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Tonga Visit: 2007-8
2007-11-17 - I visited Tonga on a whim after being offered cheap last-minute flights from Sydney, Australia, and only had a couple of weeks to organise things and for the first time in my travels I was under prepared. Flying onto the island of Tonagtapu I headed towards the capital of Nuku'alofa, which is worth walking around in, but the whole town can be seen in one to two hours. The best ways I found to get around Tongatapu were either by taxi (normal cars that can be distinguished by the T in their number plate and negotiating a price, although unofficial taxis can be found by negotiating a price either by a car approaching you or flagging one down), local buses which are mainly mini buses which all the locals catch heading to various parts of the island for 1 to 2 Tongan dollars (dollars are known as Pa'anga but are commonly referred to as dollars), or by negotiating a shuttle service with your accommodation place (some offer a service for the same price as a taxi but check while booking). There are a few tour companies who run tours of Tongatapu, but they range from 40 Pa'anga up to 80 Pa'anga and higher so it's best to shop around. Inquire at Teta Tours and Friends Cafe in town, or various accommodation places offer tours, the cheapest being with Toni's Guesthouse. However most tours are reasonably laid back and the only highlights are blowholes, cliffs, beaches, and some old stone structures, so it might or might not be worth the money.

Beaches on the north west coast of Tonagatapu are some of the best to visit e.g. Ha'atafu beach and Otuhaka beach, but waves can often be small, a coral reef covers the coastline so shoes or flippers are required for walking even a metre from the sand, guesthouses can be very expensive and limited in the way of food or boat and surfboard hire, and buses there are infrequent so taxis are a good option. It's best to shop around and do some research or expect to pay at least 80 Pa'anga a night for basic accommodation.

The island of 'Eua is either a 2-hour ferry away for about 40 Pa'anga one way, or a 6-minute flight (that's right, 6 minutes in the air!) for 60 Pa'anga one way. Flights can be booked at the Teta Tours office where service is very slow, and ferry enquiries can be made also at Teta Tours, or at Friends Cafe which also offer ferries to several other islands. 'Eua is a lot more quiet than Tongatapu (even though Tongatapu is no bustling metropolis itself), however several hikes can be had through the jungle and is the best place for hikes in Tonga. There are not many taxis to speak of, but drivers of small utility trucks drive in and out of the plantations frequently and are happy to offer a free ride if you flag them down. I stayed with Taini at her guesthouse Taina's Place, and she was very welcoming, offered a map for hiking because the tourist offices and travel agents don't, and even cooked for the guests. The island people are very relaxed and the whole place is very quiet so it's a nice soothing place to visit. 'Eua also has a handful of beaches, but finding a place to swim can be difficult as the coastline is dotted with rocks and coral reef.

Tourism seems a bit underdeveloped here, and transport even when booked can often be cancelled or postponed for various reasons. I personally booked return flights to one of the smaller islands, 'Eua, and the flight back was cancelled because the only plane had been flown to Fiji for maintenance and couldn't be flown back until the following day. So be prepared for anything, and if flying out of Tonga it's wise to give yourself a day or so just in case cancellations happen.

An example of low supply of tourism here, I travelled to Tonga expecting to swim with whales in Vava'u as I was told this was one of the best places to do so in the world, but I found out there was one ferry a day to Vava'u leaving Tuesdays and taking at least 20 hours to get to Vava'u and returning only on Wednesdays, and flights were only operated by Air Fiji at about 300 Pa'anga or more one way and were all booked out for weeks, so it's best to book well in advance if travelling in peak season when the whales are at their most abundant, around June to August. So I was disappointed to find out I would have to stay another week to get a ferry to go whale swimming, and it was too costly to change my flights and be stranded in Vava'u for a week, so I missed out there.

Nuku'alofa itself has several cafes and restaurants and bars, a few supermarkets, a few ATMs, and a couple of banks. This is the main place to find all these things as the rest of Tonagtapu and even 'Eua are pretty barren in terms of consumerism.

In Nuku'alofa harbour I noticed a lot of private boats from people who were sailing around all of the Pacific Islands. A handful were looking for one or two people to come aboard and offer assistance in sailing to New Caledonia or Fiji or New Zealand, so hiring a boat for an extended period could be the best way of getting around Tonga, and ultimately giving you control over your own travel times.


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