This is Tonga'tapu most famous sight and is known as the Stonehenge of the South Pacific. This large stone structure was erected sometime aroun 1200 AD with stones brought from the nearby Wallis Islands. No one is sure of the purpose of the stones.
This area in the west of the island is the only offical preserve for the dwindling population of Fruit bats in Tonga, known as Flying foxes here. They are quite large and spend there days hanging from trees. They can easily be spotted from the road
The Nuku’alofa market is something most visitors will stroll through during their time on Tongatapu. Truth be told it is not the most interesting of markets you will ever visit but it is a good place to people watch as Tongans of all ages mill around the market, especially on Sundays when the market is at its colourful best. Most stalls sell everyday items such as tools and clothes while the indoor market sells fruit, veg and food products as well as several craft stalls selling carvings and tapa cloth to tourists. The carvings are quite nice but are better value elsewhere.
Tonga prides itself on being the first country in the world to herald the beginning of each new day. Being the first country lying west of the international dateline, you can have the unique experience of enjoying the morning sunrise before any other country in the world. This makes the early morning ferry ride between Eua and Tongatapu that but more palatable as during your journey you will witness this sunrise first hand. However, Kiribati is a torn in the side of Tonga’s pride as in 1995 it declared itself to be part of the eastern hemisphere even though much of the country lies hundreds of kilometres east of the recognised date line. As the date line was not tied down in any formal agreement, Kiribati saw fit to move the dateline to include itself and so is recognised by some as being the first country to start each new day. This is easier to see if you look at most maps or globes of the world where you can see the dateline veer dramatically to the right in order to include Kiribati. Not all maps and scientists recognise this ‘adjusted’ date line and Tongans certainly rubbish Kiribati’s claims!
If Tonga feels like a step back in time, a visit to Eua will warp your sense of time even more. Forested Eua is nothing like the rest of Tonga. The landscape is more hilly, the forests are larger and thicker, the weather colder and wetter, the cliffs higher, the beaches deserted, the roads almost empty of vehicles and the population of locals tiny.
Eua will not conform to your typical image of a South Pacific island and you won’t want to come here for glorious beaches or historical monuments. You come to Eua to explore on foot, which is just as well because there is no bus service on the island. Hiking is big on Eua and the island is being marketed as a hiking and ecological destination. The walks around the various parts of the island are wonderful, especially along the wild southern coast and the forested interior. On hikes around the island you will pass dramatic cliffs, secluded beaches, lonely plantations and towering jungles. The best thing about Eua is you can basically have all of these natural wonders to yourself as Eua has not really hit the tourist radar yet and apart from another couple of palangi, you will be left alone to explore the wilder and more rugged face of the Kingdom of Tonga.
Tongatapu’s lagoon is filled with many other small paradise islands but many can be hard to get to especially if on a budget. One way of getting there is to Kayak from another island like Fafa, but kayaking from Nuku’alofa can be a hell of a paddle for people not used to kayaking. There are scheduled boat trips to Atata Island as well as Fafa and Pangaimotu, After Fafa and Pangaimotu, Atata is the most popular island and there is an expensive resort situated there. The Royal Sunset Resort shares the island with a small fishing community. The island itself is owned by the Royal family. You can arrange evening dinner cruises to this island through Friends Cafe but be warned, it is extremely expensive to partake in the dinner cruise, never mind staying a few nights on the island. The other small islands, such as Onevao, Tapa and Velitoa can only be reached if you can afford to pay someone to take you privately or if you kayak to them.
Fafa is another small paradise island sitting in Tongatapu’s turquoise lagoon and about 40-50 minutes by boat from Nuku’alofa. Fafa is more exclusive than Pangaimotu and the price of getting to and staying on Fafa is considerably higher than Pangaimotu and staying on the island was out of a our budget’s range. We settled for a day trip and had a great, albeit, short time on the island.
Everything is a bit more upmarket than on Pangaimotu and the prices for budget backpackers like us was a bit prohibitive. The day trip was a steep $120 but included transfers and lunch at the Fafa Island resort. Was a lot of money for us at the time but for a day on a secluded south pacific island we had to splash. There’s a real Robinson Crusoe feel to Fafa especially as you make your way down the beach away from the small resort. White sand beaches and crystal clear water makes this a perfect spot to relax. Being more expensive to reach than Pangaimotu, Fafa doesn’t get the same number of day-trippers and so you really can find a piece of paradise to call your own. Would love to have stayed the night here. The beach fales of the resort looked amazing and very private and secluded, each one having their own small garden, stretch of beach, hammocks and sun loungers. Looks like a perfect place for a honeymoon.
Apart from lounging around the island’s beautiful beaches, you can make the short walk around the island or through the forested interior. You can also go snorkelling off the beach. Tongatapu’s snorkelling isn’t world class but Fafa does have some interesting pockets of coral and fish, especially off the southern beach. If you’re up for it, you can also take a kayak out from the resort on Fafa and paddle over to some of the other islands in the lagoon. Just be careful of the reef and remember that some of the islands can look further away than they look.
Fafa is a smashing place. If you haven’t been to a South Pacific island, Fafa probably resembles the picture you have in your head of what a small, deserted Pacific island should look like!
Captain Cook didn’t visit Tonga until his second voyage through the South Pacific and on two occasions, in 1773 and on the return leg of the expedition in 1774, visited the island of Tongatapu. Cook found the islanders to be so friendly that he nicknamed the Tongan archipelago ‘The Friendly Isles’. Cook again visited Tonga in 1777 on his third voyage in the South Pacific, where he stopped at Nomuka in the Haʻapa group. Again he was impressed with the people of the ‘Friendly Isles’, but ironically, there was actually a plot in place to kill Cook and to loot his ships. The chief Finau had planned to murder Cook but a combination of infighting and bad timing led to the plot never materialising. Cook soon sailed further south to the main island of Tongatapu where he landed.
A plaque is erected on the eastern shore of Tongatapu’s lagoon to commemorate Cooks landing here in 1777.
As the village of Lapaha literally means ‘the Royal Village’ in Tongan it’s not surprising to hear that the village has important royal connections, with the most impressive of Tonga’s langi tombs being located here. Langi tombs specifically refer to the burial place of Tongan kings or chiefs and the finest of these stepped pyramid style tombs can be seen at Lapaha. These Langi tombs can be found in all the Tongan island groups as far north as Vava’u but most are located on the main island of Tongatapu.
The huge tombs are built from coral stone and a burial chamber or ‘fonualoto’ dug into the top of the tomb. This stone lined chamber was where the body of the chief or king was laid. This burial chamber was covered by a stone slab which was then covered over with sand and stones. Mats were then spread over the top and a covered shelter constructed to protect the area. A reconstructed ‘shelter’ has been built onto a langi at Lapaha.
While there are many tombs at Lapaha, the Paepae o’ Tela’a tomb is the most impressive. Strangely though, it is actually not known whether this tomb actually holds the body of King Tela’a as it is believed that the king was drowned and lost at sea. No one knows for sure and as excavations are not permitted at any of the langi tombs, we may never know!
Tongatapu is not the easiest place to get around independently, so if you want to see the best the island has to offer you will more than likely end up taking a tour. As we were staying at Toni’s guesthouse, we ended up taking his tour which is generally recognised as being the best value for money anyway. Toni himself is a pain in the ass, but we were lucky that there were two minibuses doing the tour that day and we got Moni, a young Tongan working at Toni’s, as our guide. Moni made the day very enjoyable and we learnt so much about Tonga’s history and culture. During the tour we visited some of Tongatapu’s most impressive sights, including the Houma blowholes, the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, Royal Tombs, Cooks landing place as well as driving through the central plantations and along the islands rugged interior. Well worth the $40, as to do all this independently would be very difficult due to the erratic public transport ion the island.
If you are not staying at Toni’s you can still take his tour by booking through email or by phoning the guesthouse.
The lagoon to the north of the main island of Tongatapu is filled with small idyllic little islands and some can be visited either by small water taxis or kayak. Pangaimotu is one of the most popular islands to visit on a daytrip or you can also stay overnight in a fale. We booked a night on the island through Friends Cafe in Nuku’alofa and as far as I can remember paid around $70 for boat transfers and a nights accommodation.
Pangaimotu’s bar/restaurant and accommodation gets mixed reviews from visitors and is something which I have addressed in the restaurant/accommodation tips. Here I am just concentrating on Pangaimotu as a ‘Thing To Do’ and as an idyllic Pacific island, Pangaimotu ticks the boxes. We really enjoyed our stay on the island especially when the day trippers left and we had this whole beautiful island to ourselves. It’s a pleasant 40 minute walk around the island where you can spot the brightly coloured crabs emerging from rocks in the reef and the more elusive hermit crabs, who retreat into their shells as you get close. Lying just off the beach are two wrecks which are great for snorkelling around and the beaches either side of Big Mama’s are clean and peaceful places to lounge about.
Accommodation, food and drinks are available from Big Mama’s place on the island (see accommodation and Restaurant tips) and remember not to bring any food onto the island. This is part monopoly and part genuine attempts to curb pest and rodent problems.
Another beautiful beach to lounge about for a few hours is Ha'atafu Beach located at the tip of the far western peninsula on Tongatapu. For me, this beach wasn’t as picturesque as Keleti but the tide doesn’t play as much of a part in the swimming conditions as it does at Keleti. You can swim here all day because the lagoon is filled more permanently than it is at Keleti. The waters here are shallow and warm but the snorkelling is not as good as it is a t Keleti but Ha'atafu does have a much longer stretch of sand than Keleti and is much more popular with locals. The beach is shaded by a row of palm trees.
The Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon is one the south Pacific’s most important sites and is located in the north east of Tongatapu. Constructed of three huge limestone slabs and standing at 5 metres tall the Trilithon is one of Tonga’s most famous archaeological sites.
Ha’amonga ‘a Maui means ‘Maui’s Burden’ in the Tongan language, Maui being the mythological Polynesian god, who according to legend fished the Kingdom of Tonga from the sea.
The trilithon was built at the beginning of the 13th century by Tu’itatui, the 11th king or Tu’i Tonga. There are various theories regarding the purpose of the trilithon’s construction but most believe it was built as the gateway to Tu’itatui’s royal capital at Heketa. The royal capital had previously been at Toloa but was relocated to Heketa by the 10th Tu’i Tonga, Momo, Tu’itatui’s father.
Another theory states that the trilithon was built as a symbol of brotherhood, with Tu’itatui fearful of a split developing between his two sons Talatama and Talaiha’apepe. The two upright pillars are supposed to symbolise the brothers while the lintel unites them.
A more modern theory is that the trilithon was erected as a simple calendar which shows the passing of the seasons. A carving in the shape of a ‘W’ on top of the lintel is said to align with the rising sun on the days of both the summer and winter solstice, and during the equinox, the centre line on the lintel again aligns with the sun.
Whatever the reason for the trilithon’s construction, it is an amazing feat of engineering given the primitive tools available to Tongan people at the time. No one knows for sure how the trilithon was built but the most common theory is that the huge pillars were raised by gradually building a mound of earth under the stones and raising it bit by bit.
Tongatapu is justifiably famous for its blowholes which are strung along the southern coast of the island. The most popular place to see this natural phenomenon is near the village of Houma, about 15km from Nuku’alofa, but there are many places along the coast where you can witness this spectacular sight. At the Mapu’a ‘a Vaca blowholes at Houma you have a high vantage point from which to view the blowholes. At Houma, there is a tiered cliff, which makes it an ideal spot to see the blowholes. You can stand on the top tier and watch the blow holes erupt from the second tier below as the waves crash into the cliff at sea level.
Tongatapu is ringed by a protective barrier reef which is especially prevalent on the exposed southern side. The volcanic rock which forms this protective barrier has been eroded by the force of the sea and formed narrow tunnels. As the powerful waves hit the barrier, water is forced up through these tunnels and erupts from the a spout. The best time to visit the blow holes is at high tide when the eruptions can reach 30 metres.
Keleti Beach is also a great place to see the blowholes. Standing on the beach at Keleti you can look east and west and see the blowholes exploding all along the coast. Again, it is best to visit at high tide.
One of Tongatapu’s most beautiful beaches is Keleti oin the southern coast of the island. There are three small beaches backed by cliffs leading up to the small Keleti Resort where you can purchase a reasonably priced lunch, snacks and drinks.
The beach itself is spotlessly clean with spectacularly white sand. The beaches lead into a turquoise lagoon where you can swim and snorkel. You need to time your visit to Keleti to coincide with high tide as when the tide is out, there is only water left in the cracks and caverns of the volcanic rock bed of the lagoon. However these cracks and caverns are great fun to snorkel through! With a half day at Keleti you should be able to snorkel in the caverns and later, as the water fills the lagoon, you will be able to swim fully. As the tide starts to come in you can watch the waves crash over the barrier reef, which protects the beaches. This is a spectacular sight. The adventurous can sit on the rocks and get a good soaking but this can be dangerous as the force of the waves is immense and if you walk or sit on the outer rocks, there is the very real possibility that you could be dashed on the rocks or swept out to sea. Looking east and west along the coast from Keleti Beach, you can view a string of blowholes, for which Tongatapu is famous.
Utungake, PO Box 104, Neiafu, Neiafu, Tonga
Good for: Families
PO Box 1444, Fafa Island, Tonga
Good for: Solo
Eua'Iki Island, Vava'U, Neiafu, TO
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Business
More Regions in Tonga