Visiting Tonga in the Off Season
It was mere days to my departure for Tonga when I got the news. Tonga’s submarine communications cable had snapped. It meant that I would be going into Tonga under an internet blackout, and my phone would only have satellite telecommunication. Looks like we’re travelling old school, I thought to myself. Well, I suppose it would enhance the experience of visiting Tonga in the off season, instead of the tourist season.
I was more sanguine about it than I would have been just two years ago. I guess, after my experiences in Nepal and India, and then going around the world and returning to the Pacific to countries whose languages I don’t really speak, I had grown more confident in my travel skills.
- Why Did I Go to Tonga in the Off Season?
- How to Get to Tonga by Air
- Arriving in Tonga in the Tourism Off Season
- Surprising food options in Fua’amotu Airport terminal
- Allow generous transfer times for air travel in Tonga
- Getting from Nuku’alofa international terminal to the domestic terminal
- Departing to Vava’u
- Neiafu Tourist Town in the Off Season
- Sightseeing Options in Tonga in the Off Season
- Tonga in the Off Season: What’s Missing?
- Important Things to Know when Budgeting for a Trip to Tonga
- How Many Days is Enough for a Vacation in Tonga?
- Carbon offsetting information to Tonga
Why Did I Go to Tonga in the Off Season?
To tell you the truth, I can’t really say why I chose to visit Tonga in the shoulder season. I was still buoyed by the memories of French Polynesia. Having visited a Spanish-speaking Polynesian island, and then French-speaking ones, I became curious whether one with English as the non-native language would be different still – and how. And Tonga just seemed about midway between Tahiti and Cairns, where I planned to finish my ‘backwards Pacific odyssey‘ at the end of the year.
I had time off in February, so… why not? Sure, it would be the wrong season for whales, but I’d not been disappointed before to go to places in the ‘wrong’ season. You often get to see what a place is like, when it’s not putting out a show for the tourists. Besides, if I loved it I could always come back for the humpback whales.
Oh, and the data cable was fixed and back online soon after I arrived in Vava’u. But I only found out quite a bit later, while out at a restaurant. Nevertheless, since The Refuge did not have WiFi (or claimed not to have it!), and I hadn’t gotten a local data SIM card, I simply finished my trip old school.
How to Get to Tonga by Air
Flights going into Tonga land on the nation’s capital island of Tongatapu. International flight booking will show the airport as Nuku’alofa (airport code TBU), after Tonga’s capital city. (The airport itself is called Fua’amotu). However, if you plan to travel to other islands within Tonga, this airport is listed as Tongatapu on Real Tonga’s website (the Tonga airline that operates domestic flights). I’m letting you know straight up to save you the anxiety.
When visiting archipelagoes for the first time, I usually like to visit the capital island as well as at least one other island. However, this time I wanted some time in Sydney on either side of the trip to meet up with old friends, and reluctantly decided to skip exploring Tongatapu. Instead, I allocated the bulk of my time (8 days) on Vava’u. I chose Vava’u because I found an Airbnb host that I thought would be interesting, and because it is also a whale watching tourism spot – in the right season.
I found the flight schedules into Nuku’alofa, and then out to Tonga’s other island groups, awkward. They’re not timed to facilitate direct transfers to domestic locations. Perhaps this is only so because I came in the off season. But it’s something to bear in mind. Depending on how long your trip is, you might be better off not skipping Tongatapu like I did.
Arriving in Tonga in the Tourism Off Season
I arrived in Nuku’alofa in the wee hours of the morning, feeling quite travel-weary. The international airport is not large, but efficient enough. Signs in the arrival hall informed me that the Tongans are picky about invasive species and entry of foods. An airport official, dressed in the Tongan kilt, noticed me pondering the sign and immediately asked whether I had something to declare. I decided to show him the tom yam powder cubes I usually travel with when backpacking. It was fine.
Tired as I was, I did not leave my arrival chores for later. I got myself a sum of Tongan pa’anga (although I found later that regional currencies like Australian or New Zealand dollars are often accepted). The displayed exchange rates included Indonesian rupiah and Philippine peso, aside from the usual suspects and the Pacific nations. These give you clues about frequent visitors to a place, especially if the currencies listed are not strong and usually less desirable internationally.
Another sign required that drones be registered at immigration. I wondered whether Tonga is getting more visitors of late, and whether this means enough of them are vloggers.
Surprising food options in Fua’amotu Airport terminal
Although it was 4 am, and I arrived in Tonga during the off season, there were still people outside the international terminal. They seemed to be mainly Tongans.
It was an unassuming waiting area for an international airport. I meant to snooze on a bench as I waited for dawn, but the other tourists were all waiting for pick-ups, presumably from their hotels. There were no waiting taxis.
At such an early hour, there was only one cafe open. It seemed to mainly cater for airport staff coming on and off shifts. It was very basic, serving overpriced comfort food such as pot noodles, pies, and snacks. But it was there.
Finding it difficult to be comfortable on the hard bench, I went to investigate the cafe. I didn’t have my hopes up, since Tonga is a Polynesian and Christian country. Moreover, being supposedly less visited, there was a more than even chance that vegetarian or vegan foods were yet to form a significant demand. I looked over the offerings to determine what might be halal, and then a familiar brand caught my eye.
Indo Mie. Wait, what? I looked closely, and indeed it was. The pot noodles that seemed to be popular among all the Tongans idling at the tables around me were from Indonesia, and actually certified halal. Bless the Indonesians.
Just do business.
There is a lesson here for Malaysia’s halal establishment; an exclusive mindset vs an inclusive one. Pot noodles were not exported to Tonga from Indonesia because it’s halal. It’s exported here because people liked the product, and since it was made in a Muslim country it is coincidentally also halal. Because of that, there now exist business ties between countries. With time, it will become easier for Muslims to travel there. Relationships will be made, and hopefully, friendships.
Whereas I’ve found that in Malaysia, with our ambition to be a halal hub for all kinds of things, we have the mindset of marketing to customers expressly looking for halal products. We don’t really market it as a product that can compete independently of whether or not it’s halal. If we happen to sell it to non-Muslims, it’s seen as just an incidental market. Or worse, some dysfunctional people even see it as a kind of validation of halal values.
Inclusivity is a facilitating, growing, confident attitude. Exclusivity is a shrinking, impeding, insecure attitude. How much opportunity have we lost because of our excluding attitude?
Allow generous transfer times for air travel in Tonga
I had done my research before going to Tonga. Of particular note is the warning from other travellers that the flight schedules in Tonga can be unreliable. They didn’t mean flight delays of 2 or 4 or even 8 hours. They mean that sometimes your flight could be re-timed to the next day. Worse, kind of like the bus in Tahiti, the flights could also be re-timed to be earlier than initially scheduled!
The reasons are normally attributed to weather considerations. You’d wonder why this is a problem in Tonga, when it didn’t seem to be as big a deal in other Pacific countries. However, once you see the planes, you’ll understand. There really isn’t that much air traffic across these islands, so the planes are usually small turboprops.
Anyhow, this is the main reason why I gave myself generous transfer times on both ends of the trip – especially since I might encounter communications or logistical difficulties due to the submarine cable issue.
It was lucky I did, too. I called to reconfirm my Real Tonga flight as per the ticket advice, and found that it had been re-timed from 10:40 am to 9:30 am. The check in was now 8:00 instead of 9:10. Later, an SMS came in (I had registered my number to receive updates). Yet another new time. The plane was now departing at 7:50, with check-in at 6:20, three hours earlier than initially scheduled.
Getting from Nuku’alofa international terminal to the domestic terminal
This might just be an off season travel thing, but there was no shuttle service between Fua’amotu airport’s international and domestic terminals. They aren’t next to each other either, i.e. they aren’t easily walkable. The distance is a fairly long slog on the main roads, which is possible but not pleasant with luggage or backpack.
So what’s the best way to get there? I wasn’t really sure, once I was given this revelation by someone at the airport. But I was too tired to figure it out while it was still dark, so I snoozed for an hour (after having a pot noodle). I steeled myself for the hike to the domestic terminal. But when I woke at dawn and gathered myself, I was reminded of something I forgot.
I was in Polynesia. Hitchhiking is normal here. The airport worker I asked was coming off shift, and asked if I’d like a lift to the domestic terminal. Of course, I said yes.
Departing to Vava’u
If the international terminal wasn’t exactly designed to accommodate waiting, the domestic terminal was even less so. In the breaking dawn, there was no one there. The domestic terminal was quiet save for the distant calls of birds.
Eventually, I was taken in by an air traffic controller, who thought I’d be more comfortable waiting in an air-conditioned room rather than loitering on the floor. He was nice enough, but was seemingly taken by a traveller who travels like a westerner yet looks like a very slender Tongan. I carefully made no response to his attempts at flirting.
Eventually, the departure hall was opened. I was clearly very early; it seemed normal for people to trickle in more or less close to the departure time, despite its uncertainty. I guess if you’re used to it, you get a sense of these things.
Checking in with Real Tonga was a novel experience for me. It was the first time in my air travel experience where I had to weigh my check-in bag, and then afterwards step on the scale myself! This was noted down for later, so that they can assign your seats to achieve proper weighting of the plane. For a fleeting moment, I wondered how safe this flight was.
The sky was still overcast when we finally took off for Vava’u. Lightning flashed electric yellow behind dark clouds, half-hidden orbs of light as though there were fleeting suns sparking and dying. It would have made a great video. But the plane had not finished climbing, so I merely wrote it in words, and let the image go.
Alternative transfer from Nuku’alofa to Vava’u
I found out later from my host in Vava’u, that there is also a ferry transfer between Nuku’alofa and Vava’u. He told me this when I wasn’t able to get a call through to Real Tonga prior to my return flight to confirm the time. The ferry takes 9 hours, so if your transfer window is tight to begin with, this isn’t a real option.
However, it could be a good intentional transfer option, especially if you were spending time in Nuku’alofa anyway. It could be a credible option if the ferry is more predictable than the flights. It should also be less carbon intensive (assuming the ferry has a large ridership), and would definitely be cheaper.
Neiafu Tourist Town in the Off Season
The main town in Vava’u is Neiafu. I had booked myself into an Airbnb, having found a host who I thought might be interesting, a Tongan-Caucasian mixed race couple. However, by the time I arrived, my host’s wife was away in Rarotonga while he was stuck in Vava’u in order to host me. I guess it isn’t particularly normal to have tourists in this season.
I didn’t get around to seeing the town itself until some days later when my host took me to get provisioned. In the off season, most of the restaurants were closed, and the waterfront did not feel active. It’s probably the case that the tourism businesses revolve almost entirely around whale tourism.
But the markets were open. Local people were still out to events, sometimes in Tonga’s bark and palm woven formalwear.
Sightseeing Options in Tonga in the Off Season
OK, so these are really sightseeing options on Vava’u. But they might apply more generally (let me know!).
Vava’u is different from the islands I visited in French Polynesia, or really, most tropical islands I’ve been to. It’s not low-lying, nor are the hilly portions merely modestly so; instead, they can be steeply rising from the coastline. The populated sections don’t concentrate along the flat coastline around the hilly interior; rather, there are pockets in the interior and in coves. So, despite being an island, the human geography felt like a mainland.
Vava’u can also be very windy, at least at the start of the year. The steady breezes can be pleasant, as it was often sunny. But on the other hand, it’s also probably why there wasn’t good snorkelling visibility at the time, especially on days when clouds blocked the sunlight as well.
So what can you do when you’re in Vava’u (and by extension Tonga) in the off season?
1. Snorkelling around coral reefs
Whether it’s the tourism season or the off season, Tonga is still a Pacific island with coral reefs. You cannot go wrong with snorkelling on a tropical coral island. Stay at a place fronting the water and it’s the perfect leisure activity for a laidback vacation.
That said, there’s a difference in coral reef quality depending on where you are. If the coastline is a sheltered bay, the coral reef is likely to be in a more degraded condition. Some things to look out for are presence of mangrove forests, and a lot of silt on the beach instead of just sand. These are signs of a coastline where the water flows are slower and less dynamic, which is why the smaller silt particles can accumulate instead of being washed away somewhere.
The reason why this is not as suitable for corals is because these smaller particles easily get floated back up again when it’s windy, or there’s a storm. This means that a lot of the time the water isn’t very clear, which makes it harder for the zooxanthellae inside the coral to do photosyntesis (photo = needs light). So, less food = less growth.
However, if you go to a place that is closer to the open sea, it should be much better. This is where the coastline would be sandy beach or perhaps a rocky shore.
Snorkelling in a sheltered bay
Is it any fun at all to snorkel in a sheltered bay? Well, it depends. Generally, although there was a lot of algae growth over the corals in the bay I swam in the most, you could tell that there’s actually a decent diversity of coral types. There just didn’t seem to be a lot of decent-sized fish. Maybe they’re overfished; the lack of grazers like parrotfish can make it more likely for the algae to get out of control. It looked very similar to highly touristed reefs in Southeast Asia, and those are among the reasons for us.
There were still lots of small fish, though. And if you’re patient and spend a lot of time in the water, you’ll see interesting things. I saw a few resident sea snakes flit from coral to coral, hunting. (Go snorkelling when the day is hot, for the best chance to see this.) I saw sea cucumbers creep and feed for the first time, mouth tentacles wriggling. (Go in the water in the evening to witness this, near sunset.) And I saw one eagle ray wander close to shore.
Snorkelling Pro Tip: Go snorkelling at the same spot multiple times, and at different times of the day. Different sea creatures go about their day at different times.
Snorkelling near the open sea
Vava’u’s coastline meanders a lot. This means, unlike smaller islands that come to mind when we think ‘Pacific island’, the coastline varies a lot. Snorkelling in an inner channel is different from snorkelling where the channel opens to the ocean.
My host took me to one such location. We beached at a more traditional sand bar, and when I went in the water, the visibility was much better. The rocky outcrops that we passed along the way jutted out of the water like pillars, tapering to a narrow waist where the tide had chiseled it in. It reminded me of the coastline of Leyte, in the Philippines.
Here, the coral were in better condition, although you could tell it gets hit by storms more from the broken debris. But there were more and larger fish, so it was a lot of fun.
2. Explore the sea caves
I perhaps had more time to look at the coastal cliff face of Vava’u than other tourists might have. My host couldn’t drive the boat very fast. This is because I don’t weigh very much, which meant I could not weigh down the front of the boat effectively. You weigh nothing, he complained. It was just as well. The makeshift anchor of rebars bent out from a pipe was precariously next to me. I thought it was best not to test how firmly it was secured.
I mentioned before that Vava’u can be quite steep. Hence the rock faces lining the sea channel. But sometimes, there are sea caves carved into these cliffs by various processes involving water (generally it’s always water somehow).
There’s one cave in Vava’u that’s the biggest one, Swallow Cave. Now, if you’ve been to limestone caves in Southeast Asia, which have among the biggest cave complexes in the world, the Pacific sea caves are going to feel small. But if you like caves, it’s definitely something to do. Scroll through the pictures on my Instagram post below to see the fish you can kinda see while inside the cave. If you’re not afraid of going into the water in the dark (like me), you can also snorkel within the cave.
3. Tour the island and visit the lookouts
Another good way to spend your time in the off season is to drive around the island to the lookout points. I don’t know if you can personally rent a car in the off season, but at the least you can rent it off of your host. In my case, a friend of my host drove me around the island as my tour guide.
The terrain was lower on the eastern side, with lots of mangrove flats. Pigs rooted in the coastal shallows among the flattened seagrass at low tide. I was told that the Vava’u terrain is completely different from the other Tongan islands. Perhaps the others are closer to the traditional ‘Pacific island’ image.
Vava’u doesn’t really have big, long sandy beaches. Rather, they are separated bays and coves. You can drive to most of them, but note that they’re not all public beaches. Some are private, and some of those have entry charges.
Lookout points of Vava’u
The dramatic lookout points are at the north part of the island. One is called Utu’la’aina lookout, which meant ‘from sunrise to sunset the sun has no hiding place’ in Tongan. Basically it means the sun is always visible when you’re standing at that position.
Nearby is Esi o Salote, which is a special lookout of the Tongan kings. It was so named because a pavilion was erected there for the Tongan monarch, Queen Salote. She liked to enjoy the breezes from that spot.
I also went to a third lookout point, Hila ki Tapana. Near here was where they had originally wanted to build Vavau’s airport. The forest was already cleared (that’s why there are no big trees) and a lot of investment sunk before a second civil engineer prevailed on the government to change the site to a lowland one. Otherwise the airport would have been the most dangerous airport in the Pacific, with the steep cliffs behind. Give that man a medal.
4. Tour a vanilla farm
You can also visit a vanilla farm, because vanilla is one of Tonga’s exports! Now, the off season is the wrong time if you want to buy them (the tourism season is also coincidentally vanilla harvest season). However, if you’re into farming/ gardening/ permaculture or anything like that, a tour of a Vava’u permaculture farm is cool. Such a farm would also have other Tongan staples such as kava, kape and other tropical roots, gingers, and various seasonal cash crops.
Tonga in the Off Season: What’s Missing?
Sometimes, a destination is just as rewarding in the off season as in the tourist season. Sometimes, this is because the destination has way more to offer than its main tourism draws. And sometimes it’s because you get a better experience for niche things when there are fewer other people.
While there are things to do in Tonga in the off season, arguably you could also do them just as well in the tourist season. The main advantage of going in the off season is if you specifically wanted to get away from people. But you’d have to be ok with not having a few options.
1. Off season means no swimming with humpback whales
The off season in Tonga means the opposite of humpback whale migration season. If this is your reason to come to Tonga, you must come in the tourist season. Not only that, because the humpback whale tourism is such a big part of the tourist industry here, there are also no tours open for non-whale excursions such as island-hopping etc. Off season is their downtime, which is actually a pretty healthy attitude to have.
2. Dive centres are closed in the off season
Similarly, dive centres in Vava’u are also not open in the off season. This is the season they do their boat maintenance and so on. Even if they would consider opening to take you out on a dive, they’d need at least two guests to go out to sea. So this is not a good time to visit for the solo diver. By contrast, between June-September it’s back-to-back bookings.
3. There are fewer restaurant options in the off season
Other establishments like restaurants also time their maintenance chores in the off season, so restaurant options are limited in the off season. As I recall, there was only one proper restaurant open in the off season, Mango. Fortunately, Mango does have ota ika on the menu, which is a must-try. Ota ika is like the Tongan version of French Polynesia’s poisson cru, and it’s served with taro chips at this restaurant.
Important Things to Know when Budgeting for a Trip to Tonga
This is a section I don’t normally add to my travel guides, because travel budgeting varies so much depending on your personal travel style. But if you’re coming to Tonga as an independent traveller (i.e. not on an all-in vacation package), there are certain important things to plan for.
I normally don’t bother to activate international roaming via my Malaysian telco when I’m abroad. Obviously it’s because roaming charges are expensive, and you don’t need it if you buy a local data SIM card.
However, data service in Tonga relies on submarine cables to the west Pacific, and if it snaps you’re back to the 90s, i.e. landline phones. Unless you have roaming.
Even then, this doesn’t usually matter, because what’s wrong with a digital detox now and then? Except that this might be your primary means of finding out what your flight departure time actually is. So for Tonga specifically, just have roaming enabled.
Insurance & contingencies
I would recommend having travel insurance anyway. This is really a basic given for travellers, and so I rarely highlight it. But I think travel to Tonga has more uncertainty in terms of remoteness, missing flights, etc. So if you don’t usually get travel insurance, I’d advise it for Tonga.
Depending on what you plan to do, you might also want to especially check related terms & conditions. For example, whether it covers medical repatriation in case of diving accidents etc., keeping in mind the increased lag time to access medical care due to the country’s layout and logistics.
How much does whale watching cost?
Although I didn’t come in the right season for it, I did find out how much these cost. Humpback whale tours go for $400 per trip, so budget accordingly for this bucket list experience, especially if you want to go multiple times!
Also, generally speaking, it’s better to budget cash as though you’re holidaying in a developed country. Tourism seems to be a major foreign exchange contributor for Tonga, and it’s quite obvious that the default tourist pool is Australian/New Zealander. Perhaps it’s an intentional positioning, like Bhutan’s. Anyway, just a heads-up that it wasn’t a cheap place for tours, and you need cash because ATMs may not be available where you’re going.
How much does it cost to eat in Vava’u?
A light meal out on the waterfront is about $30-50. If you are self-catering, you can get groceries at the farmer’s market and the new Chinese supermarket. Aside from local produce, groceries weren’t cheap, but it’s cheaper than eating out.
Even if you don’t plan on cooking, check out the local market anyway to see cool local veggies. You can also get local handicraft souvenirs there too (mainly woven household items).
How Many Days is Enough for a Vacation in Tonga?
My slow travel rule of thumb is to spend about a week in a place. Less than that, you don’t really settle into a place. But there are exceptions to this rule. Some very conservative countries take a much longer time to settle into. I went several times to Oman, for example, before I had the adventures I’ve written about. And even then, it was by leveraging the far longer residency and friendships of my expat colleague. For such countries, a week is nowhere close enough. So you could shorten it and just be a tourist.
I had the sense that Tonga sees foreign arrivals in the context of tourism revenue. When you arrive on Tongatapu, the arrivals form actually ask you how much you spent in your last destination (a first for me), and your country of origin. (Sorry Malaysia, for giving the impression we’re not high value tourists; I went backpacker-style on the trip before Tonga as well.)
Overall, I think 8 days was probably too long for Vava’u, unless you plan to go on multiple whale watching and/or dive trips. You could do Vava’u as a quiet getaway trip over 5-6 days. A quick taster trip could fit in 4-5 days. Instead, you could put some time towards exploring the capital island Tongatapu. Note also that, as a staunch Christian nation, Tonga really shuts down on Sundays.
In my case, it worked out for the best since I came down with the flu sometime during my journey to Tonga, and spent a couple of those 8 days basically asleep!
Carbon offsetting information to Tonga
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Vava’u via Sydney and Nuku’alofa produces carbon emissions of approximately 8,559 lbs CO2e. It costs about $43 to offset this.
What do you think? Is it worth it to go to Vava’u in the off season?