The Experiential Traveller’s Guide to Tonga: Top 10 Things to Do!

DestinationWhale watching in Tonga
Listen to The Experiential Traveller’s Guide to Tonga: Top 10 Things to Do!

Hello travellers, and welcome to another edition of our ‘Top 10 Things to See, Do, Eat and Experience’ in the South Pacific. This time, we’re diving into Tonga, pun intended!

Did you know that Tonga was introduced to the world as ‘Friendly Isles’? This was because this little island kingdom welcomed British navigator Captain James Cook with open arms instead of… well, spears, stones (and an occasional overripe papaya to the face – ninja fruit attack!). There is an interesting history lesson behind the name, but we’re not going there today. This is our South Pacific Specialists’ take on the popular top 10 lists for Tonga – this applies to first-time travellers as well as repeat visitors! 

Snorkelling, scuba-diving and kayaking

Let’s just get the obvious out of the way – that’s why we’ve loaded them all together when talking about a South Pacific holiday. But that doesn’t mean that the above activities are any less spectacular in Tonga. Want a pro tip? Diving destinations will either have crystal-clear waters or amazing coral blooms. Islands like Niue are limestone-based, where visibility can go up to almost 100 feet underwater. But no coral reefs, then. This is because corals provide a mini-ecosystem for marine life to thrive, which ranges from plankton and microorganisms to large fishes – which turn the water just ever so slightly ‘milky’ and translucent.

Tonga… has great reefs. So great that humpback whales swim from all the way from the Antarctica to the Kingdom’s warm waters to mate and calve. More on that below but snorkelling and scuba-diving is basically fantastic. It is said that in one dive, people will see more species of fishes than the number of islands in Tonga. Since the Kingdom has 176 big and small landmasses, you know every dive will be unique. 

Surfing on Tongan breaks.
Watersports in this country is exciting and relaxing at the same time!

Kitesurfing and windsurfing

This is more of a specialised thing to do, but Tonga is getting wild mentions as a kitesurfing destination. Most tour operators can rent out rigs but exploring the islands and the beaches while skipping across water is pure adrenaline in your veins.

Sample Tongan cuisine

Like all South Pacific nations, Tongan cuisine explores innovative cooking techniques as well as mixing meats and produce in unique ways. Just get yourself invited to a traditional Tongan feast – no, we’re not joking, the people are unbelievably open and friendly. Or go to any of the resorts’ ‘feast nights’. Want a couple of our favourites? Keep an eye/ear open for ‘feke’ (grilled octopus or squid in coconut sauce) or ‘lu pulu’, which is mixed meats and shallots cooked in an underground oven, ‘umu’. Pro tip: For travellers who have toured other South Pacific countries before, have some ‘ota’ – you will recognise it as Fijian kokonda, Tahitian poisson cruand if you want to go truly global – Peruvian ceviche. Of course, every country has its own twist on it, but it’s funny and humanising how tasty dishes just reach places, no? First time travellers, we’re not ignoring you – do try the ota. It’s cubes of fresh seafood like salmon, shrimp, snapper, mixed with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, onions, coconut milk and fresh lime juice. After half an hour of marination, this is comfort food at its healthiest best. 

Museums, tours and walks

Because Tonga has not been overloaded with tourists till date, it is an amazing walk into the past for international travellers. The kingdom’s history can be traced back 3,000 years, imagine that! Like Britain’s Stonehenge, do snap up a visit to the Ha’amonga a Maui trilithon – proof of life and more importantly, civilisation. The country has a rich vein of folklore, legends, tribal chiefs and traditions pre-dating European contact by Captain Cook and the Spanish navigator Don Francisco Antonio Mourelle and others. Sign up for tours of Tongatapu and history walks where tour guides will show you how Tongan history has wound down over the centuries. The Tongans are very proud of their monarchy and their culture – stop by Langi, it’s their royal burial grounds for centuries! Talk about carrying on traditions!

Ha’amonga trilithon in Tonga
The ages-old Ha’amonga trilithon in Tonga

Whale-watching and swimming with whales

Whale watching in Tongan seas
Swimming with whales in Tonga

Tonga is one of the few places in the world where humpback whales migrate to in the summers. The coral reefs act as barriers, protect the young and provide easy feeding grounds for the gentle leviathans. The Kingdom of Tonga has put down strict guidelines for tour operators on minimum safe distance to be maintained for the protection of the whales, but here is where travellers can come up, close and personal with these leviathans. From July to November, there are whale-watching expeditions, guided snorkelling tours and diving charters a plenty. Mark it down as ‘must-do, cannot miss’ activity.

Tonga – Game Fishing Heaven?

To be fair, game fishing loses most of its lustre here. Not because it’s hard for sports-fishermen in Tonga, but the opposite. Tonga’s rich marine life also means a pelagic population which is healthy and thriving. Game fishing operators will organise charters where your catch of the day often outranks the best catch of your life! From wahoo to mahi mahi to huge sailfish and yellow-fin tuna, game-fishing is ridiculously fun here.

Just set up a charter, line up the stubby holder with cold ones and get set for a great day.

Visit a village

Besides their monarchy, the people live by a very evolved social code and strict family value system. You’ll come to know that ‘family’ is a flexible term here, it’s more about who you call family than bloodlines. This is because taking care of the elderly and the young is sacrosanct – adoption of the elderly and orphans is just the ‘done thing’. So, families tend to be quite large and boisterous affairs, too. Therefore, a village visit sheds a lot of light on how Tongan families and villages work; and it’s a hecka interesting to learn about a culturally different value system. 

The Tongan Royal Palace
The Tongan Royal Palace

Buy a mat – a proper Tongan woven masterpiece!

Now, here’s a thing – Tongan take an inordinate amount of interest, care and pride in their handicrafts. For example, they weave fantastically intricate mats of pandanus tree fronds called ‘ta’ovala’. These are less of mats and more of dressing, you’ll find almost every Tongan wear them. They’re the Tongan version of a dress shirt, really. They’re always handmade and are a part of Tongan women’s mandatory skillset. Rule of thumb is, the more intricate and deeper the colour, the better (also more expensive). The effort and patterns are, however, fantastic. Get one.

Watch tapa-making in action

Like the ta’ovala, tapa is ‘cloth’ made from leaf fronds. You can buy some for home, but watching it being made is very fascinating, too. 

Be a beach bum!

Being a beach bum needs full-time dedication here. For your consideration, the beautiful Fafa Island Resort.

All South Pacific countries have beaches which are pretty, lined with crystal-clear waters and have that palm tree which is just conveniently leant over to give that perfect shade and sun combination. So is Tonga, but with the added advantage of no crowds. Because there are no super-luxe five-star resorts and no gimmicky videos to promote the destination, life is slow, peaceful and the beaches are better than Photoshopped. No cans, beer bottles, plastic bags anywhere in sight. Or people. Take a book and let the waves lull you to sleep and back to wakefulness – we promise, your Tonga holiday will become automatically amazing. Some things don’t have to cost money or attention, just time.

See, our South Pacific Specialists don’t go by the book, we write the book. And these are not the be-all and end-all of activities, we’re working on another blog on the next set of experiences and things to do while on your Tonga holiday. Check out some Tonga holiday packages here or talk to our Specialists about how to travel safely in COVID times – just dial 1300 991 751!

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