It’s a paradise in the middle of the South Pacific and there’s no shortage of adventures to be found in Tonga. From swimming with whales, to taking in a cultural performance or simply relaxing on soft sand on the beach, this is the island getaway you’ve been waiting for. We’ve rounded up the best things to do in Tonga.
Enjoy rich ancient Pacific culture
On a wide, powdery beach a couple of kilometres east of the airport on the main island of Tongatapu, Oholei Beach Resort’s Feast & Show is renowned for its buffet and traditional lakalaka dancing. A group dance often performed on special occasions, such as the king of Tonga’s birthday, lakalaka is recognised by the United Nations as “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”
Performances are held on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm, with the buffet (expect fresh seafood and lu kapapulu – corned beef and coconut cream wrapped in greens) usually starting at 8pm. On Sundays, Feast and Gospel with a live band is at 11am.
Have an eco-friendly encounter with whales
Getting close to a gentle humpback whale is one of the most unforgettable experiences you can have in Tonga. Among the best outfits offering whale watching and swimming is Tuna Moana. Based on Tongatapu, they’re Tongan owned and operated, with three guides and a maximum of eight guests per excursion, ensuring a more intimate experience and ample time with the whales. They’re also single-use-plastic free, with packed lunches provided in reusable boxes and metal water bottles. In other words, you can have the encounter of a lifetime guilt free.
Eat delicious food
Tonga is famous for its generous buffets and foods cooked in an umu (earth oven). Resorts such as Reef Resort Vava’u offer a festive spit roast pig, which is sometimes roasted over a fire on the beach itself. You can also try more traditional fare: coconut features heavily, as does taro, fish and corned beef imported from New Zealand.
When you’re thirsty, coffee is given a Tongan twist at places like ‘Utuongo, a cosy cafe in the centre of Nuku’alofa – the capital and biggest city – where you’ll find a cappuccino with coconut syrup. For adult beverages, kava is popular, and found at many bars and resorts.
Have a sustainable, luxury stay on a private island
Surrounded by dense, green tropical bush, golden sand and blue water, this peaceful retreat has just 13 fales (bungalows), with traditional Pacific architecture, large beds, refrigerators and wi-fi. The on-site restaurant serves Tongan and international cuisine and there are activities like whale watching, snorkelling and traditional cultural performances on offer.
Go diving, snorkelling or on a “swimfari”
The warm water and boundless coral reefs mean that Tonga is the perfect place for incredible water adventures. With offices in Nuku’alofa, Dive Tonga offers lessons and a variety of tours. Explore the reefs, check out the wreck of the Clan McWilliam – a 140-metre steamer that sank in 1927 and now sits upright – learn how to spearfish or go on a “swimfari”, where you can swim from island to island. No matter where you are in the water, keep an eye (and ear) out for whales – even if you can’t see them, you might be lucky enough to hear their singing through the water. Dive Tonga also offers pick-up from several resorts.
See flying foxes
Flying foxes are the world’s largest bats and they live off a diet of fruit, flowers, nectar, leaves and sometimes insects. Rather than fangs, they have faces like small dogs (or foxes).
The village of Kolovai, at the western edge of the main island of Tongatapu, is especially famous for flying foxes. You can see hundreds of them hanging upside down from trees, houses – anything they can hang from, really. Remember to be quiet and give them space; daytime is when they’re trying to sleep, and too many people and too much noise can stress them out.
Witness the Mapu’a ’a Vaea Blowholes
The Mapu’a ’a Vaea Blowholes are a series of blowholes along the western side of Tongatapu. They erupt like geysers (sending water 30 metres or more into the air) when waves crash into the reef, the water pressure building through channels and holes in the volcanic rock.
There’s a lookout where you can watch the plumes (and where you’re more likely to stay dry), or you can walk along the edge of the track to get a closer look and catch some spray.
Take a dip in the ‘Anahulu Cave
Ever wanted to take a dip in a natural underground swimming pool? ʻAnahulu Cave is in Haveluliku, on the eastern side of Tongatapu and about a 30-minute drive from Nuku’alofa. A path and some stairs lead down to the eight-metre-deep pools through a network of large limestone caverns – they’re Tongatapu’s only natural freshwater pools and the water is surprisingly warm.
If you’d like to swim some more, Anahulu Beach is 50 metres from the entrance of the cave. It’s known for snorkelling and swimming.
Explore pristine Vava’u by luxury yacht
This one’s for lovers of serious luxury: aboard the catamaran Alizé, you’ll sail around the islands of Vava’u – about 300 kilometres north of Tongatapu – on a seven-day, all-inclusive tour. Spend your time exploring uninhabited islands (the yacht will drop you off with food, drinks and a UHF radio, so it can pick you up as soon as you call), snorkelling and diving through coral reefs, or relaxing on the yacht’s deck – you’re only limited by what you feel like doing.
Visit a local market
Tongan markets are popular places for locals to shop – and great cultural experiences for visitors.
Talamahu Market in central Nuku’alofa has a huge selection of fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, pineapples and peanuts. There are also locally made goods , including carved ornaments, jewellery, paintings, traditional Tongan clothing and more.
At Faua Wharf, on the east side of Nuku’alofa, is Tu’imatamoana Fish Market, where seafood is the star. Crabs, oysters, squid and even seaweed are all plentiful. Nearby is the Tu’imatamoana Fair, specialising in clothes and crafts.
No matter which market you shop at, you’re supporting local communities as the goods are almost all handmade and the food is sourced by local growers or fisherpeople.