In the Kingdom of Tonga, underwater wonders and Polynesian hospitality
As I stepped off the little boat after 48 hours of travel, I felt a little like Tom Sawyer. Mostly because my family would be staying in a treehouse. But also because the island looked like something out of a storybook.
The jungle-covered knoll crested gently out of the sea, a small dot punctuating the lagoon between larger islands. A hammock swung between two coconut trees on a sliver of beach, the white sand stark against the green-blue water. The open-air restaurant blended neatly into the landscape, its artistic curves mimicking nature's swoops and spirals.
I guessed that it would take 20 minutes, tops, to swim around the whole island.
"Welcome to paradise," said Ben Newton, owner of Mandala Island Resort. He nodded toward two black dogs wagging their tails. "Meet the gatekeepers, Higgs and Boson."
We'd made it to Vava'u in the Kingdom of Tonga, a far-flung destination in the South Pacific. It looked well worth the complicated travel logistics.
From our home in the US state of Montana we'd taken a short domestic flight from Missoula to Los Angeles, then flown overnight on Fiji Airways to Nadi, Fiji, before hopping a small propeller plane to fly 500 miles (804.6km) east to Tonga's Vava'u island group. At the tiny airport, we loaded into a taxi with a friendly local woman (and her high-pitched giggle).
She gave us the "grand tour" of Neiafu, the capital of Vava'u, using animated facial expressions more often than words to describe landmarks. (I later learned that Tongans are renowned for their ability to convey meaning through intricate eyebrow movements, and would watch entire conversations take place in silence.)
With 6000 residents, Neiafu is Tonga's second-largest city - although calling its few paved roads and colourful one-story buildings a "city" was a stretch. An outdoor market beckoned near the wharf, coconuts and pineapples heaped on folding tables. Bells tolled from a white church, and a coffee shop promised ice, laundry services and pay-by-the-hour computers. Behind a mint-green wall, the small grocery store sold scoops of vanilla or strawberry ice cream. Stucco arches framed the patio of an Italian restaurant, one of only a handful in town, our driver said, "since most tourists eat at the resorts on the outer islands".
The kingdom's 169 islands are spread over the same amount of ocean as the Caribbean chain. But they're home to far fewer people - 108,000 compared to nearly 44 million in the Caribbean. Tonga's sparse population and minimal tourist traffic make it a gem for those seeking up-close contact with underwater wonders and immersion in traditional Polynesian culture. We were here for both.
Saying goodbye to our taxi-driver tour guide, we walked down a wooden dock to meet Ben. As we loaded our luggage into his boat, I asked him about the pigs wandering sedately along the road.
"Pigs have right of way in Tonga," Ben said and smiled. The free-range animals are a favourite food and a form of currency, he said. The more pigs you have for guests to eat at your funeral or wedding, the more esteemed your status.
On the 10-minute ride to the resort, Ben pointed out highlights as we zoomed past them. There were fruit bats hanging upside-down from thick tree limbs on Mafana island that were as long as my arm and as wide as my torso. The fringing reef, with waves breaking over it in the distance, was where sharks, dolphins and hypercolor fish frolicked in coral caverns. In the village of Ofu, cows mooed next to fishing nets on the beach.
Since we had arrived on a Sunday, the village of Ofu was deserted, save for livestock. In the Kingdom of Tonga, respect for religion ranks as high as it does for royalty. The country shuts down on Sundays, when it's illegal to swim, play loud music or conduct business. Ben promised to take us to a traditional kava circle in the village the next evening, where the men sang in three-part harmony while drinking cupfuls of a muddy, mildly intoxicating liquid made from the local kava root.
At Mandala, we hopped off the boat and followed Ben along the flower-lined path to our treehouse. The dogs scampered with us up homemade sand flagstones. Our home away from home was breathtaking: Bamboo-trimmed walls curved around a gnarled trunk and the outdoor shower was supported on leafy limbs. I put our bags on a big bed surrounded by gauzy mosquito nets while our son clambered up to claim the window seat, which also served as a daybed. The deck overlooking the ocean was ringed by a banister of driftwood and rope.
As my husband and son geared up for a swim, I opted for a ride on the wooden tree swing, which launched me out over the coral-studded shallows. Then I took a map to a hammock to get my bearings.
Vava'u is composed of about 60 islands, most of them small and uninhabited. During much of the summer offseason, Ben and his wife, Lisa, are the only residents on their two-acre island, aside from Higgs, Boson, and their cat, Penzini. But from June through November, the resort's six seaside treehouses (fales) are booked with visitors.
In 2002, the American couple sold their home and businesses in northern California to sail across the Pacific. Ben and Lisa knew next to nothing about the Kingdom of Tonga before dropping anchor in Vava'u in 2004. But as they explored its vibrant waters and found friends among the cheerful locals, Ben and Lisa felt that they'd found a new home. They opened a restaurant and other tourism-based businesses in Neiafu, and began dreaming about building their own eco-resort. Mandala Island Resort officially opened in 2013.
During our February visit, we planned to scuba dive through caves, spearfish on the reef and sail around Vava'u's yacht-friendly lagoon. Most visitors avoid the South Pacific during its cyclone season, but we didn't mind the warm rain. It was a welcome change from the icy Montana winter we'd just escaped.
Plus, since we were the only ones at the resort, we had our pick of the many toys. Now that I'd seen the treehouse, though, I penciled in more time to simply sit on the deck, soaking in Vava'u's vivid hues.
The next morning, I enjoyed a frittata and tropical fruit smoothie in the restaurant while my husband slept in. We planned to ask Ben to shuttle us to Neiafu for a dinner or two at a local restaurant, but it was relaxing to eat most of our meals barefoot, just a few steps from the treehouse.
I took my coffee to the beach, watching herons stalk among the exposed rocks while a school of bait made dark swirls in the clear water. My son clapped in glee when they jumped out in silvery bursts to escape the barracudas and jacks in search of breakfast. I could hardly wait for my chance to get an up-close look at the underwater action.
By 9 am, I'd hunted down Ben to ask advice on where to snorkel. Donning a skinsuit as protection from the tropical sun, I listened to Ben explain how to use his "new favourite gadget" - a Sea Scooter that looked like a torpedo-shaped fan with handlebars. You simply hold down a trigger and it propels you along at 5 mph (8.05 kmh).
"This will turn you into a dolphin," Ben said.
He was right. I spent over an hour in the ocean doing barrel rolls, peeking under coral bommies, swirling in circles through a river of bait fish, and diving down to study moray eels and clown fish.
The following evening we kayaked to a nearby sand cay that only appeared at low tide. It gleamed bright on the wide-open horizon, a white pyramid lapped by small waves. Two baby sharks cruised by to say hello during our picnic dinner.
On the paddle home, as the sunset streaked pink across the sky, I decided that the Kingdom of Tonga had Tom Sawyer's island beat, hands down.
- - -
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Mandala Island Resort
Fetoko Island, Vava'u, Tonga
Eco-resort with fales (a house with open sides and a thatched roof) from US$230 (NZ$317). All-inclusive tour packages start at US$2200 ($3038) for two adults.
WHAT TO DO
'Ene'io Botanical Gardens
'Ene'io Beach, Tu'anekivale, Vava'u, Tonga
Tonga's only botanical garden, featuring beautiful flora near a lovely swimming beach, and traditional meals at the beachside restaurant and bar. Open daily, advance booking required. Guided tours start at US$15.
- The Washington Post