Go on, admit it. We’ve all done it. Despite all the advice that says researching a destination in advance results in a better trip, I arrived in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, for a four-day stay not really knowing what to see and do. I did know where I was staying though: the Scenic Hotel Tonga is less than five minutes’ drive from the airport and relaxing at the hotel on the first evening was easy: predinner drinks in the Siale bar were followed by a delicious dinner in the Heilala restaurant.
The next morning I followed up on an impulse to go swim with the whales and was extremely lucky to get in because the eight-passenger capacity whale-watching boats really must be booked in advance. Each year from June to November, hundreds of humpback whales arrive in Tonga. The whales spend winter in the warm seas around the islands, mating and bearing their young before returning with their newborn calves on an amazing 8,000-kilometre journey to summer feeding grounds in Antarctica.
Tonga is one of only two places in the world where you can swim with the whales – and what an incredible experience it is! I set off through Nuku’alofa to the Interisland Ferry Terminal where I was met by Jeff and his crew from Whale Swim, Fish & Dive and taken out to sea for a day to remember forever!
For the first part of the trip our party of eight headed to a coral reef to “practice” our snorkelling to ensure we were competent and comfortable in the water, and to prepare us for our swim with these magnificent mammals.
When we spotted a mum and her calf, the excitement on the boat was tangible! We could hardly wait to get into the water but safety was paramount so we had to settle down and listen to the skipper and follow all the commands from our guide who went into the water with us. What a surreal experience. There the whales were below the surface, gliding gracefully through the water about seven to ten metres away.
The female was around 14m in length and her calf around six. The female, with her calf following, surfaced to get some air and broke through the water in a magnificent breach. We stared in awe. She spent some time on the surface with her calf before they both dived again into the deep yonder. Her calf surfaced three times for every time the female came up for air.
During our day on the water we were treated to a lunch stop on Tau, a small uninhabited island with a beautiful beach and good snorkelling. After lunch we took a walk around the island and then topped it off with a fabulous swim in the crystal-clear waters before boarding our boat and heading back to find more whales to swim with.
The next day was a Saturday and I decided to spend the morning at the Nuku’alofa market. Wondering through the stalls is a wonderful cultural experience. From fresh produce to beautiful handcrafts, the variety and choice is huge and there is so much to see. The locals are also very friendly and so talented.
Saturday afternoon was spent at Scenic Hotel Tonga lazing around the pool, reading and enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the hotel’s beautiful setting in 6.5 hectares of gardens. If I had been feeling more active I could have tried out the 18-hole mini golf course or the golf driving range. Kids staying in the hotel have access to a splendidlooking adventure playground that includes a flying fox. In the evening I dined again in the Heilala Restaurant whose menu combines wonderful local flavours with European cuisine.
As everybody knows, Sunday in Tonga is celebrated as a strict sabbath. No trade is allowed except for essential services, so what to do? I had heard about Pangaimotu Island, 30 minutes by boat from Nuku’alofa, where the locals head after church and often spend the whole afternoon enjoying the beach, the music and fabulous food.
I found the jetty for Pangaimotu easily as it is clearly marked on the tourism map provided by the hotel. Water taxis take you to the island on Sundays at 10am, 11am, 12pm and 1pm and return at 4pm, 5pm and 6pm. The cost is TOP45 which included a return ticket and lunch! You need cash to pay for this and pay as you arrive at Pangaimotu Island.
The short trip over was lovely. The island looks breathtakingly beautiful in the distance and the turquoise and deep blue waters are so calming that you feel any stress dissolve.
From the moment I stepped on to the jetty at Pangaimotu I was in another world. The big attraction is the Big Mama Yacht Club and Big Mama herself, as she is fondly referred to by everyone, including tourists. I have to say that from the moment you arrive on Pangaimotu and are greeted by Big Mama, you are made to feel like one of a very large family.
I enjoyed a delicious lunch of fish and chips and a local beer and decided to walk it off by going exploring. It took me about 40 minutes to walk around the island and then I spent the rest of the day lazing on the beach, soaking up the fabulous scenery and having so much fun in the crystal-clear water. I was sad to leave and can’t wait to go back. That goes too for to Tonga, where there is so much to discover.
QUICK FACTS – TONGA
Getting there - Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa is 1990 kilometres northeast of Auckland. Air New Zealand flies several times a week from Auckland. The time zone is the same as New Zealand.
Language and currency - Tongan is the official language and English is also widely spoken. The currency is the Tongan Pa’anga. While most major credit cards are accepted in Tonga and there are over 200 EFTPOS outlets, Tonga is essentially a cash society and visitors should make sure they have sufficient funds to pay for services.
Climate - Tonga has a mild tropical climate that is pleasant year-round. Temperatures are warmer and more humid from December to April. The winter months from May to November are cooler and dryer.
Where to stay - The four-star Scenic Hotel Tonga is located close to Fuamotu International Airport. Set in 6.5 hectares of tropical gardens, its facilities include 76 Superior Rooms and 1-bedroom Suites, Wi-Fi in public areas and the largest number of MICE venues in Tonga under one roof.
What to see and do - See main story.
Have you ever been to Tonga? Tell us about your holiday there in the comment section below.