Malo Lelei, Tonga
Greeted by a cyclone and blown away by the sailing, charterers revel amid the islands, reefs, and people they encounter in this South Pacific kingdom.
It was still fairly dark, though already hot, when I brushed off the sheet and sat up in the cabin wondering which I’d heard first: the roosters, dogs, or squealing pigs? Then again, perhaps it was the sweet refrain of tenors accompanied by booming bass voices, soaring altos, and dizzying sopranos that got the critters and me going. Whatever. It was one hell of a racket coming from shore at the uncivilized hour of 0430—the start of another day in Tonga (see the photo gallery here).
Choir rehearsal is taken very seriously in this island kingdom, which lies a thousand or so nautical miles northeast of New Zealand and about half that distance to the east of Fiji. And though I’d read of the hymns and been advised to attend church if the opportunity arose, I was still unprepared for the early hour and great diligence with which the Tongans practice their faith. Payday, of course, comes every Sunday, when the churches—Mormon, Wesleyan, Catholic, and Tongan— in each village swell with women dressed in their ankle-length black dresses and men in their traditional tupenus, or black wrap-around skirts; both wear the traditional ta’valas and kafas, intricately woven mats and rope belts.
On a late-January Saturday, six of us New Englanders had stepped into the heavenly heat and humidity that consumes Tonga, meeting up at Fua’amotu International Airport in Nuku’alofa, on Tongatapu, a facility that’s not really as grand as its name might suggest. Still, it’s efficient in quickly processing visitors. We’d fretted over what we took to be strict requirements for immunization records—and wondered if we’d brought too much wine from the New Zealand duty-free shops at the Auckland airport—but we breezed through customs with nary an eyebrow raised and were greeted afterward by Vinnie ’O Fa, who offered up a hearty “Malo lelei!,” Tongan for hello. Vinnie’s sister, Pina, runs the family-owned Keleti International Resort, our accommodations for the next two nights.
Tongatapu, Tonga’s largest island, is at the kingdom’s extreme southern end. Meanwhile, the base shared by Sunsail and The Moorings is in Neiafu, on Vava’u, which is the biggest island in the far northern group of the same name. In between lie 170 islands scattered across 130 nautical miles of the Pacific, and for those arriving on a Saturday, there isn’t a prayer’s chance in hell of crossing any of it because the entire country shuts down on Sunday.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. After services at the Sa Paula Wesleyan Church, which my wife, Sue, our friend Paula, and I attended at Pina’s invitation (yes, the chorus was divine), we learned that on Tongatapu, at least, you can procure just about anything if you drive to the rear of a roadside Chinese market. There, through a closed metal grate, goods are readily available. Sunday afternoon is also the time families flock to the sea with picnic baskets brimming with food. All around us, Tongans chatted away in the shade or on the beach, many enjoying a cold Maka, the “Friendly Islands Lager” that we’d all grow quite fond of.
Though “resort” might be a stretch for the concrete-block bungalows where we stayed, the rooms and food more than suited our needs. On the beach, we snorkeled and swam in calm water inside the volcanic rim that lies just offshore. On the incoming tide, the Pacific swell strikes the rocks, sending waterspouts shooting skyward like Las Vegas fountains and spume cascading down the outcroppings like icing on a cake. During the winter, we were told, the whales come to Tonga, and they can often be seen breaching not far from shore. Locals keep a keen watch for them, as well as for the Japanese whaling ships that must be chased away.