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Kingdom of Tonga: Vava'u

Written by Cathy Siegismund
October 2001


We left Niue on Saturday, October 6 for the 280-mile passage to the Kingdom of Tonga. We were heading for the Vava'u Group, one of the northern island groups.

Our route from Niue to Vava'u, Tonga

Compared to our boisterous trip from Rarotonga to Niue, we had quite a pleasant sail with mostly 15-20 knots of downwind sailing for our 2-day passage. During our trip, we crossed the International Date Line, so we arrived in Tonga on Tuesday, October 9. A number of boats took advantage of the good weather window, so we enjoyed sailing with Rainsong, Velella, and Altair on the way to Tonga. We were usually in VHF contact with all three boats for the entire trip.

Land Ho, we spotted the large island in the Vava'u Group, Tonga

Ken with our Tongan courtesy flag

The Kingdom of Tonga is the only South Pacific country that was never colonized by a European power. Tonga is a constitutional monarchy based on the British parliamentary system. The King however, does have quite a bit of power. He appoints the prime minister and the cabinet. Although the Tongans are very proud of their independence, they are economically poorer than many of their Polynesian neighbors who are subsidized by the countries that colonized them.

Tonga has a land mass of 718 square miles, spread over 171 islands with a population of 105,000. Tongan and English are the official languages.

We arrived at the customs dock at Neiafu at about 1230, Tuesday afternoon. We needed to tie to the commercial wharf where a customs agent and quarantine officer would board the boat. Vernita and Drew met us at the wharf, as they had arrived the day before. We had arrived during the official's lunch hour, so we sat tied to the large wharf chatting with Drew and Vernita until about 1330. We had taken the advise of many cruisers, and I had cold lemonade in glasses for the Tongan officials. They were very nice and the check-in was painless. The quarantine official didn't even take all of my produce. He told me to keep what I wanted for dinner that night and he took the rest and my garbage - bonus!

The Vava'u group is a cruising Mecca. There are both Moorings and Sunsail charter companies that operate here. There are 34 islands with over 40 anchorages all within a day's sail or less. It reminds us Northwesterners of the San Juan and Gulf Islands, but with 80-degree water and palm trees. The people are friendly and the prices are very reasonable. There is fantastic snorkeling, diving and every year Tonga is home to humpback whales. The whales come here from June to November each year to calve and breed, before they return to Antarctica for the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Although, there are a number of moorings you can rent off Neiafu, none were available the day we arrived. Because of the depth of the bay and it being littered with mooring balls, we decided to head out to one of the nearby anchorages to rest and try for a mooring in the morning.

After a short motor, we dropped the hook in a lovely quiet bay to get some rest. The following morning we got a mooring from Sandy and Andy on Jakaranda. A couple who've been cruising between New Zealand and Tonga for 11-years and rent moorings in Neiafu during the cruising season.

We have been pretty lucky anchoring avoiding coral, but we did snag a rather large chunk when pulling up the anchor to head back to town.

Hazard of anchoring in coral

We were settled in town by mid-morning, and headed to shore to explore. Neiafu is the main town in Vava'u. It has a good produce market and a few decent grocery stores as well as several good restaurants.

Looking up at the church from Neiafu bay

Anchorage in Neiafu

Sign at an intersection in Neiafu

While walking along the main road in town, we spotted a group of Tongan women stripping and drying pandanus. Pandanas is used in the creation of the beautiful weaving and basket work of Tonga.

Suzette with a local woman next to her drying pandanus

Heaps of pandanus in various stages of work, before it is bundled and sold for use in weaving and baskets

The very important Royal Beer Shop

The grocery stores sell baked goods from an excellent bakery, dairy, canned and dry goods, and produce that is not grown in Tonga, such as onions and potatoes. Monday through Saturday there is a fresh produce and craft market.

Stacks of tree ripened pineapples are for sale from $1 - $2 USD depending on their size

Produce Market in Neiafu

Cath and a Tongan lady who had sold us some pineapples; she was insistent we take her picture

Tongans taking their produce home at the close of the market

Tonga is a very religiously conservative nation. Tongans are required to dress conservatively and are forbidden to do any sort of work or sport on Sundays; contracts made on a Sunday are null and void. These rules also apply to visitors. A man can actually be fined for taking his shirt off in public. Tourists are cut some slack at the beaches, but the Tongans swim fully clothed. Many Christian religions have a strong presence in Tonga, including churches and schools.

Group of Tongans seeking shade on a hot day

The dress in Tonga is worth a note. As tourists from temperate climates, we have been fascinated with the conservative, traditional and, to our eyes, warm dress of the Tongans. Woman wear long shirts or tunics and blouses that cover the upper arm. Over this they usually wear either a kiekie, a decorative waistband with dangling woven strips of pandanus or a ta'ovala.

A decorative kiekie for sale at the market

A ta'ovala is a woven mat of pandanus, often very large, which is wrapped around the waist and tied with a rope of woven pandanus or coconut fiber. The men always wear collared shirts, and often wear a wrap around skirt called a tupenu, also often accompanied with a ta'ovala.

A young woman wearing a ta'ovala over her slacks

There has been an amazing transformation of the Neiafu waterfront over the last few years. The well protected bay is now filled with mooring balls. In the last 4-years, the waterfront in Neiafu has gone from a wooded beach to a hopping cruiser-focused activity center. There are Sunsail and Moorings charter bases; two dive shops; Sailing Safaris, which is tourist shop that runs whale watching tours, has a fuel dock, and rents moorings; laundry services; and two good restaurants Ana's Cafe and the Mermaid Grill.

Neiafu waterfront

Ana's Restaurant

The Mermaid Grill

There are almost nightly activities for the charter boat tourists and cruisers who visit Vava'u. Every Friday night they have a no-handicap race around Neiafu bay. The local businesses and restaurants donate prizes for everyone who enters. Wendy and Garth on the small but fast Velella did exceptionally well every week. The Friday night races culminated in the well attended Halloween race. The boats and crew were decked out in costumes, probably the best being Milo and Kim's Eleftheria decorated as an outrigger. The Halloween race was followed by a great costume party and awards ceremony at Ana's Restaurant.

Halloween Party at Anna's Restaurant

The social highlight of our stay in Vava'u was Jenn's (from Green Ghost) 39th birthday, for the first time.

Jenn, birthday queen for the evening, here resembling the Statue of Liberty

See more pictures in the Jenn is 39 for the first time photo gallery

Following our Herculean partying efforts on Jen's birthday party, we enjoyed a relaxing, liquor-free day at a local resort.

Tam, Vernita, Kim and Jenn relaxing in the pool

Another favorite activity at the Mermaid every week, is the mini-America's cup racing. They have two remote controlled sailboats; Black Magic replicas of course which are raced around a course of floating pop bottles in front of the Mermaid Grill several afternoons each week.

Ken racing some of the cruising kids in the mini-America's Cup Race


Photo by Vernita Lytle

Drew and Ken in a heated mini-America's Cup race

Tam, Victoria (from Wandering Mistress) and I treated ourselves to a uniquely Tongan whale watching tour. We packed lunches and set out on an all day humpback whale watch expedition around the islands in Vava'u. What makes these whale watching trips so unique is that you actually get to go in the water and snorkel with these 30 foot gentle giants. We were lucky and saw two groups of whales. The first was a pair of adults that we watched for a while, but as they were continually diving, we stayed on the boat. The second was a mother and calf, that were swimming mostly on the surface, so we were allowed to swim with them. It was a thrilling experience. As I have yet to develop the pictures I took, and I'm sure they will not do these magnificent creatures justice, I've scanned in some postcards of the humpbacks taken in Vava'u. Enjoy!

Whale tail slapping

Mother and calf diving

Whales Breaching

Jason and Tam, Nick and Jen, and Ken and I also enjoyed some excellent diving in Tonga. We went on a 2-tank dive with the Beluga Dive shop. The dive was a little crowded - 12 divers with only one dive master, but the diving was very good; and very reasonably priced. A two-tank dive was $65 Tongan or $32 USD, including full gear rental.

The highlight of our first dive was a vertical swim through a coral chimney from 45 feet at the top coming out in 86 feet of water at the bottom. At the exit of the chimney was a huge Gorgonian Coral fan. The second dive was along a wall, where we were treated to three sightings of leopard sharks and several white tip sharks.

Following our very busy week in Neiafu, we headed out to some of the outer anchorages. I came down with a flu bug on our second day out, so we only got to 3 of the over 40 anchorages. However, we still enjoyed some snorkeling, nightly beach fires, and the beautiful scenery. We then headed back to town to check out and prepare to head south. As the season is almost at an end, we will have to skip the Ha'apai group, Tonga's middle island group, and head directly to Tongatapu. Tongatapu is the southernmost island group and is where Nuku'alofa, the capital, is located. We feel we have rushed through Tonga at light speed and will definitely return here at the beginning of our next cruising season to spend more time enjoying this lovely country.

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