They say that Tonga, the smallest kingdom on Earth, is the first country to see the sun each day. Since we’re in the habit of chasing the sun, we had to go.
The beauty of the place is borderline absurd, with limestone cliffs that plunge into deep Pacific blues, calm sanctuaries where humpbacks congregate, forested vistas, dormant volcanoes and an ancient Stonehenge dated to around 1200. It’s best to get your adventure in while the sun is shining, because you won’t be finding much in the nightlife realm. We found ourselves too exhausted, sunburnt, and salt soaked from adventuring during the day to turn down a pillow once the sun went down, anyway.
“Where are all the obnoxious tourists with their paradoxically tomato tinted skin and cloud of aerosol sunscreen?” I kept wondering. We were on a perfectly palm fringed tropical island just over four hours from Sydney at the tail end of winter, and yet, nobody was there. The awkward flight times, lack of fancy tourist infrastructure and proximity to more widely marketed islands means that Tonga has mostly escaped being loved to death by holiday makers. Tread lightly.
1. Make eye contact with Leviathans.
It’s one thing to whale watch from the safety a big, noisy boat. It’s quite another to be in their watery realm. The humpback’s immensity and form suddenly make sense when you’re dangling in 80 meters of deep, dark, ocean blue and feel like the evolutionary equivalent of plankton in that setting.
Humpbacks rest and calve in the sanctuary of the V’avau Islands from late July to October. Hitch a ride with one of the 15 boat operators. Our favourite crew is Mark and Veronica at Euaiki Island, who are champions for sustainable whale watching (and swimming) and only use a quiet little traditional outrigger canoe with a small motor to hang with the humpbacks.
2. Expand your lungs.
The keyhole entrances at mystical caves like Swallow and Mariner’s will stretch your lungs and blow your mind, especially in the afternoon, when golden light spills in and contrasts with the inky blues of the deep caves.
3. Shit does not get more beautiful than this.
You know that dreamy white tropical island sand we all fantasise about? It’s Parrotfish poo. One Parrotfish can defecate as much as 100 kg of sand a year. They nibble on coral, cleaning it’s surface - you can hear them crunching on it while you snorkel - but they can’t digest the coral pieces, so they create constant plumes of sand from their anuses. These plumes make up those beaches.
4. Navigate by the stars.
The ancient Polynesians were the astronauts of the their day; wild eyed explorers who set off into the unknown, against the wind, across open ocean, in the spirit of adventure and hope of finding new resources. It’s a culture we rarely learn anything about. Tonga’s a pretty epic place to jump on a traditional vaka (canoe) and learn about the ultimate romantic skill of navigating by the sun, moon and stars (who would not be impressed?). Check out the Tonga Voyaging Society.
The flights into and out of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island (and home to 70% of the population), tend to be at pretty awkward times. Dictated by attitude, this can either be a royal pain in the ass, or an opportunity for exploring the main island, which is pretty stacked with easy to find landmarks like the explosive natural blowholes, pyramidal tombs, and Tonga’s natural land bridge. If you’ve got enough time to squeeze in a surf, head to Ha’atafu Beach on the island’s far NW coastline, it’s less than an hour’s drive from the airport.
Best bet is to rent a car (we snagged one for $50AUD for the day) and hit the road. Pick up your driving snacks from roadside shacks that sell boiled peanuts and fresh fruit.
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Delve deeper into the Kingdom of the Sun with the exclusive video by Chrystal Fitzgerald below.