Polynesia Travel: Tonga

Above: An aerial view of an atoll in the Vava’u Group, northernmost of Tonga’s three main island clusters.

The only South Pacific nation never to have been colonized, Tonga is home to the last monarchy in Polynesia, offering a mix of age-old tradition, modern aspirations, and, amid the coral atolls of the Ha’apai group or the cruising waters of Vava’u, countless island idylls

By Joe Yogerst
Photography by R. Ian Lloyd

Beneath the glare of a full moon on Tongatapu Island, the barefoot dancers run a gauntlet of torches before disappearing into a cave at the base of a 30-meter sea cliff. We follow them across the sand, filling every corner of the grotto as the performers take position under a shaft of moon-light pouring in from a crevice. A hush falls over the crowd–and then it starts: a war dance enacted with wooden swords and guttural shouts, followed by a slow, salacious love gambol during which a young champion expresses his undying passion for a lass slathered in coconut oil.

You couldn’t find a more atmospheric–or atavistic–setting for dance anywhere in the South Pacific. But then again, Tonga has always marched to a different beat than its Polynesian neighbors. Located some 1,800 kilometers northeast of New Zealand, the 176-island archipelago is the only kingdom left in a region once dominated by hereditary rulers. Nor was it ever colonized. Though a British protectorate for much of the 20th century and an early beachhead for Methodist missionaries, Tonga managed to preserve many of its ancient customs, most prominently a dance heritage that stretches back countless generations.

Credit for this begins with Siaosi Tupou I, who by the mid-1800s had managed to subdue the islands’ other chiefs and emerge as paramount ruler. Reigning until the end of the century, he kept the colonial powers at bay with shrewd diplomacy and the counsel of an English reverend, Shirley Baker, who served as the kingdom’s first prime minister and drafted its 1875 constitution. Tupou I’s granddaughter, Queen Salote, proved another formidable monarch, and not just because of her towering (1.9-meter) frame. The definition of a renaissance woman, she was a patron of the arts as well as an accomplished archeologist and poet, and gained lasting fame in 1953 when she rode in an open carriage through a torrential downpour to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London. The long-reigning King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, father of the present king, was also larger than life–he weighed more than 200 kilograms before going on a late-life fitness binge that saw him shed more than a third of that.

As they have for the better part of two centuries, the monarchy and church dominate Tongan life. To an outsider, the system can seem downright feudal. All land is the property of the king and his nobles, hereditary estates that can only be passed to male heirs. But the national land act stipulates that all males, noble or not, are entitled to a small allotment upon reaching their 16th birthday. As it was explained to me, these parcels are more or less leased from the nobility. And while technically speaking no rent is owed, it’s customary for the farmers to “contribute” a portion of their crops (coconuts, taro, cassava, and the like) to their landlords. Not only that, but they are sometimes called on to perform duties for the royal household. A woman I met in Nuku’alofa, the scrappy Tongan capital, explained how on several occasions she has served as a palace “fanner”–manually cooling a member of the royal family. “My personal record,” she said nonchalantly, “was three hours and seven minutes of continuous fanning.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges to the status quo. Of the more than 200,000 Tongans in the world, roughly half live overseas, having migrated to places like New Zealand and Australia for both work and a more egalitarian way of life. At home, the sagging economy–propped up largely by remittances from the Tongan diaspora–remains a sore point, if not at times an embarrassment: past schemes to fill state coffers have included the auctioning off of the nation’s satellite slots and the sale of millions of dollars worth of Tongan passports to Asians in the 1990s (monies later embezzled by the king’s American “court jester”).

Calls for political reform–most notably 2006’s violent pro-democracy demonstration in Nuku’alofa–culminated last year in the kingdom’s first popularly elected government. Yet even for this, the winds of change blow slowly in conservative Tonga: not a single woman won a seat in parliament, and, despite a majority of “commoners” in the assembly, the prime minister elected to office, Lord Tu’ivakano, was a noble.


Most Polynesian cultures have their trademark steps: the graceful hula of Hawaii; the fierce haka of New Zealand’s Maoris; Tahiti’s overtly sensual tamure. But only in Tonga is dance a national obsession, as well as a dynamic cultural institution that continues to evolve in new (and sometimes offbeat) directions. While fire dancing is prevalent throughout the South Pacific, nowhere else have I seen it transformed into a Cirque du Soleil-type extravaganza. And then there was a solo male dancer who, taking a cue from Jimi Hendrix, punctuated his routine by playing a ukulele with his teeth.

During a week in the archipelago, I discovered many of the aspects that set Tonga’s dance traditions apart from those of its South Seas neighbors. Most noticeable is the teki–a sideways head jerk that dancers insert into their performance whenever the mood takes them. Tongan dance also involves unique callouts and claps, as well as audience participation in the form of the fakapale, or “reward giving.” In days gone by, spectators would present tapa cloth or pandanus mats to their favorite dancers; these days, they are more likely to slap bank notes on the glistening skin of the star performers.

Foremost among Tongan dances is the legendary lakalaka, whose intricate blend of choreography, oratory, a cappella song, and instrumental interludes earned it a UNESCO designation as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It can involve several hundred performers, and features prominently at national celebrations such as the king’s birthday and anniversaries of the constitution.

Given its rarity, I didn’t get the chance to see the lakalaka during my stay in the kingdom. But on Tongatapu, Tonga’s principle island, I caught plenty of other dances at a variety of venues, from hotel dinner shows and that seaside cave, to the Tonga National Cultural Center and a government ceremony in Nuku’alofa.

The latter, despite its air of solemnity, proved one of the best. Evincing that blend of savoir faire and custom that flows through so much of Tongan life, Lord Tu’ivakano was perched on a throne in the front row, clad in a smart brown blazer and matching tupenu (sarong), leather sandals, and a silk tie. Arrayed on either side of him, on wooden chairs emblazoned with the royal seal, were a dozen “nobles of the realm.”

The performance started with the ‘Otumotu, a dance set to music and lyrics that Queen Salote composed during the interwar years of the 20th century as a melodic tribute to her island home. The tune sounds like Hawaiian ukulele music from that same era, but the costumes are pure Tongan, comprised almost entirely of pandanus and ileila leaves. The female dancers are also adorned with white feather headdresses, their bare arms and legs covered in gleaming coconut oil.

That’s another Tongan trademark–coconut oil. It signifies that a female dancer is a virgin, and therefore still available for young males to court. “Only virgin girls can participate in most of our dances,” my neighbor explained to me. “They show their purity with the oil. But let me tell you a secret: if the oil dries up while you are dancing, it means you’re not really a virgin. So it’s really important that the oil shines.”

The ‘Otumotu performance wasn’t the only chance I got to peek at the nobles of the realm. Home to about two-thirds of the population, Tongatapu offers something royal around almost every corner. One of the first sights I see on the ride from the airport into Nuku’alofa is King Siaosi Tupou V’s colossal country estate, perched on a ridge and surrounded by sweeping lawns. Right across the road is the gateway (protected by statuary tigers) leading to the home of his only sister, the princess royal. And then there’s the clapboard Royal Palace, which takes pride of place along the Nuku’alofa waterfront. Prefabricated in New Zealand and shipped here in 1867, it’s currently home to the queen mother, and though modest for a regal residence, its gingerbread fretwork and red-domed turret stand in marked contrast to the coconut palms and turquoise water.

Intrigued, I meet up with guide Anthony Cocker, a descendant of Tonga’s first British consul, to explore the remnants of royals past scattered across the island. Our first stop was the place where Captain Cook landed in 1773 on his first visit to Tonga. Nowadays, the area is farmland and marsh, but back then, the eastern end of Tongatapu Lagoon was home to a chiefly court. “Welcomed ashore by acclamations from an immence [sic] crowd of Men and Women not one of which had so much as a stick in their hands,” Cook dubbed Tonga the Friendly Islands, a moniker that persisted well into modern times. “Their courtesy to strangers entitles them to that name,” the captain noted in his journal.

Nearby were the ancient tombs of Lapaha, coral-stone terraces that gradually rise into structures resembling step pyramids. Framed by a tangle of jungle, they offered a marked contrast to the manicured Royal Tombs back in Nuku’alofa, where every Tongan ruler (and their consorts) since Tupou I has been interred.

Cocker saved the best for last. The Ha’amonga’a Maui Trilithon may sound like some sort of adventure race, but it’s actually one of the most imposing (and mysterious) structures in Polynesia. Often called the Stonehenge of the South Pacific, its three massive slabs of coral stone form a gateway into a bygone royal compound. “How the ancient Tongans built this is anyone’s guess,” Cocker said. “One theory is that a large mound of dirt was used to slide the lintel into position on top of the upright pillars.” But, as with the giant moai heads of Easter Island, nobody knows for sure.


Tongatapu may have its royal relics, but the kingdom’s main tourist draw is the Vava’u Group, 240 kilometers to the north. With shimmering white-sand strands and limestone cliffs covered in thick vegetation, this cluster of three dozen or so islands bears an uncanny resemblance to Thailand’s southwest coast. So do the local adventure activities: sailing, scuba diving, sports fishing, and kite surfing, as well as the rare chance to snorkel with humpback whales.

The main island, Vava’u, wraps around a deep, multi-armed harbor called the Port of Refuge. This is one of the best anchorages in the South Pacific, and a hub for water-sports outfitters, most of which are run by idyll-seeking expats from a dozen different countries.

“This really is the last paradise,” dive-shop owner Karen Stone, a Briton married to an American marine biologist, told me over drinks at one of the waterfront bars. “I’ve worked in the Caribbean, Palau, the Philippines, French Polynesia, but nothing comes close to Vava’u. The reefs around here are just incredible in terms of the variety and number of living things. There are wrecks and underwater caves. And the visibility … sometimes it seems like you can see forever. And don’t even get me started on the whales.”

Though I’d missed the July-September humpback season, my snorkeling excursions didn’t disappoint. The reefs of continued on pg. 128 Vava’u were thriving with lavender staghorn and pink brain corals, large golden sea fans and soft corals of a dozen different colors and textures, all surrounded by mobs of equally dazzling tropical fish. I also came across the barnacle-encrusted remains of a fishing boat in water shallow enough to explore without scuba gear.

Like many of those I met in Vava’u, the Stones were keen to preserve their adopted home. In addition to the research work they do on humpback whales, the couple are also involved in the Vava’u Environmental Protection Association, particularly a project to replant and nurture local mangroves.

Even the landed gentry were getting into the act. Former Tongan agriculture minister Haniteli Fa’anunu has transformed nine hectares of his family’s landholdings on the main island into the Ene’io Botanical Garden. “I figure that around half of my salary has gone into this garden over the last 40 years,” Haniteli told me on a Sunday afternoon stroll around the park. “I collect native plants–especially endangered species–and bring them here to propagate and preserve our biodiversity.”

Haniteli said that one of his proudest achievements was saving the Vava’u tuitui (candlenut) tree from extinction. “Someone told me there was only one left on the entire island. But when I got to that place, it was already gone. So I dug around in the soil and found nine seeds. I brought them back and planted them here.” He pointed to a tall and healthy looking tree. “That’s the result. I saved a species.”

Wilder still is Ha’apai, the third of Tonga’s major island groups. I flew there in a vintage DC-3 Dakota, built during World War II for service in the Royal New Zealand Air Force and now an inter-island passenger plane. Ha’apai’s only sealed road cuts across the runway on Lifuka Island, obliging airport workers to block it with manual crossing gates whenever a plane lands. Thankfully for local drivers, that’s only a couple of times a day.

Reaching my accommodation was another adventure, one that involved a rough-and-tumble journey in an old Land Rover across coral boulder-strewn tidal flats and a narrow jungle road. But the destination was worth the effort: a little German-run beach resort with its own strip of blazing-white sand, tile-floored bungalows shaded by coconut palms, and unobstructed views of the South Pacific.

I mustered enough energy for a cross-island walk to observe the western edge of the Tonga Trench, at 10,800 meters the second-deepest point on the planet. And I kayaked to a nearby island to see a jungle-covered “pigeon mound” once used by tribal chiefs to snare the local birdlife. But otherwise, my stay in Ha’apai was rest and relaxation: reading books on the beach, snoozing during the rains that came like clockwork every afternoon; watching the flying foxes swoosh across the sky at sunset; and admiring the twin volcanoes on the hazy horizon.

One, Mount Kao, a perfect cone rising 1,030 meters above the water, is still very much active, simmering and smoking. The other, Tofua, is dormant, but remembered for its role in the infamous mutiny on the Bounty, which took place in these waters in 1789. It was on Tofua that Captain Bligh and 18 loyal crewmates made their first landfall after being tossed off the ship–only to be chased back to sea by stone-wielding natives.

As it grew closer to the time for me to return home, I began feeling a bit mutinous myself. I figured that if I ever got up enough gumption to run away like the Bounty’s crew, this would be the perfect place… to work on my teki, perfect the finer points of fire dancing, and maybe even learn to play a ukulele with my teeth.


Getting There
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com) flies to Nuku’alofa from Auckland five times a week, while Chathams Pacific (chathamspacific.com) provides domestic service from Tongatapu to Vava’u, Ha’apai, and other islands in the Tongan archipelago.

When to Go
Tongans divide their year into two seasons: a “warm” period between December and April when rain (and cyclones) are more likely; and a “cool” season between May and November, when it’s drier and the tropical temperatures less oppressive. The latter is also the main sailing and whale-swimming season in Vava’u.

Where to Stay
** Loumaile Lodge: The best hotel in Nuku’alofa is within walking distance of the Royal Palace and the capital’s waterfront. Taufa’ahau Rd.; 676/28-444; loumaile.com; doubles from US$170.
** Fafá Island Resort: Tongatapu’s top beach property, with 13 thatched-roof bungalows located about 30 minutes by boat from Nuku’alofa. 676/22-800; fafaislandresort.com; doubles from US$240.
** Mounu Island Resort: A castaway vibe permeates this remote resort in the Vava’u group; whale watching, scuba, and kite surfing count among its extensive activities menu. 676/54-331; mounuisland.com; doubles from US$250.
** Sandy Beach Resort: Set on a secluded shore on the Ha’apai Group’s Lifuka Island, an adventurous 30-minute drive from the airfield. 676/69-600; sandybeachresort.de; doubles from US$112.

What to Do
** Deep Blue Diving: Scuba/snorkel trips from Nuku’alofa include pristine reefs and shipwrecks off Pangaimotu Island, plus time for a drink or two at Mama’s Yacht Club. 676/27-676; deep-blue-diving-tonga.com.
** Dive Vava’u: Whale-watching and swimming excursions in Vava’u. 676/70492; dive vavau.com.

Reading Material
Tonga has been the subject of numerous academic books, but little in the way of popular literature. Two of the more recent works are Tonga: In Search of the Friendly Islands by Tongan author Kalafi Moala, and Queen Salote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Both Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz and The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux contain Tonga chapters, though the latter is less than flattering.

Originally appeared in the June/July 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Blue Yonder”)

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