Tongatapu

Travel Guide Oceania Polynesia Tonga Tongatapu

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Introduction

Tongatapu is Tonga's largest island with over two-thirds of the country's small population. It is located in Tonga's southern island group, to which it gives its name. Tongatapu is Tonga's centre of government and the seat of its monarchy. Tongatapu, as a commercial and transport hub, has (led by Nukuʻalofa) experienced more rapid economic development than, as well as attracting many internal migrants from, the other islands of the Kingdom.

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Geography

The island is 257.03 square kilometres (or 260.48 square kilometres including neighbouring islands) and rather flat, as it is built of coral limestone. The island is covered with thick fertile soil consisting of volcanic ash from neighboring volcanoes. At the steep coast of the south, heights reach an average of 35 metres gradually decreasing towards the north. Tongatapu is highest in elevation around the villages of Fua'amotu and Nakolo with a height of 65 metres.

North of the island are many small isolated islands and coral reefs which extend up to 7 kilometres from Tongatapu's shores. The almost completely closed Fanga'uta and Fangakakau Lagoons are important breeding grounds for birds and fish as they live within the mangroves growing around the lagoon's shores. The lagoons were declared a Natural Reserve in 1974 by the government.

The island has only but a few sandy beaches because of its raised coastlines apart from the many small islands in the north boasting some of the best beaches in Tongatapu.

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Cities

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Sights and Activities

The Mapu'a 'a Vaca Blowholes ('Mapu'a 'a Vaca' means 'Chief's Whistles') stretch for 5 kilometres along the southern shore of the island of Tongatapu. The Blowholes are best viewed on days when there is a strong wind and at high tide. Then the maximum amount of water is forced up through natural vents in the coral limestone, thus forming geyser-like fountains of seawater up to 30 metres high.

Tongatapu has more to offer than the blowholes. Take your time on the biggest island in the east of the Tonga chain to admire the archaeological sit of Mu’a. It contains the richest concentration of archaeological remnants in Tonga. Here you will see pyramids which once functioned as royal tombs. The Ha’amonga ’a Maui Trilithon is a large gate of stone. There are marks on this gate which function as a way to see when the sun sets and rises and when the longest and shortest days of the year are. This means people living here in the past were already aware of the presence of a certain form of time and were actually quite developed back then. Nowadays, the people here are a big draw still and it is a very relaxing island to visit.

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Events and Festivals

Heilala

The largest festival in Tonga is celebrated nationally. On July 4, Tongans celebrate the birthday of their king, which is then followed by a week-long festival. Almost like clockwork, this time of year coincides with the flowering of the heilala, which is Tonga’s national flower. The locals are proud of this beautiful tropical flower that unfolds a pink, cross-like shape, and as part of the festival, they adorn themselves in heilala necklaces.

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Weather

Tongatapu has pleasantly warm but humid tropical climate. Daytime temperatures are around 30 °C while night are still wel above 20 °C. The wet season lasts from November to April while the period from May to October sees less rain and more sun. Still, some heavy showers are possible during this time but it is the best time to visit Tonga if you want to avoid most of the rainy days.

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Getting There

By Plane

Visitors will arrive at Fua'amotu International Airport (TBU), not far from the capital Nuku'alofa on the Tongatapu Island group. There are direct flights with Polynesian Airlines from Apia in Samoa and several cities in New Zealand, as well as with Air New Zealand from Auckland. In addition, Fiji Airways and Pacific Blue fly from Nadi onFiji and Australia respectively. Air Fiji flies from the Fiji Islands as well, serving Suva.

By Boat

Local ferries sail between all the island groups, but services are erratic and not comfortable at all. There are regular sailings though from Queen Salote Wharf in Nuku'alofa to Ha'apai and Vava'u. Ferry schedules are subject to change and are subject to demand or weather as well. To the Northern Islands, the following are the main options:

  • The MV 'Olovaha is operated by the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia in Nuku'alofa (scp@tonfon.to) runs a weekly service between Tongatapu (Nuku'alofa), Ha'apai (Ha'afeva and Lifuka Islands) and Vava'u (Neiafu).
  • The same ship also services the Niuas every two months but as it relies on government subsidies for the trip, it may run more or less frequently to these remote islands. From Vava'u to Niuatoputapu it takes about 24 hours, and an additional 12 to 15 hours to Niuafo'ou.
  • The MV Pulupaki is operated by Uata Shipping Line (uataline@kalianet.to) and travels between Tongatapu and Vava'u.
  • The trip across to 'Eua from Tongatapu takes two to three hours. The return leg from 'Eua to Nuku'alofa is usually a little quicker. A one-way fare is T$20 and tickets are sold on board the ferries.
  • The Uata Shipping Line also operates the MV Ikale, the fastest ferry between Tongatapu and 'Eua. The ferry leaves Nuku'alofa at 12:30pm and returns from 'Eua around 5:00am the next day. It travels daily, except Sundays.
  • Finally, the MV 'Otu Tonga, run by Tofa Shipping also travels between Nuku'alofa and 'Eua. It departs around noon on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Sometimes, the MV 'Alaimoana makes this trip.

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Getting Around

By Car

Tongatapu can just about be seen in one day by car or motorbike. You can rent cars and motor scooters. A Tongan driver's license for T$25 is available and can be obtained at the police department with your home license.There are few road signs on Tongatapu so you'll need a good map if you're touring in a car. The speed limit on most of the island is 50 kph and this is stuck to by the local drivers. The Police have radar guns to check. The roads are good in and around Nuku'alofa but deteriorate the further from the town and the further south you travel.You can hire a car from the Friend's Tourist Centre (near the main post office) for about 50 Pa'anga and a tour of the island is about 120 km.

Many cars on the island are in a terrible state, maintained on a budget and held together by a combination of 'Western Union' stickers and prayer. The low speed limit helps to keep accidents down. However, in recent years there have been a large number of imports of reconditioned Japanese cars and the general quality of vehicles is improving. Available cars for rent are good.

By Bus

Buses to various points on Tongatapu run from the bus concourse on the seafront in Nuku'alofa although there are no timetables posted and local sources say that they are not reliable after about 1530 hours on most days. With few bus stops you just stand on the side of the road and flag the driver down (do not wave, they will wave back and keep driving). The most popular buses in Tonga are generally the loudest, so when you want to get off a reasonably loud "STOP" will do it (again, just anywhere you want them to stop). If you don't like kids or crowds avoid the buses at the end-of-school time, they get packed out and the only limit on how many people in a bus is how many can fit in. The general cost of getting from Nuku`alofa to the surfing destination of Ha`atafu on the western peninsula is roughly T$2.20.

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Eat

Tongan feasts are a must-do. Tour companies and hotels organize feasts, together with traditional dancing, on several nights of the week on Tongatapu and in Vava'u.

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Drink

Beer and liquor are available from many outlets, including Fijian, Australian and New Zealand imports to complement the local brews. If you are keen to check out native drink, try Kava (something like liquid novacaine) at least once.

The local beer is called Ikale and is sold in 330 ml bottles in most restaurants and bars (4.50-5 pa'anga). Or you can buy the same bottles from one of the many 'Chinese' roadside shops or a supermarket for 2 pa'anga or less. Imported beers are mainly from Australia although there are also some from Europe. Most are sold in 330 ml cans or bottles.

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Sleep

There is a wide range of accommodation in Tonga, ranging from luxurious to budget. Most have relatively few rooms, though. The Tonga Visitors Bureau has a full listing.

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Tongatapu Travel Helpers

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This is version 1. Last edited at 14:28 on Jul 17, 17 by Utrecht. 2 articles link to this page.

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