The Kingdom of Tonga – Vava’u and Tongatapu

A relaxed helmsman!

Nothing could have surprised us more than the scenery on entering the Vava’u group of islands in Tonga.  We were met by limestone islands rising vertically from the sea, nearly all of them wooded with lush vegetation.  Our destination, Neiafu, the main town and check in port, is reached by threading one’s way past these islands and then up wide channels, before entering the harbour through a narrow pass.

Tonga generally is a poor country, and the buildings and state of the roads in Neiafu bore witness to this.  The town is built on the side of a steep hill running down to the waterfront, and ruins of old mansions overlooking the harbour are examples of the colonial past.  Whilst Tongans are the majority of inhabitants, the Chinese and expat community have made their mark, all believing that the grass is greener!  Bars and restaurants have new owners every 6 months or so!


There is the inevitable VHF radio net each morning, for the cruising community, seemingly run by Americans for Americans.  Unfortunately, the quality of the daily ‘broadcasts’ left much to be desired and normally long before the ‘commercials’ (a five minute spot advertising local cafes and eateries) had got under way, the Off switch was employed!

Once all the formalities had been dealt with, we were delighted to meet up with our friends Adrian & Jackie on Oceans Dream.  We had an excellent evening ashore at the Ovava restaurant, run by Lawrence who is originally from Essex.  This establishment was the only one of quality we found in Neiafu and the food delicious.  Look him up on  We stayed on in Neiafu for an extra couple of days to buy lovely fresh fruit and vegetables from the local market and to watch the England v France rugby match on Oceans Dream.  A disappointing result, but France deserved the win.

Islands, lagoons & numbered anchorages

It was then off to explore, and with in excess of 40 anchorages to choose from, we were spoilt for choice.  These are all numbered on a laminated chart made available and produced by the Moorings charter company.  No 16 was our first stop, where we just missed Mike and Hilde on Quicksilver, but met up again with Bernd and Elli on Elbe.  It provided us with the opportunity to have an tasty BBQ on Pipistrelle, with a joint of NZ lamb, expertly deboned by Bob, then carefully rolled and marinated by Elaine.

We anchored close to a reef between two islands, with aquamarine seas that we have become used to, and at low tide excellent snorkelling with many species that we had not come across before, such as blue starfish!  Landing was possible on one island, with a path to a pristine deserted beach on the far side….!  The secret in Vava’u is to find anchorages where the anchor can be dropped in sand, and for us, away from the madding crowd!

Pipistrelle in splendid isolation

On the deserted beach

Interesting snorkelling expedition….

Pink coral

Beautifully marked fish

Blue star fish

Coral - Crown of Thorns

Using our Tongan pilot book, we were able to do this, but learnt our lesson when anchoring in Neiafu, where the chain slid neatly down a crack between two coral bommies.  Extracting it with Pipistrelle swinging around in 15kn of breeze  took two snorkel excursions, and then some luck!  After that episode we rented a mooring for the night in this location!

We managed to visit several other anchorages in the area, including No 7 and a visit to Swallows Cave.  It was misnamed as the inhabitants are not swallows at all but swiftlets.  For all that, it was well worth the visit just to appreciate the colours of the water inside the cave and the hundreds of birds’ nests clinging like stalactites high above us.  At No 7 we came across Ian and Wendy on Remedy again after long spells of emailing and talking occasionally on the SSB.   We had first met in La Linea, Gibraltar in 2008, and then again in the BVIs in 2010.  They are on the final run home to New Zealand after their circumnavigation.  A very convivial evening ensued swapping mariners’ tales of course.

Swallows Cave

The time had come to move on after a last visit to Ovava for another delicious dinner.  It was a 170nm overnight sail to Tongatapu, sailing between the islands of the Ha’apai group and Tofua and Kao.  We were navigating in the same waters as the Mutiny on the Bounty took place in 1789.

The entry to Tongatapu, the capital of Tonga could not have been in greater contrast.  A vast lagoon littered with coral, and a number of very low-lying islands scattered over a large area.  We followed the main shipping route, and then anchored in sand off the island of Pangaimotu, just over a mile to the north of the main town, Nuku’alofa.

We had read that the small boat harbour is not the place to stay, so once anchored Bob took the dinghy across the lagoon to check in.  The harbour and wharf, where Customs and the Port Authorities are, is dirty and dusty, with stern-to moorings, no services and very little to commend it.

Our anchorage was by contrast fairly well sheltered, had good holding, and with the benefit of Big Mama’s restaurant and bar.  We found Ana, aka Big Mama, helpful and kind in the extreme.  The food was good and reasonable (we ate fish and chips there twice), wifi access, and a ferry 3 times a day to the wharf providing access to the town.

The Royal Palace

George Tupou V - current monarch's crest on palace gate

We visited the Royal Palace, now no longer inhabited by the King, probably because the town is so dirty.  It does have splendid views across the harbour, and is now only used for official functions.  The Royal Family of Tonga is very well known ….Queen Salote attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and famously rode bareheaded in an open landau through the streets of London in pouring rain.  Her son, King Tupou IV was renowned as the world’s heaviest monarch, weighing in at 444lb.  Surprisingly he lived until he was 88 and died in 2006.

As soon as we had completed the necessary jobs before the onward passage to New Zealand, some 1100nm distant, we checked out, refueled and set sail.  This time the list included getting the duvet out of deep storage, checking our warm clothing (fleeces, hats, socks, seaboots, wet weather gear), making sure the heating still worked, filling the ‘grab bag’ with important items and documents.  Most importantly we checked the deck fittings and rigging for this challenging sail.  And for the first time in about eighteen months, we did not need to provision.  It was rather more a question of trying to eat/cook all the supplies that would be on the confiscation list of the NZ quarantine authorities.

And so we said goodbye to ‘The Friendly Islands’, as Tonga is known, the Tropics and all that goes with those latitudes …

Typical Tropics

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