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10 Unique Things Tourists Can Do in Tonga!

Had enough of swimming in pristine coral seas and romantic strolls on idyllic atolls? Luckily TONGA has more to offer a traveller - and you can only do it in TONGA.

Tonga is an island nation best known for its idyllic island beaches and its satisfying lack of mass tourism. Its white sands were made for lazy, sunny days. Its pristine waters are the gateway to coral reefs and deep water dive sites hiding marine life and shipwrecks. But Tonga isn't 'just another South Pacific island'. From its rich history and thriving Polynesian culture to its natural wonders Tonga is unique.


Here are 10 things travellers can ONLY do in Tonga.

1. STEP BACK IN TIME AT THE ANCIENT SITES OF HA'AMONGA 'A MAUI AND MU'A

Whether it was the 13th Century Polynesian King Tu'itatui, the demi god Maui or the ancient lapita who left behind the stone monument Ha'amonga 'a Maui, no one is sure. Nor do they know why it was built. Or how they got those massive rock platforms up there. Once you've pondered Tongatapu's trilithon take a wander around this park by the sea and you'll find the King's 'esi maka faakinanga, a sort of stone throne, as well as 'langi' (terraced tombs).


On the road to Ha'amonga 'a Maui you pass through Mu'a. This was once the site of the royal capital. It is now an archaeological site known for its concentration of royal tombs. Both sites are a short drive, bike ride or bus trip from the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa.

Ha'amonga 'a Maui

2. GO TO CHURCH

In Tonga, going to church is the main event on Sunday. The locals don their best Ta'ovala (traditional clothing), gather together and, throughout the service, sing beautiful acapella harmonies. Tonga is a fervently Christian nation and it's a social faux pas for local Christians not to turn up to Sunday service. In fact, they take Sunday so seriously it's illegal for anything but resorts to be open. Given there's nothing else to do - sports and swimming activities are also banned outside of a resort on Sunday - why not head to a service? Even for the non-religious it's a unique experience to get a taste of this island's culture where ancient Polynesia has merged with European. Remember, while Tongans welcome outsiders to their services, churches are places of worship for the believers so please be respectful.

St Mary's Cathedral, Nuku'alofa

3. MEET THE LAST KING OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC


Tonga is the South Pacific's only Kingdom. Until 2010, it was a completely feudal nation, meaning the King and his appointed nobles made the laws. Now that they are 'on the democratic' (as I was informed by a local) things are different. Since 2014, all parliament representatives are elected by the people, although the nation is still a Constitutional Monarchy with the King as head of state. Take a walk around the Royal Palace neighbourhood to see how the nobles live. You can't exactly go up and knock on the palace door but you may bump into the King at Sunday service or at the market.

The Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa

4. GO SHOPPING, TONGAN STYLE

The capital, Nuku'alofa, may be a far cry from New York or Paris but when it comes to shopping it knows a thing or two. Nuku'alofa's markets run from the multi-storey Talamahu Market in the centre of town all the way along the harbourside. You won't find too much in the way of $2 tourist tat or second-hand vinyl here, though. These are local markets and a great way to get a feel for Tongan life. Roadside stalls sell firewood, fresh fish are pulled straight from the boat and there's a wonderfully rich array of south pacific fruits and vegetables. Even if you're not in the market for a kilo of taro, don't despair. At Talamahu Market there's a great handicraft section upstairs where you can support local artisans and take home gifts that are a lot more authentic than a mass-produced fridge magnet.

Street Food, Tongan Style

5. MEET YOUR FUTURE MOTHER-IN-LAW

Okay, so this one was maybe just me. But I defy any foreign, single, female to take the local bus and leave Tonga without at least one proposal by a mother keen to marry off her son.


Tonga was called "the friendly isles" by the first Europeans who dropped by 200 years ago and it's easy to see why. Mothers-in-law aside, it's not difficult to strike up conversations with locals. More Tongans live overseas than are resident in their country meaning the person you chat with has either lived abroad, plans to or has relatives over there. In fact, with incoming visitor numbers only around 90,000 annually (not all being tourists) there's a greater number of Tongans who have been overseas than foreigners have been to Tonga. The leading countries of migration are Australia, New Zealand and USA, so they may well know as much about where you are from as you do. They will certainly know more about Tonga and that local knowledge is gold to the traveller.

The main bus station, Nuku'alofa

6. SWIM WITH THE WHALES

Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with Humpback whales. From June to October the whales breed and raise their calves in the warm South Pacific waters before heading back to the Antarctic. It's a unique experience to witness these underwater wonders up close. Of course if you prefer to keep your distance or stay dry you will absolutely be able to do your whale watching from the shore.

7. VISIT ONE OF THE WORLD'S NEWEST ISLANDS

In 2015, an underwater volcano threw up so much debris it actually created a new island landmass: Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai. The new island, 48 km NW of the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa, is 1.5km long, 2km wide and 250m high with a large a sulphur crater lake near its centre. Although you might find a local boat owner to take you there, geologists warn it's extremely unstable and should not be visited. Instead, it may be better to charter a boat to Tonga's other, more permanent, volcanic islands like the abandoned Tofua in Ha'apai group and its neighbour Koa.

Hunga Tonga - Hunga Ha'apai. (Image credit: NASA/USGS)

8. MAKE A TA'OVALA

After being dried in the sun and bleached by the sea, the pandanus fibre is laboriously woven into mat skirts or "ta'ovala" that are worn by men and women. Ta'ovala are worn at all formal occasions such as church services and weddings and are often passed down generation to generation. Olympian Pita Taufatofua got everyone's attention when he entered both the 2016 Summer and 2018 Winter Olympics wearing a traditional Ta'ovala and some coconut oil. You may not be buff enough to rock it like him, but you can still learn how to make one, along with other Tongan crafts at Ancient Tonga. Get a bit of a headstart on the craft with a preview here.

9. TAKE THE WORLD'S SHORTEST FLIGHT...& BE THE FIRST TO SEE THE SUNRISE

At 8 minutes, the flight to the island of Eua is said to be the shortest in the world. With dramatic cliffs and lush rainforest Eua is a little different to Tonga's other coral islands and is well worth a visit. If you're concerned about your carbon footprint you can always take the boat. It's 3hrs each way, involves an overnight stay and a 5am departure - but you will be one of the first in the world to see the sunrise!

10. TOUR TONGATAPU'S NATURAL WONDERS

For a little extra cash, your cab driver will take you to/from the Airport via Tonga's 6 Natural Wonders. These include limestone caves, an ocean archway and a coastline impressively riddled with blowholes. There's also the more unique Three Headed Coconut Tree (the only one in the South Pacific), Fishing Pigs (unlike 'swimming pigs' these guys actually fish) and Flying Foxes. I have to say, after the "fishing pigs" I was expecting big things of the "flying foxes". Turns out they are bats, which doesn't sound that wondrous until you realise they are Tonga's only native land mammal.

A Flying Fox

 

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