Liz Coleman enjoys one of the most unspoilt island destinations in the South Pacific, the idyllic island kingdom of Tonga.

In late April, after waiting several weeks for a weather window, Liberté set off from Opua, New Zealand’s northernmost departure port, for the 1,120nm voyage to Tonga.

Soon after we left, Murphy made his presence felt when the autopilot stopped working. Even hand-steering the last 1,000 miles could not lessen the anticipation of sailing in the turquoise waters of this island kingdom.

So after eight days Liberté arrived in Nuku’alofa, the kingdom’s capital.

Constitutional monarchy

The Kingdom of Tonga is a constitutional monarchy with the king and royal family owning all the land. Even though the nation sits to the east of the international dateline, a smart marketing/tourism move in the late 1990s saw them change their place in the world time zone so they could claim to be the first country to see the new millennium. They continue to be UTC +13 hours.

Captain Cook called Tonga “the Friendly Isles” and this is still true today. The people are very religious and there are churches everywhere, even in the smallest villages. The churches have such power that you can get arrested for working on Sundays. Many families go to church multiple times on Sunday. The highlight for us was the outstanding singing. At the catholic cathedral near the marina in Nuku’alofa there were six choirs with six conductors singing in harmony. If you closed your eyes, you could easily imagine you were in a concert hall.

The dominance of the churches means that Tongans dress conservatively, with many wearing traditionally woven waist mats (ta’ovala) over their western dress. These waist mats take thousands of hours to hand weave from naturally treated pandanus leaves.

In traditional Tongan society there are three classes of people. The king and royal family are at the top. Next are the nobles, followed by the commoners — that’s everyone else. The Pallangi, or foreigners, fall into fourth place.

The island groups

The kingdom comprises 171 islands spread across four archipelagos (island groups) that

run north to south. The distance from Niuatoputapu in the north to Nuku’alofa in

the south is 330nm.

Nuku’alofa is the capital and has a third of the kingdom’s population. It has the trappings of most capitals, including a central fruit/veggie market, internet cafés, restaurants, banks, shops, supermarkets, post office and government buildings. Nuku’alofa has seen better days and by Australian standards litter is a problem. However, it is the best place to provision followed by Vava’u. There are very few supplies anywhere else in Tonga. Expect to pay at least twice what you would in Australia with the exception of meat, bread and vegetables.

We drove around Tongatapu with Peter and Kylie from the Australian yacht Jura V. We visited Captain Cook’s landing place, but the highlight of the day was the Mapu’a ‘a Vaca blowholes on the southern side of the island.

This is where the south-easterly swell pounds into the lava rock and is thrust with great force through holes into the sky. This phenomenon happens for several kilometres along the southern coastline and is spectacular. A must-see.

That night we went for a traditional Tongan feast to the Good Samaritan restaurant, a 30-minute drive west of Nuku’alofa. While getting there proved to be a navigational feat in itself, we were rewarded with good food and great entertainment that included singing and fire dancing. The cost was A$16 per person.

There are some particularly nice anchorages near Nuku’alofa, including Pangaimotu, Fafá and Malinoa. Pangaimotu is only three miles from Nuku’alofa and is very popular with tourists because it has a ferry service. It is home to a yacht club and Big Mamas bar and restaurant,

a popular watering hole for yachties to kick back and enjoy views back to Nuku’alofa. While we were there the New Zealand Island Cruising Association arrived with 20 boats and arranged for customs clearance on the island.

Ha’apai group

The Ha’apai group is renowned for its pristine islands with palm trees, sandy beaches and good snorkelling. Many of these islands are deserted so you can have an island in paradise to yourself. We met several boats that retuned to Tonga this year just to spend more time in the Ha’apais.

From Tau Island, the northernmost anchorage in the Tongatapu group, we set off early one morning and day-sailed 35 miles to Kelefesia Island at the bottom of the Ha’apai group.

Entering from the west proved to be challenging because we had to negotiate reefs with surf breaking on both sides.

While a beautiful spot, the wind changed overnight and the anchorage became rolly, so the next day we headed off to Ha’afeva Island 40nm away.

Ha’afeva is an island blessed with an east and west anchorage and is one of the few places in the Ha’apais that provides reasonable all-round protection and as a result is a popular anchorage. After anchoring, we walked across the island to a friendly village where the locals presented us with fruit.

Pangai, on the island of Lifuka, is the capital of the group, where we tied stern-to in the
small harbour.

Other islands in this group we visited and would recommend include Nomuka Iki, Uoleva, Uiha, Luangahu and Ha’ano.

Most Ha’apai anchorages are well protected in easterly sector trade winds, but you need to keep an eye on the weather because many anchorages can become uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous if the wind swings to the north or western sectors.

Vava’u group

The Vava’u group is very different to what we had experienced in Tonga. It reminded me of sailing in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands with anchorages close together, trees cascading down to the water’s edge, reefs and clear, clean water.

Vava’u is one of the few remaining places in the world where you can swim with the whales. The season runs from July to October with dozens of whales relaxing in the protected waterways.

We sailed 72nm from Ha’ano Island at the top of the Ha’apais to Neiafu in the Vava’u group. Neifu, the capital of the Vava’u group, is a small tourist town catering primarily to yachties and backpackers. It has lots of restaurants as well as a number of small grocery stores, internet cafés, bakeries, three banks and a pharmacy. You’ll find a well stocked fruit and veggie market that’s open from Monday to Saturday lunchtime.

Neiafu overlooks a protected harbour with  moorings available for hire. It has a small yacht charter industry and attracts hundreds of international yachts, due to its proximity to well protected anchorages and the whales.

A visiting cruisers’ net is conducted every day on VHF channel 20 at 8am and provides lots of useful information, including an excellent weather update, a round up of what’s on, and special announcements from local businesses.

Every Friday night at 5.30pm the Vava’u Yacht Club organises a yacht race around the harbour for visiting boats. This is a major event on the town’s social calendar and a great meeting occasion for many yachties.

It’s easy to stay in Neiafu; it’s very enticing and very social.

Niuatoputapu group

We sailed from Vava’u to Western Samoa and then stopped at Niuatoptapu on our way to Fiji. Niuatoptapu is roughly 190nm, or an overnight sail from both Neiafu and Apia (Western Samoa).

Although the entrance to the anchorage at Niuatoptapu is well marked, we recommend that you only attempt to enter during daylight. Port and starboard markers clearly show the way to the best anchorage spot just near the wharf. It is an unspoiled island paradise and in my opinion the best location in Tonga.

With no radio, no television, no internet cafés, no newspapers, it’s a very appealing and enjoyable place to stop. The customs shed doubles as a post office, but when Steve stopped by to send a letter to Australia he was asked to deliver other mail to Fiji as the inter-island ferry only stops at Niuatoptapu every two months or so. There are a few tiny shops with limited supplies that normally run out a few weeks after the ferry visits.

The people are extremely friendly and welcome yachties. We were treated to a cultural night that included a local feast, singing, dancing and an exhibition of how they turn pandanus leaves into valuable woven mats. The night was organised by the ladies of the village, who were raising funds to provide solar lights for their children’s study needs.

Another attraction of the island is the nearby extinct volcano, Tafahi. A trip in an open long boat can be organised through the local village and includes a hike to the top of the volcano and a feast of paw-paws.

These experiences are just some of the things that make Tonga a destination I’ll return to.

Facts & Further info:

Sailing between the four island groups usually requires an overnight sail and the passages between these groups contain reefs and rough sea.

You need to be aware of the following when sailing in Tonga:

• The majority of the navigation marks appearing on charts are missing and it is rare to find a light working.

• Almost all of the paper charts were created pre-GPS and are out by a minimum of a quarter of a mile. Check the datum if you can find one on the chart. Beware of electronic chart suppliers who digitise pre-GPS paper charts and then claim to have a WGS84 datum.

• Much of the ocean in this area has not been fully surveyed, so pay careful attention to the charts and be aware of areas that do not have a lot of soundings. We found the term “blind rollers” (in the middle of the ocean) amusing when we read the chart, but quite scary when we sailed near them. Get a copy of the document Uncharted Reefs in Tonga and Fiji – it has 60 separate entries.

• There are numerous reefs throughout Tonga and they are often not visible until you are very close. 

No advance notice of arrival is required.

There are three clearance ports, namely Niuatoputapu, Neifu and Nuku’alofa.

To clear in at Nuku’alofa, anchor outside the breakwater and call the harbour master on VHF 16. It may take an hour or two to get a response.

The quarantine fee for clearing into Tonga is normally around A$20. Health clearance, due to the swine flu, is around A$66. In Nuku’alofo and Neiafu you will be charged port fees of a few dollars per day.

On initial entry you will be issued a 31-day visa. Visas can be extended at either Nuku’alofa or Neiafu for around A$25 for each additional month.

Liz Coleman:
Liz cruises with her husband, Steve, aboard their Jack Savage-designed Oceanic 46 yacht, Liberté. They spent 14 months cruising New Zealand, before heading into the Pacific to visit Tonga.

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