Tonga, The Kingdom of

Whether we like it or not, our generation is a product of the Lonely Planet guidebook industry.  So this is not a list of tourist “Things to Do in Tonga”; this is a list of local “Must Share” experiences.  A compilation of images, tastes and opportunities that are indelible to one place, and – unlike museum entrance fees and hostel names – won’t change over time.  These things, the obvious and the unassuming, are so distinctly Tongan, they make the islands different from every other country in the South Pacific.

Pangiamotu, Tonga

Pangiamotu Island; Almost every beach in Tonga is this postcard perfect.

“Malo e Lelei” = Hello, and welcome to The Friendly Isles!

While visiting, you should:

  • Listen to a church choir – Thanks to decades of Christian missionary influence, Tongans are renowned for their vocal praise abilities; many denominations hold two to three church services on a Sunday and will serenade the entire neighborhood with their echoing hymns.  *Hearing the opening chords of a choir on ‘Eua, sans instruments or sheet music, actually brought tears to my agnostic boyfriend’s eyes…*
  • Spot a humpback whale – The giant beasts migrate through Tonga’s 170  islands from June to November; it is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with them, as well as watch them from shore.  Opinions are varied on the safety and conservation concerns raised by these activities: visit the Kingdom’s official tourism siteto see their list of approved operators.

    Though it looks like dirty water, kava comes with an important set of etiquette rules.

  • Drink kava – A Polynesian drink originally made from collecting the spit of a chewed kava plant root. Now, contents can be purchased in pre-made bags, but the kava drinking ceremony is still an inherent part of all major events in the Tongan calendar.
  • Meet a ‘fa’afafine’ – A unique Polynesian cultural practice; when a family has more boys than necessary, they will often raise one as a girl (in dress and habits) to fill the position of a daughter. *This does not denote any change in sexual preference, merely a change in childhood activities.*
  • For a stranger twist on the general masculinity of Tongan males, visit in the country in August/September for the annual “Mr. Steinlager Pageant” in Nuku’alofa; in this men’s’ pageant, contestants must demonstrate an understanding of cultural practices, and a nice upper body.  Winners receive a trip to New Zealand.
  • Try ota ika – A traditional salad of raw fish marinated in lime or coconut juice, mixed with  chilies, cucumber and tomatoes
  • Eat Spam  – The Tongans claim China is exporting all their big fish, leaving them with this tasty canned meat…

    The populous, golden good-luck charm of Tonga

  • Spot a yellow spider – These big, bulbous arachnids reign over branches and electric cables; totally harmless, the locals say it is good luck if one drops on you.
  • Take a local ferry – stake out your spot a few hours before departure, when the rest of the island arrives with their chickens, sacks of cassava and 15 other family members.
  • Visit a deserted island – There are 170 recognized islands in the Kingdom, many with nothing more than a local-run resort that features a few huts, no electricity or water, and the world’s best shorelines.
  • Drink the coffee – Grown around the islands, all coffee plants are legally the property of  Queen Halaevalu Mataʻaho (mother of the King Tupou IV) .
  • Go barefoot – The only people who wear shoes are security guards and soldiers.  Favorite no-shoe sight: the baggage handler at the Tonga’tapu domestic airport.
  • Have an umu – A Polynesian meal of meat and vegetables; the food is layered over hot rocks or coals in a hole, covered and steamed for an afternoon, before eating.
  • Visit a graveyard– Traditionally, mourners closet to the deceased would spend up to 10 days at the grave site.  After 100 days, they would mark the eternal bed with black volcanic stones.

    A Tongan graveyard on the island of ‘Eua.

  • Fly Chathams Pacific – A subsidiary of Air New Zealand, this trustworthy airline flies some of the dodgiest planes I’ve seen; but, the view from a window seat is incredible.  *Before getting on a DC3 to Ha’apai, we overheard the pilots say, “Let’s take this baby on a test run once, before we put passengers on board for the first time.*
  • Spot a flying fox – Before the import and domestication of livestock, these indigenous mammals provided a necessary meat source for islanders – but only the Royal ones.

Try the national brew: Mata Maka, brewed in New Zealand, unavailable for international sale

Royal Ikale, previously brewed on Tonga’tapu by Royal Beer Company, but is no longer produced

Try the market oddity: taro, a purple-colored tuber that can accompany any/every Tongan dish

Finally, you can pick up loads of information from the Tourist desk at the Nuku’alofa airport.

Not the first thing you want to see when you arrive at a foreign airport…

Have you been to The Kingdom of Tonga?  What experiences do you think are a distinct part of any visit to the Friendly Isles?

*Last updated June, 2012*

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