With pristine white beaches and an unspoiled natural environment, Tonga is one of those places that seems picture-perfect. Despite that, it somehow remains off of most travellers' radars.
Situated in the South Pacific, Tonga is a small cluster of islands, easily accessible from New Zealand and Fiji (and LA, via Fiji). It's a remote spot and the travel time is long for many visitors, however it's definitely a worthwhile trip to make. Here are just a few of the reasons why.
Well off the radar of mass tourism, Tonga doesn't get crowded, even in the high season. Even if most of the accommodation in the country is booked out, it is easy to find a quiet beach or bay and in some islands, you can enjoy a cove all to yourself.
Saying that, there is tourism infrastructure in Tonga, so there are places to stay and eat, and you don't feel like you're intruding into the daily life of locals. It's also not necessarily to go "off the beaten track" to find Tonga's gems - most tours are just locals showing you around and they're eager to share their country's beauty with visitors.
Tonga's claim to fame is its humpback whales. They visit the surrounding waters between June and October and are easily visible by boat and often from the shore. Tonga is also one of the few places in the world where you can not only see humpback whales, but also swim with them.
As with any wild animals, check to ensure your tour is ethical - whales may not always be visible or keen on swimming with tourists. Find a tour that keeps away from calves as the young whales and their mothers can find interaction stressful. To ensure an incredible experience, consider booking a couple of days for whale swimming, just in case there are no amenable whales nearby on one of the outings.
Tonga has a wealth of beautiful, unspoiled beaches where you can spend a few hours or a few days. The sand is white and usually clean, especially in the outer islands and the sea is wonderfully clear. Often you'll find shallow lagoons which are perfect for children, and it's also a great place for snorkelling or scuba diving.
Tonga is quite a religious country, so keep covered, including tops for men, unless you're swimming near a resort. It's also best to cover up when leaving the beach.
If you're after five-star luxury, Tonga isn't the place for you. Instead, you'll find smaller, boutique resorts and guest houses, with only a handful of rooms, often in an isolated, but lovely location. Accommodation in Tonga is also much more affordable than other Pacific Islands, such as Fiji, although you won't find the big name resorts here.
Resorts in Tonga often consist of a collection of small bungalows (or fales) near a beach. There's usually a restaurant and some water sports equipment available for guests to use. Many will also offer visits to nearby villages or Sunday church services. They generally aren't luxurious, but are usually clean and comfortable with unmatched access to the water.
Guesthouses are more like bed-and-breakfasts, giving visitors a local experience. They are a good way to connect with your hosts and learn more about Tongan culture.
Regardless of where you stay, Tonga is the perfect location for a peaceful break, where you can escape from every day life and the world. Just keep in mind that internet often isn't the best.
Tonga has a tropical climate with warm temperatures all year round. Despite this, the weather is relatively temperate and it doesn't get as unbearably hot and sticky as it does in some of the other islands in the South Pacific. While the summer months (December - March) are hotter, the temperature seldom rises above 35°C and there are often cool breezes. It can be humid in summer, with more rain, but it seldom rains all day.
The cooler months (June - October) are beautiful, with weather warm enough for swimming and sunbathing. It's also whale watching season, so it's worth booking accommodation in advance.
Tonga has a unique culture. It's the only Pacific nation which has never been colonised, it's a kingdom and with fewer foreigners in the country, it can feel more authentic than many other tropical countries which cater for tourists. One of the bonuses of the lack of mass tourism in Tonga is that it's really easy to connect with local people. If you book a tour, a local will likely show you around in a more-or-less informal manner. Connecting with the real Tonga is as easy as talking to the people you come across, most of whom will be eager to help you see local sites or experience traditional food if you ask.
Despite the relatively low number of tourists, there are still outside influences in Tonga. The country has close relationships with a number of Asian countries as well as New Zealand. Tonga has close ties with Japan and that is visible when you visit the capital, Nuku'alofa.
Tonga is also very religious and you'll find that everything closes on a Sunday/ Outside of the resorts, shops are closed, and there's no sport or exercise. If you're at a loose end, consider attending a local church service - visitors are welcome and the singing is truly lovely.
Tonga is a fascinating destination for historical and natural sites. Along the coast of Tongatapu, the largest island, you'll find over 5km of blowholes shooting water some 30m into the air. There are natural archways (called "landbridges" by locals) on the rockier islands and there are a number of spectacular limestone sea caves, many of which you can swim inside. .
There are also some historical sites in Tonga, including a handful of tribal sites, such as Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, a stone trilithon. Little is known about the historical significance, but they are well worth seeing. You can also see a number of royal landmarks in Tongatapu, including tobs, fortresses and even Victorian-style palaces.