clear waters. A place perfect for all water sports, including swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking.
This place? Tonga!
Tonga is a small archipelago in the South Pacific consisting of 176 islands, with 35 of them inhabited by only about 108,000 people. Roughly 1,400 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand, Tonga is divided into five “groups,” and very near the equator.
The largest island group in this Kingdom is Tongatapu, home to the capitol, Nuku’alofa. The city has an impressive Royal Palace, complete with a king and queen, and with about 70 percent of Tonga’s population. Tonga’s international airport is located on the tip of Tongatapu and is accessible from Fiji, Samoa and New Zealand. The next largest island groups are Ha’apai and Vava’u, both to the north.
My daughter Erin Eggland and husband Jeff Ceurvorst, of Denver, and I arrived on Tongatapu on Dec. 30. The timing was significant. Tonga is exactly on the international dateline. And it was Erin’s objective to be among the first to welcome the New Year a full day earlier than their Denver friends. Mission accomplished — in a quaint seaside restaurant at 12 a.m., Jan. 1, 2018.
Beyond the New Year’s objective, our motivation to make the trip was to connect with a friend from afar, explore with him the culture of the islands, and to have some sand and sun respite from the cold Midwest and mountain weather. Our friend, Iasinito (Nito) Hausia is the Tonga National Tennis Coach.
Nito welcomed us and served as our host and guide for most of our 10 days on the islands. We went fishing, toured his small plantation and were introduced to his family and friends. We are very grateful.
The Denverites are serious tennis players and solicited a great deal of tennis gear from their friends, and their own sports closet. They presented Nito with two tennis bags stuffed full of needed rackets, shoes, string, clothes and grip wrap for his tennis program. There soon followed an international (Tonga vs Denver) tennis match. In the spirit of diplomacy, the score will remain undisclosed.
Our first full day on Tongatapu was spent exploring the southern Island and its culture. We saw spectacular blowholes and a receding tide. There were plantations producing coconuts, breadfruit, taro, bananas, papaya, pineapple and vanilla beans. We saw hanging and flying fruit bats, wandering pigs and chickens, and many docile and pedigree-less dogs. We stopped to admire Captain Cook’s landing spot and several other historic sites, as well as elaborate graveyards and appealing beaches.
There were days of swimming and snorkeling. The tropical fish were predictably spectacular including starfish sea cucumbers and sea anemones along with abundant and colorful coral formations. We explored lava caves in the ocean, with names like Swallow Cave and Mariner Cave. In the context of the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon, there were small shark sightings, and while picnicking on the sand, amusement was provided by sideways-scurrying hermit crabs.
Later we flew with Nito and his beautiful, sweet daughter Gabriela -- tennis buffs will know why she is named Gabriela -- to Vava’u. There was more family-oriented activity including a beach picnic, a dinner prepared and cooked in an underground oven called an umu, a fishing trip with a native friend, and an evening of island music provided by Nito’s brothers and friends accompanied by modest kava-sipping, a Tongan feel-good drink made from steeping dried and ground kava root in water.
The Tongan people we met were large, very friendly, laid-back, happy and content. Wealth is rare. They are well educated, thanks, in large measure, to many religious-oriented schools. The Tongans happily accept varying kinds of assistance from international religious organizations and many other countries. They are almost exclusively a Christian kingdom. Their churches are open-air meeting houses filled with worshipers dressed in traditional Tongan attire, listening and singing their lungs out on Sundays.
Tonga has few natural resources and no real commercial fishing industry and almost no exports. The coconut and vanilla harvest has been severely hampered by recent excessive rains. Tonga is poor, but wealthy in pride and tradition.
Tongans are somewhat indifferent to tourism with few hotels and resorts. We found no souvenir shops selling T-shirts, refrigerator magnets or commemorative shot glasses, save for at the airport.
There were several quirky, if not spectacular, attractions. Their “fishing pigs” were feral pigs that took advantage of low tide to wander out on the beach and scrounge for exposed shellfish. (We were told the pork tastes salty.) They claim the only three-headed coconut tree in the Pacific — maybe. The Tsunami Rock is a 50-foot-tall lava rock well inland from the shore that was supposedly pushed there by an ancient tsunami. Call me a skeptic.
Should you visit Tonga? Yes, if you are seeking a rich unspoiled cultural Pacific island experience. No, if you are primarily interested in a fun-in-the-sun vacation. But in Tonga you can satisfy both objectives. We were sorry to leave and glad we went.