The Kingdom of Tonga appeals to travelers wanting to escape popular South Pacific destinations frequented by luxury seeking tourists. While it’s relatively easy to get to the Kingdom of Tonga, a visit to the islands is recommended for only those willing to forgo the comforts of hotel living and embrace the incredible adventures of the unspoiled beauty of this sovereign nation. Tonga earned it’s name as the Friendly Islands back in 1773 with how they received Captain Cook, but the name still holds true today.
Tonga quickly made it to our travel bucket list when we learned about it when we visited the Cook Islands. We were surprised we had never heard of it before, but it has quickly won a top place in our hearts and a top slot in our travel destinations.
Tonga Travel Tips
Language: Tongan is the official language and English is commonly spoken.
Currency: Pa’anga (TOP)
Credit Cards: While credit cards are accepted in Tonga, you may have difficulty finding places that accept them. Tonga is essentially a cash society so come prepared with enough cash on hand to exchange some at the airpot money exchanges (Western Union tends to have the best rate) and then make your way to an ATM when you need.
ATMs: You can find ATMs on the larger islands within the Kingdom. On Tongatapu, there are ATMs located in Nuku’alofa and other larger villages, on Vavau’u in Neiafu, and on Lifuka in Pangai. Try to break larger bills to smaller bills if you plan to use a taxi, they often claim they don’t have the ability to break larger bills.
Internet: It’s expensive when you have to pay for it and in our limited experience with it, it’s slow. If you bring a pocket wi-fi, that might help. Some guesthouses, cafes, bars, and restaurants provide free wi-fi. We opted to be internet free for the majority of our 2 weeks there.
Island Time: Somewhat universal to tropical islands we have visited, Island Time forces you to slow down. The concept of time is open to interpretation. Don’t expect things to happen on time or anything that you feel needs immediate attention to occur with any expediency. Plan for things to take longer than you are used to. Enjoy the slow pace for all it is worth.
Climate: Tonga has a subtropical climate, during the warmer months (December – April) temperatures reach around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cooler months (May – November) around 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity hovers around 80% year-round. The trade-winds bring cooling breeze in the afternoons. There are only two seasons in Tonga, Summer and Winter.
Tropical Cyclone Season (Summer): Starts in November and lasts through April. Though cyclones can still form outside the season.
Humpback Whale Season (Winter): Starts in July and ends sometime in October.
Getting to Tonga
International: If you are flying from the United States you can fly from Los Angeles on Air New Zealand via Auckland to Tongatapu (TBU) or Fiji Airways via Nadi to Vava’u (VAV) and from Honolulu via Nadi to Vava’u. If you are coming from Australia you can fly Air New Zealand from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne to Tongatapu or Virgin Australia from Sydney, and Fiji Airways from Brisbane and Sydney. From New Zealand you can fly from Auckland via Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia. Those in the UK/Europe will have the longest journeys with flights only available from Air New Zealand via Los Angeles or via Hong Kong to Auckland to Tonagatapu.
Quick Tip: Be prepared to show proof of your exit ticket. It is required to receive a Tonga Visa.
Getting Around Tonga
Vehicles drive on the left side of the road in Tonga. Getting from one island to another is possible via flight or ferry.
Scooters: You can rent/hire scooters on the main islands of Tongatapu and Vava’u, but not ideal for going down some of the rougher dirt roads or the rainfall. I’m glad we had a car due to road conditions and weather. Expect to pay around $50 TOP/day. You must obtain and Tongan Driver’s License from the Ministry of Infrastructure.
Cars: Cars offer protection from the elements and unnecessary injury. You can rent cars on the main islands of Tongatapu and Vava’u. Expect to pay around $50-$90 TOP/day. And don’t be surprised if not everything in the car is working, jut make sure the air conditioner is in order. You must obtain and Tongan Driver’s License from the Ministry of Infrastructure.
Taxis: There are taxis. Mainly on Tongatapu. Taxis are not marked, but you can tell by their license plate, which will start with a T. You must negotiate your rate before your trip since the taxis are not metered. From Nuku’alofa to the airport will be around $30 TOP. You can hire taxis for a half day or full day to sightsee.
Lodging Transfer: Your lodging will likely offer discounted or free transfer. Best to check with them.
Public transportation: Yes, there is public transportation. Busses can be flagged down, and locals are more than happy to help you figure out the system. Busses run between 8am-5pm. Best for those that are slow travelers (i.e. plan to spend for than a week or two).
Inter-Island: Real Tonga provides intra island flights (Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Vava’u, Ha’apai, Niuas). There are also ferries that offer a more affordable way to get around and are a great option for slow travelers. ‘Eua purchased a new ferry in 2017. For those short on time flying is the most time-efficient option, but be forewarned that Real Tonga has a tendency to depart whenever they feel like it regardless of schedule, though I’ve heard that is improving in that regard.
Quick Tip: Things are pretty relaxed here, but it’s worth it to arrange car or scooter rental prior to your arrival to save time. Remember cash is likely required for payment.
Where to Stay in Tonga
Tonga does not have any chain hotels, which is one of the lures of Tonga. Lodging is usually locally run. Expect basic/budget accomodation whereever you go. And for those that want to feel fully emmersed, you can arrange a homestay. There are some boutique and eco resorts, but keep expectations on the basic side.
Tongatapu is the main Tonga island. It’s more ‘congested’ on the island since this is where the majority of the Tongan population lives. Outside of the capital of Nuku’alofa, there are smaller villages. We stayed at Robyanne’s Lodge and enjoyed our stay.
Nuku’alofa: situated on the Northern part of Tongatapu. This is the capital of Tonga, where you will find the Royal Palace, a number of restaurants/cafes, and the famous Talamahu Market. It is convenient to the ferry terminals to other islands.
Ha’atafu: located on the Northwest of Tongatapu. This area is on a long stretch of beach for those wanting close access to water activities in the lagoon.
Vava’u is famed for it’s chain of islands and bays filled with sailboats. Located in the Northern portion of the islands, Vava’u offers accomodations from staying in Tonga’s second largest town of Neiafu, on a private island accessed by boat, or if you happen to know someone that has a sailboat there. We stayed at Treasure Island on Eueiki Island.
‘Eua is the oldest of the Tongan Islands, and most rugged. Not many tourists venuture here. It’s not possible to rent a car so you must rely on biking, walking, hitchkiging, or arranging rides with your lodging. There are no restaurants, so be prepared to bring food you can prepare or arrange for meals to be prepped at yiour accomodation. There is one larger market, but options are limited. We stayed at ‘Ovava Tree Lodge.
Ha’apai is a group os islands in between Tongatapu and Vava’u. It’s most well known for it’s stretches of white sand beaches and not much else. Much like ‘Eua it is well off the beaten path of Tonga. Great for a vacation you’d like to be in the water or lounge around in the sand.
Quick tip: Don’t be too shocked if you must send credit card details or wire payment over to your accomodation, but only do so if you feel comfortable with the situation.
What to Do in Tonga
Tonga has so much rugged beauty to explore, but the heat of the afternoon might make you take a moment to relax and enjoy the island breezes. Most activities revolve around the water, but there is plenty on land too. If culture is what you are seeking, you really don’t have to look far. It’s everywhere and we found that we didn’t need to do any cultural tours to experience true Tongan culture. Snorkeling with Humpback Whales: Most islands offer some form of whale snorkel tour during whale season. Make sure your tour operator is licensed to do this. Only 4 people in addtion to the guide are allowed in the water at the same time. We went on the excursion provided by Treasure Island in Vava’u. Vava’u and Ha’apai are the most popular for whale snorkeling since you will be in the protected area of the lagoon and more likely to see calves. ‘Eua offers whale snorkels as well, but is not within the protected water of a lagoon. Diving in Tonga: Best from June to November. Most of the main islands provide diving in some form. More info: diving in Tonga. Snorkeling in Tonga: Tonga waters are warm all year round, for more experienced snorkelers you’ll find it easy to snorkel off many beaches, just ask a local what’s best. For those less experienced there are plenty of tour operators that will take you to snorkel in Tonga. If you can make room for your own snorkel gear in your luggage then do that, otherwise most operators offer gear of varying quality. Kayking in Tonga: There are a couple operators that have multi-day kayaing trips that sounded really amazing to us, but we didn’t have time to fit in. Some lodging will provide a kayak for day-use, but check with them first. This is one activity we were not able to do because of the rain and high winds during our time in Tonga. Fishing in Tonga: Many of the same operators the provide snorkel and dive excursions also provide fishing trips. Kitesurfing and Surfing: Vava’u and Ha’apai are best for kitesurfing. You can rent gear at some local operators. Tongatapu has the best surfing in Tonga, unless you want to charter a boat to take you out to some hidden gems. You’ll likely need to bring your own board if you charter, but if you stay at Tongatapu, you may be able to rent a board. Hiking in Tonga: ‘Eua is known for hiking, and offers the most varied landscape to do so. However, there isn’t much information about trails in Tonga. Ask locals their favorite hikes. We hired a guide for the Fangatave Beach and other hikes we did on ‘Eua, which included pick-up and drop off from the trailheads or where we stayed. Other Activities in Tonga:
Island Nights in Tonga: Similar to a luau, it’s a dinner buffet followed by a traditional Tongan dance show. Dance in Tonga is different than other Pacific Islands in that they use their arms and hands to express the dance and do not move their hips in a similar manner as the Hula in Hawaii.
Kava Ceremonies in Tonga: This is one cultural activity we did try to arrange when we were on ‘Eua, but some miscommunication occured and we didn’t end up getting to go to a ceremony. But what did happen was even better. We ended up joining a Kava night at a church hall and got to be a part of a regular night of watching rugy and drinking Kava with locals. A story for another time.
Sunday Church in Tonga: Get thee to the church on Sunday. Even if you are not religious. The singing alone is very powerful and would be a shame to miss out.
Quick tip: Book your most crucial activies well in advance, but for others you can play it by ear or go on your own.
Tonga Culture Tips
Tonga is the only island in the South Pacific to never have been ruled by a foreign entity, and remains a monarchy to this day. This translates into many of the longstanding traditions and cultural observances are still tightly entwined in Tongan daily life.
Sundays: Sunday is a day of rest, to go to church, and to be with family. Everything shuts down on Sunday except for some critical services at hospitals and a few businesses are allowed to stay open to cater to tourists. For example, our lodging in ‘Eua still provided dinner for us that night, which consisted of amazing food from the Sunday Feast. In Tongatapu, you can book an excursion to a small island to hang out at the beach and snorkel all day if you’d rather pass on church.
Swimming attire: Tongans swim fully clothed. Unless you are on a private island, it is best to observe modesty and at least cover up with a rash guard rather than prance around in a bikini out of respect for their culture.
Saving Face: Tongans do no like to disappoint so when a misunderstanding or disagreement occurs things can get interesting. Tongans don’t like to say no and you may not get a straight answer if something is not possible. Please keep this in mind when asking about excursions or you have an unusual request. If the answer doesn’t seem clear, that might be an indicator that it’s not possible, but they won’t say no.
Where to Eat in Tonga
Tongan cuisine consists of proteins from pork, fish and chicken, starches from various root plants, fruits and vegetables from local gardens typically cooked in an underground oven called an Umu. Ota Ika is a signature dish, which is similar to Ceviche and Ika Mata. Dining options are most abundant on Tongatapu and Vava’u,
Friend’s Cafe and Tourist Center – ph: 22390: An excellent option for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We ate here multiple times due to the convenience to our loding.
‘Eua does not have any restuarants on the island. Either bring supplies to cook your own meals, arrange for meals through your lodging, or hope someone invites you to a home cooked meal.
We ate all but one meal on Treasure Island, and their food is amazing. The morning we left we ened up having to hitch a ride to the main island from the whale snorkle boat and ate breakfast at Bellavista Cafe. The food was OK, the view is beautiful indeed.
Quick tip: Tonga’s Tourism Board has a listing of most restuarants on their website.
Have questions about tonga? Comment below and I’ll try my best to answer them!
Daina - Founder of headedanywhere.com
Daina is the sunset and ocean obsessed photographer and writer behind underwater and adventure photography blog, Headed Anywhere, featuring photography tips and hacks to simplify your busy life.
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