Captain Cook named Tonga ‘The Friendly Islands’ after arriving during a feast and finding natives who appeared welcoming. In fact, it is said that the chiefs wanted to kill him but couldn’t agree on a plan. Tongatapu is Tonga’s main island, and the location of the former British protectorate’s capital, Nuku’alofa. The second city of Mu’a is also here, along with most of the commercial activity and the grandiose official residence of the king.
Nuku’alofa is full of Victorian buildings, churches, old graveyards, bustling markets (don’t miss excellent local arts and crafts upstairs at Talamahu Market) and a classic Pacific waterfront. Most of the island’s hotels are here, too, though this is very much a shabby working town that doesn’t give excessive thought to pleasing tourists – a comment that might justifiably be applied to the island as a whole.
Indeed, most visitors make Tongatapu a stepping stone to the offshore coral islands of Fafa, Atata and Pangaimotu, which offer excellent beach holidays. Along with a number of other islands in the main lagoon off Nuku’alofa, they are very like the ever-popular Manamuca Islands in Fiji, but without the same tourist pressure.
But for all that Tongatapu itself is no resort island, it will reward the curious traveller with its interesting combination of history and natural beauty. Though much of this largely flat island is covered in plantations, the eastern end is relatively undeveloped, with deserted sandy beaches, coves and caves. There is also a wealth of monuments testifying to the island’s long history and cultural traditions. The south coast is wild, with dramatic coastal scenery and high cliffs punctuated with sandy coves, well worth the effort needed to get there in a hire car that will have seen much better days.
Population: 71.000 (2007 estimate)
When to go: Any time – the tropical climate is even all year round and Tongatapu is milder than Fiji or Samoa, with less rainfall.
How to get there: Various international carriers serve the airport at Fu’amotu.
Highlights: Tongan culture at its best (dancing and food, among other things!) – find it all at the Tongan National Centre just south of Nuku’alofa.
The ancient langi pyramids (royal burial tombs) near Mu’a, once the ancient capital of Tonga.
A flying fox preserve in the western district of Kolovai for close-up contact with the world’s largest bats (there are plenty, as only the king is allowed to hunt them).
The 13th century stone trilithon, which is known as Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, In the north of the island. Spectacular blow-holes near the village of Houma.
You should know: There have been recent pro-democracy riots in Nuku’alofa (accompanied by arson and several deaths) as younger Tongans protested at the country’s rule by a feudal absolute monarchy.