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.
Late morning, we took the inflatable to visit and explore the white-sand beaches between Hunga and Foeata. We beached the boat, donned our masks and snorkels, and set out across the extensive coral reefs for what would be the trip’s best snorkeling. In three to 15 feet of clear water, we wandered down coral paths. Fish and colors sparkled everywhere. Back on the beach, the breathtaking palette of blues reflected off the reef-strewn shallows and were totally mesmerizing.
We waited until high tide to depart, then hoisted sail once more. Soon our reach became a beat into a gusty northeaster. We tacked often but made slow progress against wind and current, so eventually we motorsailed into the lee of Matamaka, where we found a neatly kept beach and village.
Ashore, flower gardens decorated the backyards of freshly painted houses. We walked along a sandy path between them and came across two youngsters who couldn’t wait to have their picture taken. Soon, their mother arrived and shyly showed us her tapas, traditional Tongan paintings drawn on rough paper made from mulberry. We agreed to meet her the next morning to see her collection, and also to take several pairs of reading glasses ashore to leave at the church. We’d brought them on the advice of sailing friends who said the glasses were greatly appreciated by the aging carvers and weavers who make their livelihoods with their sight and hands.
That evening, we watched a seriously listing fishing boat approach the stone pier, where 25 or so passengers, mostly children, disembarked. Later, a local fisherman named Ben pulled his boat alongside with his wife and two small kids. She told us how the children leave each week to attend school in Neiafu and return on Friday. In Tonga, where even electricity is a rare commodity, a great value is placed on education.
It’s another Tongan irony that fishermen such as Ben can easily fill their boats with fish each day but return to an island where few have enough money to buy them. Instead, the food is shared, as is the bounty of produce, so all seem to live well, if not “richly.”
On Saturday, we sailed to the large reef west of Euakafa, a wedge-shaped island that rises to a plateau some 270 feet above the water. Kerris had predicted it would be a reliable landmark when all the small islands to the south of Vava’u began to look similar. And it was.