Last Updated on February 12, 2021 I recently went on a twenty-day cruise around some of the Pacific Islands with Holland America Line on the MS Maasdam. We visited New Zealand, the Kingdom of Tonga, Fiji, and New Caledonia. Of all the destinations we visited, the Kingdom of Tonga was the most fascinating one. The Kingdom of Tonga offers stunning views guaranteed to sweep you off of your feet. It also isn’t overrun by tourists unlike some of the other Pacific Islands. It’s a dreamy destination that’s perfect for those who are searching for a pure tropical wonderland.
We visited two ports here – Nuku’alofa and Vava’u with Nuku’alofa being the most adventuresome. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I had never heard of the Kingdom of Tonga before booking this cruise. Before I go on cruises, I like to research the ports we are visiting to prepare myself. Unfortunately, I found very limited information about the two ports. As a result, I’m writing this post to share everything you need to know about visiting Nuku’alofa so you’re well prepared. It’s a gorgeous port and I want you to have the same great experience I did.
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Basic Facts About the Kingdom of Tonga
- Lying approximately 1800 kilometers away from New Zealand’s north island, Tonga is an archipelago comprised of some 170 islands. Only 36 are inhabited. The population is approximately 170,000.
- Tonga remains the South Pacific’s only kingdom and the monarchy is over 1000 years old.
- The Tongan culture is rich and authentic as it’s the only Pacific Island nation that hasn’t been colonized by a foreign power.
- Tonga is a Christian and very conservative nation. Our cruise director told us that any religion besides Christianity is illegal here. I’m not sure if that statement is entirely true or not, so you may have to verify this.
- The major languages are Tongan and English. I don’t think I met a local who didn’t speak English.
- Tonga earned the nickname the “Friendly Islands” in 1773 because of how kind and hospitable they were to Captain Cook. In my opinion, this name holds true to this day. Tongans are some of the friendliest people I’ve met in my travels.
- The currency is Pa’anga.
- Tonga has a warm and tropical climate. Therefore, you can expect it to be warm and humid no matter when you visit. The warmer months are December through April and the average temperature is around 31 degrees Celcius. However, the afternoon and evening tradewinds will cool you down. The cooler months are May through November and the average temperature is around 24 degrees Celcius.
- Tipping is not required in Tonga. Nonetheless, you should still tip if you’ve experienced great service – which I know you will.
- 70% of Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, which is where Nuku’alofa is located.
- Forestry, agriculture, and fisheries are the main means of employment. Many crops are grown such as bananas, vanilla beans, coffee beans, sweet potatoes, cassavas, and taro.
- The literacy rate in Tonga is around 99%.
- Nuku’alofa is the capital of Tonga.
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Travel Tips for Nuku’alofa
- Your ship will dock at Vuna Wharf. The wharf is in an excellent location as it’s only a ten-minute walk into town. The Visitor Information Centre is a close walk from the wharf too. It has heaps of maps and brochures.
- After you disembark the ship and are walking to town, you’ll see plenty of taxi drivers and tour operators waiting to show you around the island. We hired a driver privately for four hours and we paid 70 USD in total. This is cheaper than the sightseeing excursion the ship offered. He asked for 130 USD and we negotiated him down to 70 USD. After speaking to several other passengers, it seemed as if 40-50 USD was typical to pay for a private tour. It’s important to negotiate what you think is a fair price. With that being said, please be mindful and don’t make an insulting offer. If you want to save even more money, share a tour with other passengers. Lastly, tour prices are quoted per person.
- The tour operators I mentioned above will not accept credit cards. However, they will accept USD, AUD, and local currency.
- Don’t expect to rent a car in Nuku’alofa. Tonga does not honor international driving permits.
- Credit cards are accepted in Nuku’alofa, but you may have a hard time finding places that accept them. Therefore, it’s wise to have USD, AUD, or local currency on you.
- There are quite a few ATMs in Nuku’alofa. We had the best luck with ANZ.
- Don’t expect to have reliable WiFi here. It’s expensive and doesn’t work very well. If you can’t afford to unplug while visiting here, Friends Cafe offers free WiFi. Reload Bar also offers free WiFi as long as you purchase a drink. The WiFi was slow here, but they accept credit cards. Speaking of bars, do not get the apple cider. It was pretty terrible. As a wannabe cider connoisseur, I feel like it’s my obligation to save my fellow cider lovers from disappointment.
- Dress conservatively when visiting Tonga. A general rule of thumb for visiting here is to dress how you would in a Muslim country. Do not show off cleavage and remember to cover your shoulders and knees. Do not walk around town in just your swim shorts or bikini – leave that for the beach only. See-through materials are also off the table. Also, Tongans swim fully clothed.
- Sunday is a day of rest for Tongans. They use this day to attend church and be with family. If you are visiting on a Sunday, do not expect anything to be open except for hospitals and a few businesses that tend to tourists.
- When sightseeing in Nuku’alofa, be sure to wave at the locals. They are incredibly friendly and they love to smile and wave back at you.
- You may be fortunate enough to visit Nufu’aloka during whale season which runs from July to October. You can actually swim/snorkel with whales here. But, keep in mind to only use a licensed operator.
Things to Do in Nuku’alofa
1. Royal Palace
This wooden palace was built in 1867 and serves as the official residence of the King of Tonga. Unfortunately, you can’t go inside the palace. However, you can admire it from outside. The palace is just a short walk from Vuna Wharf.
2. Mala’Ekula Royal Tombs
This has been the resting place of royals since 1893. Once again, this cemetery does not allow visitors. However, you can take a peek from outside. If you’re taking a tour, you can ask your driver to drive by it. That’s what we did. Hence, the low-quality picture I have of this complex. These tombs aren’t too far away from the Royal Palace.
3. Tsunami Rock
Also known as Maka Sio’Ata, this is literally a gigantic ball of tsunami debris. It’s believed to be the largest tsunami debris ever found. It’s about three stories high and neighbors a beach. Do not try to climb this rock as you will get injured. There isn’t an entry fee.
4. Abel Tasman Landing Site
This is the first landing spot of Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. There’s a monument here to celebrate his “discovery” of Tongatapu. It’s basically a plaque at the end of the road and there isn’t much to see around here. Once again, there’s no entry fee.
5. Mapu’a ‘a Vaea Blowholes
Watching these blowholes was my favorite activity of the day. These natural blowholes are situated on the rocky coastline in Houma and they stretch for 5 kilometers. When the waves crash along the reef, the water will blow through the volcanic channels and create gushes of water soaring through the air. They don’t charge an entrance fee here. You can observe the blowholes from the main lookout point or you can walk around the area and explore. We walked a little further and weren’t surrounded by other tourists. Also, locals have booths set up to sell souvenirs.
6. Captain Cook’s Landing Place
There’s a large monument here that commemorates Captain Cook’s third landing in Tonga back in 1777. I don’t have a photo from here – it was starting to rain heavily and I was focused on running back to the car. Sorry, guys. You’ll also see a few local women selling handmade jewelry and other souvenirs here. The entrance is free.
7. Ha’amonga ‘a Maui
This is a trilithon that is composed of three slabs of coral limestone. It was built at the beginning of the 13th century and is believed to have been made by the god, Maui. It has the resemblance of Stonehenge. There are many theories about the purpose of this structure. Some believe that it was a gateway to a royal compound. It’s also believed to be able to track seasons. The entry is free.
8. Anahulu Caves
This is a freshwater cave filled with stalagmites and stalactites. You’ll find a “pool” where you can swim inside the cave. There is an entrance fee for this cave, but I’m not entirely sure what it is.
9. Mu’a Stone Pyramids
In this area, there are 28 royal tombs that are built with humongous slabs of limestone. However, only two of them are easily accessible. The two most important ones are Paepae’o Tele’a and Ha’amonga’a Maui.
10. Three-Headed Coconut Tree
This is exactly what it sounds like it is – it’s a coconut tree with three crowns. Locals swear this is the only one in the Polynesian world. They deem it is a natural wonder. Ask your driver about this and they will point it out for you.
11. Fishing Pigs
I know this sounds unusual to you, but the concept is pretty interesting. Keep your eyes open for pigs along the beach when the tide is out. They make their way into the water and indulge in delicacies such as fish and clams. Rumor on the street is that these pigs taste better and saltier. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any.
12. Relax on the Beach
You won’t find a shortage of beautiful beaches in Nuku’alofa. The sand is golden and soft and the water is beyond clear and blue. Locals say the best beach is Ha’atafu Beach near Kolovai Village.
There you have it – everything you need to know about visiting Nuku’alofa so you can make the most of your port day here. As I said before, Tonga is a magnificent country that everyone should visit at least once in their lives.
Resources for Your Visit to Nuku’alofa
Travel Insurance: Tonga is a fairly safe country, but you never know when accidents can happen. Don’t forget to protect yourself against unexpected illnesses, theft and more. RoamRight has great customer service and benefits.
Tours: If you’re not into paying for the overpriced excursions that are offered on the ship and you don’t want to wait until the day of to snag a tour with a local, book your excursion in advance with Viator. The tour guides and drivers are reliable and you’ll have a great experience sightseeing around the island.
Do you have any questions about visiting Nuku’alofa or Tonga in general? Let me know in the comments below.
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