Timeless Tonga

A few months ago I was in Tonga for the first time in more than a decade. While some parts of the Pacific seem to change every year, Tonga appears to be completely unaltered. Indeed, I even recognised some of the people in the shops and on the street.

There's a certain irony in the fact that Tonga is the nation set to lead us into the next millennium yet seems permanently locked in the past. Tonga leans hard up against the International Dateline so every day begins in this, the only surviving Polynesian Kingdom. However, a walk around the sleepy streets of Nuku'alofa, the national capital, (the name means "abode of love") may suggest that it's still waiting for the 20th century to take hold. On Sundays everything is closed except the churches - locals are not permitted even to swim or fish on Sundays. The whole nation attends church, everyone wearing their very best clothes. Apart from the treat of listening to some glorious choral harmonies it's a good chance to see the king who comes from his red and white gingerbread waterside palace.

For English-speakers, Tongans appear to be overly fond of random apostrophes. When you leave Nuku'alofa your destination is likely to be the islands of 'Eua, Vava'u or Ha'apai. The capital is situated on Tongatapu, the world's largest coral atoll and its flat landscape is almost completely covered in coconut palms. The other major tourist destination is the beautiful island of Vava'u in the north, almost bisected by a long channel that leads to the well sheltered Port of Refuge Harbour and the town of Neiafu.

Tonga is best suited to couples or families wanting complete relaxation in an unusual destination. It's certainly not for the hyperactive, or travellers seeking five star luxury. It has several comfortable hotels and resorts but none qualifies as luxurious. The best in Nuku'alofa, with a good combination of facilities and location, is the enduring and recently renovated International Dateline Hotel right on the waterfront. The newer Hotel Pacific Royale is in the middle of town and boasts satellite television in every room. Both hotels are air-conditioned with direct dial phones and fridges in every room.

You can soon run out of things to do in town so it makes sense to move onto a resort. A compromise is Fafa Island Resort, a tiny islet in the middle of the lagoon and about 30 minutes sailing time from Nuku'alofa. It's run by a German couple and has a strongly German clientele seeking a "Robinson Crusoe experience". You stay in your own traditional fale and spend the days swimming, sailing and snorkelling.

There are 170 islands in the Kingdom of Tonga but only 40 of them are inhabited. After the capital, the next most popular among travellers is Vava'u that has a magnetic attraction for yachties. Its clear waters, protected harbour, quaint little town and yacht charters ensure its appeal as a holiday destination. The best resort in Neiafu, which is the best in the kingdom, is Paradise International Hotel overlooking the bay.

Looking at the size of your hosts you'd think that food was a dominant part of Tongans' lives. Despite that, you can expect wholesome rather than exciting meals. Of course, seafood predominates. If you attend a feast you'll understand why Tongans are so large. There may be up to 30 dishes cooked in an underground umu plus suckling pig cooked over an open fire - with fruit to follow if you're still peckish after consuming that lot.

The main fascination of Tonga is its people (there are 100,000 of them) and their way of life. In this, too, nothing has changed since Captain Cook named this the Friendly Islands and wrote that "a lasting friendship seems to subsist among the inhabitants and their courtesy to strangers entitled them to that name".

In Nuku-alofa the main sight to see is the beautiful wooden royal palace that is unchanged since 1882 when the upstairs verandah was added. There are also several prehistoric sites and a very active marketplace in and around town. Around the island there's very good diving, snorkelling and shell collecting plus lots of game fishing opportunities. The best two beaches are on the northwestern side of the island. Both Kolovai and Ha'atafu beaches are protected within the lagoon so are best at high tide. Very intrepid surfers brave the reef break off Ha'atafu. After all this activity, you'll probably be ready for an early night which is a good thing as there's no real nightlife in Tonga.

If you regard a destination with little entertainment, few grand hotels and only relaxed activities as heaven on earth Tonga may provide your perfect holiday. It's a very endearing place, a land of gentle giants that one remembers long afterwards. The secret to discovering Tonga is to make the most of every chance to meet and get to know the locals. And flee Nuku'alofa as soon as possible to experience the beautiful scenery and even more laid back lifestyle that lies beyond. Tonga remains the Polynesia of song and legend.

Fact File

The new service by Royal Tongan Airlines that operates from Sydney to Nuku'alofa directly once a week only takes four and half hours. Otherwise Air Pacific, Air New Zealand and Polynesian Airlines all operate between Australia and Nuku'alofa and takes at least six hours to get there as you stopover at Auckland or Nadi on the way.

The best time to visit is between May and October. These winter months are also the season when humpback whales pass by and there are trips that give you a chance to snorkel with these marine giants.

Before other nations noticed that the Millennium was approaching Tonga was selling itself as "the place where time begins". As its time zone is 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, it's a fair claim. Not surprisingly, Tonga has a whole program of Millennium festivities over the next few months.

If you are including Tonga in a more general Pacific tour, note the kink in the International Dateline - Tonga is exactly one day ahead of Samoa that lies due north. Those who forget are doomed to turn up for flights on the wrong day and find their hotel bookings were for the night before.

For more information call the Tonga Visitors Bureau at 41 Eastborne Road, Homebush West on 9746 0898, fax 9746 3587, www.vacations.tvb.gov.to , email: tvbsydney@hotmail.com.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd