I spent a little over a week in Tonga, splitting my time between the Ha'apai group, and 'Eua. I intended to visit Tongatapu for a day as well, but never made it due to storms in Ha'apai grounding my flights. I also didn't go diving with whales. I've heard it's incredible, and that you should definitely do it, but it wasn't the right season when I was there.
Things I've Heard
I'm not going to preach to you about things that I didn't do, or places that I didn't go myself. However I'll mention a few things here that are worth giving a go, and try to point you in the right direction. Good luck!
Definitely don't spend the majority of your time here, but it's worth a day or two. When you get to the airport, look for Edward, and ask for one of his famous tours, he's famous in the south pacific backpacker community. He can usually be found playing cards right outside the arrivals terminal at the international airport. I got a ride from him to the regional airport on my first day in Tonga, and he seemed like a nice guy. While in Nuku'alofa, I've heard from other backpackers that it's worth checking out the Royal Palace, Royal Tombs, and the old Vuna wharf area. Friend's Cafe is of legendary folk lore among backpackers, and has been for decades. Have you really been to Tonga if you haven't been there? I hope so, since I didn't get the chance. I've heard that Tongatapu has a semi-reliable bus service, but I don't have any more detailed information than that.
Tongatapu has similar terrain to 'Eua, and therefor has similar types of cliffs, beaches, and hikes, the most famous being the blowholes on the south coast, and the "fishing pigs" in the east. There is supposedly good surfing in the west at Ha'atafu, and I've heard that the Ha'amonga 'a Maui ruins are an absolute must.
I had a deadline I had to get to Fiji by, so I didn't have time to go to Vava'u, but I've heard that it's excellent for backpackers. Just as beautiful as Ha'apai, and with more accommodation despite being a bit rougher. Definitely give it a look, and if the season is right, go swimming with the whales there, or in Ha'apai.
Tonga in general
Tonga was definitely the cheapest country I visited in the South Pacific. I averaged about 30 TOP per night on accommodation, and 5-10 TOP per day for food, by buying local groceries. I didn't spend a cent on activities, and if you take the ferry instead of flying, you could be looking at a budget of around 1800 TOP a month, visiting all of the major island groups. However this is just an estimate, I didn't visit Vava'u or the Niuas, however I suspect they would cost a similar amount.
At time of writing (Feb 22, 2020), TOP exchanges to...
- 1 TOP = 0.55 CAD / 0.65 AUS / 0.42 USD
- 60 TOP = 33 CAD / 39 AUS / 25 USD
- 1800 TOP = 1030 CAD / 1180 AUS / 775 USD
I mentioned this in my general article about Backpacking in the South Pacific, but it's very important in Tonga to leave a buffer day in Tongatapu before your international flight or voyage. Domestic airline, Real Tonga is notorious for cancelling and delaying flights. I've never met someone who didn't have a flight cancelled, and I was no exception, being grounded for an extra day and a half in Ha'apai. Always plan for a day back in Nuku'alofa before you leave the country.
Keep in mind that Tongatapu has two airports, one for international flights, and one for domestic. If you have a long layover, you can walk from one to the other, but it's about a 25 minute walk, so if you have a tight connection like I did, (only 30 minutes!) get Edward to drive you.
Tongans are the friendliest people I have personally met, most evident on the road. There isn't any public transportation in Ha'apai or on 'Eua, but I never had to walk for more than twenty minutes or so before I ran into a car, who always offered to drive me to wherever I was trying to get to. So if hitchhiking seems daunting, don't worry, this is a super easy place to do it. In general, know that you can always rely on being picked up, and you'll probably also get given some interesting insight into the island or the country, and possibly even a meal!
If you're interested in doing any kind of adventuring and hiking, 'Eua should absolutely be your first choice destination in Tonga. To me it's the most underrated island in the entire South Pacific. 'Eua is packed full of exciting hikes, amazing nature, and incredible views.
Flying to 'Eua from Tongatapu takes 15 minutes, and costs 150 TOP, each direction. This is the route I took, and in retrospect, while a cool flight, it was a total waste of money. Real Tonga flies a notoriously unsafe plane, the MA60, and is unreliable at best. The alternative is a two and a half hour ferry journey, costing 23 TOP. I don't have first hand experience on the ferry, but I think it's a much better option than flying. I've heard that there are multiple boats that depart the Faua Jetty every day except Sunday, around midday, and return either the same evening, or the following morning at sunrise.
Room and board
I stayed at Taina's Place. It's basic, and a bit dirty, but the owners are extremely friendly. It's by far the cheapest option on the island, and centrally located for hiking. They have tons of written info about the various hikes and have done them all, so they have plenty of advice. Dorm beds are 27 TOP per night. I've heard that they offer meals for a fee, but that wasn't apparent when I visited, they simply shared their dinners with me for free. Rooms have mosquito nets, and there is a shower and kitchen available for free. The perfect backpacker option.
This is the most up to date contact info I could find for Taina's Place. I had to email to book.
Phone: +676 883 1722 and +676 776 5002
They offer transport to and from the airport, for 15-25 TOP if I remember correctly, but if you're up for a walk, its easy. Exit the airport through the wooden gate, turn right at the main road. Walk about 2km until you reach Ha'atua Village. Turn left when you reach Telefoni Road. The turn is marked by this sign (left), and it'll be about 500m down Telefoni road, on your left. You'll know you're in the right place when you run into their many friendly dogs.
In addition to sharing some meals, I also picked up some supplies at a convenience store (falekoloa), located about 100m North of where the airport road meets the main road. (Turn left if you're coming out of the airport). It had basic imported foods like ramen noodles, bread, eggs, jerky, and nuts. I've heard that there's a better market further north on the island that sells Lu and fresh fruits, but I haven't been there myself.
The star of the show on 'Eua is the hiking. Unless you pay for optional guides or transportation, all hikes on 'Eua are free. The whole island is covered in sites to hike to and see, so definitely ask around, because 'Eua has tons of hidden gems.
Up there with The haiku stairs, one of the most amazing hikes I've ever been on. To get there, follow the main road south for about 3.5km until it forks. One path going straight will be a 4x4 track going down a steep hill. Don't take this. Instead, stay on the actual road as it turns slightly to the left. Take this road about 5km through the coconut plantations until you reach a wooden gate. Through this gate the road will become a 4x4 track that crawls north-east along the coast, eventually becoming a narrow path. This path will take you past dramatic cliffs, and eventually to a cave and stream.
I've heard that it goes all the way to Lokupo beach
, (about 10km from the gate) but I was loosing daylight and had to turn back before reaching it.
However make sure that you look for and follow the sign that says "TURN LEFT
HERE and follow the trail 400m upwards for a big surprise!!!". It leads to a view point of the Li 'Anga Huo 'A Maui Natural Archway, and has to be the most
spectacular view I have ever seen. I won't spoil it here with a photo, go see it yourself!!
Smoking Cave and Great Banyan Tree
A couple of epic Tongan sinkholes, one billowing with smoke, the other propping up a massive, ancient banyan tree. Finding them is a bit tricky, but follow your gut, and try a couple paths and you'll find them. Head east on Telefoni road for about a kilometre until you reach a large abandoned radio tower. Continue about 100m passed the tower, then turn left on a 4x4 track. The great banyan tree will be about 150m along this 4x4 track.
Return to Telefoni road, and continue east for 250m, then take a sharp right. Continue south for about 200m, then turn left onto a faint 4x4 track, marked by a small mango tree. This 4x4 track is surrounded on each side by pine trees, and you should have an old fence on your right. Follow this track for about 150m until the track sharply turns right. Instead of taking this turn, take the faint walking path down a steep hill. The smoking cave will be about 100m down this path. Watch out for Tongan giant spiders.
Ha'aluma Beach and Ancient Stone Cuts
An easy and short one from Taina's. Simply follow the main road south until you reach the left turn that you followed to the southern cliffs. To get to Ha'aluma beach, simply take the 4x4 track straight down the hill, instead of turning.
Unfortunately those are the only hikes that I had time for on 'Eua, but there are plenty more. Ask around about hikes to the Fangatave Caves, 'Eua's northeast coast, Fangalahi beach, and the eastern rain-forest. I've heard that the Lokupo and Anokula lookouts are absolute musts, and are almost as incredible as the southern cliffs.
After the hiking of 'Eua, Ha'apai was my dream beach escape. The weather didn't work in my favour, so my photo's aren't as amazing as they could have been, but Ha'apai didn't disappoint. I had been doing quite a lot up until this point, so I was pretty content to relax, sit by the beach, and watch some films during my time in Ha'apai, so I didn't get involved in many activities. However I've heard there's plenty of world class diving, and whale watching to be done.
As with 'Eua, I flew to Ha'apai, my ticket setting me back 275 TOP each direction. I've heard it's a bit of an adventure, but if you're up for it, I'd recommend giving the boat a go. It can't be less reliable than Real Tonga. The MV Olovaha supposedly departs from the Queen Salote Wharf in Nuku'alofa Tuesday evenings, and arrives at Pangai early Wednesday morning, before continuing on to Vava'u, however the exact days and times seem to vary with weather changes. You can reliably expect the boat to go about once a week, and cost 86 TOP, taking about 24 hours to reach Ha'apai. Check out fisa.to for more info.
Room and board
I stayed at Taiana's Resort, which I've also seen listed as Uoleva Backpackers, Traditional Tongan Fale. Taiana's is simple, but romantic and by far the cheapest option. A single (very beautiful) Tongan fale costs 30 TOP per night. They have a small simple kitchen, and amazingly, considering the remoteness and simplicity, a shower and toilet. In the kitchen fale, they also have a small collection of books, including some semi-recent Lonely Planet South Pacific books, which are helpful if you need to plan your next leg.
The camp itself is now run by Kalafi, and while I was there he was the only other person there. While I believe there are a couple other settlements on the other side of the island, I certainly never saw anyone else except him. In the evenings we would have dinner together and he'd tell an amazing range of stories from boxing in Nuku'alofa in the 70s, to his drunken adventures in the Cook Islands. It's located at the midpoint of the north coast of Uoleva, just south of the main island. Easiest way to get there is to arrange a transfer when you book, they'll take you directly from either the airport or Pangai by boat for 30 TOP each way, however if it's low tide and you have a waterproof pack, it's possible to walk through the shallows directly to the Uoleva.
This is the most up to date contact info I could find for Taiana's Resort. Bookings are done by email or phone, through Taiana and Kalafi's daughter Finau
Phone: +67 68831722
On your way over to Uoleva, you should pick up some supplies for your time on the island. There's a small market in Pangai that sells fresh fruits and veggies for ridiculously cheap, located on Hala Holopeka road at the north end of Pangai. Anyone you speak to should be able to point you in the right direction. There's also a very well stocked store right on the same road, at the south end of town, that sells eggs, preserved meats, noodles, and canned goods.