By Dick Slaker ~ Travel Writer

They greet you upon arriving in Tonga: Malo e lelei, Welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga!!

Our SANPATA group of travel agents were invited to make a visit to Tonga, after their delegation of musicians, dancers and suppliers visited us in San Diego last year and shared their country’s culture and history.

Recently a small group of 8 agents left LAX for Tonga, flying aboard Air Pacific, the flag carrier for the Islands of Fiji. We departed Los Angeles with a connection in Fiji then on to the Kingdom of Tonga. Flying time amounted to 20 more or less hours, with a layover in Fiji. Was it worth it, definitely !

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Our group at the Nuku’alofa Airport, Kingdom of Tonga

During our time in the Kingdom we were presented with the opportunity to learn more about this exotic country at their annual “Eva Mai Tourism Experience” and to meet and network with many of their local suppliers. We met with the Minister of Tourism and other dignitaries from the Tonga Tourism Association and heard reports from speakers for Air Pacific, Virgin Blue, Air New Zealand and Chatham Pacific Airlines.

We learned that the country has a population of about 101,134 Tongans who are scattered over 176 islands that are surrounded by sun , sand and water. Yes, some of the islands are uninhabited, but no doubt have been visited by those wishing to sail the pale blue waters around the island and snorkel and dive the colorful coral sea beds.

Tonga is proud that their Pacific Island group that has never been controlled by foreign powers and has the last remaining Polynesian monarch. Studying their history, you can research back almost 3,000 years before the Dutch and British ventured throughout the islands. Their fascinating history includes the formation of many religions including the Free Wesleyan (Methodist) Church, whose members include the King, the majority of the royal family and about 40,000 Tongans.

During our time in the capital city of Nuku’alofa, we each were invited to stay in a variety of Bed and Breakfast accommodations to experience the different properties first-hand. These included the International Dateline, Friendly Islander, Loumaile Lodge, The Black Pearl Suites, Liku’alofa Beach Resort, Utu One, Seaview Lodge, Lagoon Lodge, and Waterfront Lodge. We were welcomed royally at each property and all are unique in their own special way.

My first night was at the Seaview Lodge, a well run B&B by Franz and Gudrun. Located on the waterfront close to the King’s Palace and the city center, this Austrian-run establishment offered a warm and friendly home-away-from-home environment. I enjoyed a home-cooked breakfast, but missed the lobster dinnerin the evening, but perhaps another time.

On Sunday we were invited to attend Saione, the church of the King, a Free Wesleyan Church in Nuku’alofa. The full morning’s agenda included communion, brass band, and a beautiful singing choir whose voices filled the church sanctuary, making for a wonderful two hours of amazement.  I particularly enjoyed watching the young boys and girls in the front row in their “Sunday best,” so well-behaved, but enjoying interacting with each other while big brothers in the second row, occasionally telling them to be quiet, when necessary.

Following our Church Service, we attended a traditional Tongan feast at Oholei Beach Resort, not knowing that many buses were bringing soccer teams from around the island to the same party. These students from various islands of the South Pacific had been competing in Nuku’alofa and came to enjoy an evening of festivities and a buffet dinner, as did we.  It was quite an event with music, dancing and lines moving quickly towards the buffet.  What amazed me was how quickly the serving staff was able to move over 300 people through 4 buffet lines. To our delight, our table cloths were large banana leaves and we used banana tree bark as plates. We were served a variety of local dishes that included fresh seafood, chicken, beef, suckling pig, tropical fruits, veggies and naturally coconut drinks.

The following morning, our group was divided into two with some flying to the Vava’u island group and the others to Ha’apai. My group’s flight to Ha’apai was quite memorable as we flew aboard a shiney, refurbished DC-3 with quite a history. Now owned and flown by Chathams Pacific, this DC-3 aircraft A3-AWP, known as Tanagaloa (God of the Sky) was built in 1944 and served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force until 1953, flew supply missions in Singapore and Malaya, retired to civilian life as a freighter, flew for Polynesian Airlines in the early 1970s, spread top fertilizer across New Zealand in the late ’70s, flew between Australia and New Zealand for Pionair Adventures, and finally flew to Tonga in 2004 at the request of the King of Tonga. After being lovingly restored she now graces the skies between Nuka’alofa and Ha’apai on a daily basis. But I digress . . .

Arriving in Ha’apai we were greeted by Boris Stavenow, owner of Sandy Beach Resort, who offered us a truly wonderful opportunity to stay right on the beach overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean. The resort has 12 bungalows that are set in rambling gardens with ocean views with all amenities including wireless internet. The aquamarine waters right off the white, sandy beach are calm and perfect for an ocean swim.

Boris took us for a walk to his sister property, Matafonua Lodge, which is for those who appreciate a simpler lifestyle – Pacific-style fales (bungalows) which are set on stilts with wonderful ocean views. Each fale had comfortable beds, a large balcony, and electricity. Bathrooms, showers and the restaurant are centrally located. This property is designed for those who are interested in diving, snorkeling, sailing, whale watching, fishing and local culture.

After our short visit to Ha’apai we flew back to the main island of Tongatapu where we had time to visit the local markets with their variety of fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, and local handicrafts. Some of us even enjoyed a Chinese massage. We found that the handicrafts of Tonga are quite exquisite, including fine tapacloth, items made from pandanas leaves, coconut shells, tree bark, and local shells.

We were lucky enough to take short a boat ride to the romantic island of Fafa where manager, Josef Sanladerer shared his resort which is a fabulous island retreat.  The resort is located on the western side of this 18 acre palm tree-covered island and its calm waters are protected by a coral reef. 13 Tongan-style fales are hidden amongst the palms in a colorful garden setting and are just a short walk to the white, sandy beach where relaxing beach chairs await. During our short visit we had time to enjoy a drink at the open-air cocktail bar with its panoramic ocean view before returning to the mainland.

One sunny day we took a boat trip aboard Deep Blue Diving Tonga with Sam, which was great for those wishing to swim the warm waters around a sunken boat, snorkel over colorful sea life, enjoy luncheon board the vessel while listening to a two-piece band and hearing Sam’s history of the coconut and its life sustaining properties.

Our final night in Tonga included a return visit to Oholei Beach Resort. After our delicious all-you-can-eat feast we ventured into Hina Cave to view traditional Tongan dancing by torchlight. This including rousing fire dances and dancing to interpret local legend – a great way to end our Tongan experience, and to say “farewell” to this wonderful country.

Before your visit, be sure to check out the Kingdom of Tonga website which outlines all that you need to know before embarking on your trip to this magical Kingdom in the South Pacific.

Our special thanks go to the Tongan Tourist Board and their wisdom in soliciting the help of Siangana Travel with hostesses Ta, Nina, Ruby and Clare who literally bused us for 24 hours a day, making sure we didn’t miss any important selling point of the Kingdom of Tonga! Also to all the hoteliers who put up with our crazy hours of arriving and departing during the week.

To the people of the Kingdom of Tonga, you have a perfect island paradise, don’t let it fade away, start planning for the next “Eve Mai Tonga Tourism Experience” and let SANPATA help you promote your Friendly Islands.  We miss you already.

Malo’aupito for your hospitality !