If there’s one thing wrong with the Vava’u Group of islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, it’s that they’re too beautiful. If there’s a second thing wrong with them, it’s that there are too many lovely anchorages arranged so closely together that you can’t move more than a mile or two without bumping into another one, and you get tired of hearing the crew say over and over again, "it’s beautiful," "it’s lovely," "it’s gorgeous here," etc.
The Kingdom of Tonga is nestled some 1,100 miles south of the Equator in the southwestern Pacific. Originally settled around 1000 B.C., it long has been thought to be the birthplace of Polynesia. Shouten and Lemaire were the first European explorers to see the islands around 1616. In 1773, 1774, and again in 1777, Capt. James Cook spent some enjoyable time here, naming them the Friendly Islands, a moniker that proved less than accurate when Bligh lost a crewman following the infamous mutiny that occurred in these waters.
There are three main island groups, with the capital being Nuku’alofa in the Tongatapu Group to the south. Although there are historical places to visit there, and larger markets, many, if not most, yachts never venture farther south than the Vava’u Group in the north.
These were the garden islands for the rulers of olden days, and they still produce most of the fresh produce grown in the islands. Although the market in Neiafu (the commercial center of the island group) doesn’t have everything you may want every daywe recently went through a three-week onion shortagewith a little patience, you eventually get what you desire.
The Vava’u Group consists of a few dozen islands scattered throughout a 300-square-mile area, 15 miles east and west and 20 miles north and south. Approaching from the north, west, or south, the Faihava Passage is wide and unencumbered, with no off-lying dangers to worry about. Once in through the pass itself, voyagers find themselves in an area of very deep water, with mushroom-shaped islets and islands that resemble those of the Palau group of the northwestern Pacific where the sea has eroded their bases. There are some reef areas, but careful eyeball navigation is all that is needed to safely negotiate the tight spots. Numerous sea caves and lava tubes permeate the group, and beautiful sand beaches, well-protected anchorages, and coral gardens await those voyagers who decide to spend some time here.
From the pass, it is an easy six-mile trip up through the fjord-like passage to The Bay of Refuge and Neiafu, the main village, where clearing in or out is a simple formality. During working hours, yachts proceed to the main wharf and tie up with the Q flag flying. Sometimes customs will monitor VHF Channel 16, but if you get no response on the radio, and if customs doesn’t see you and come down within half an hour, just walk the 100 yards to the customs shed and report in. They will send you back to your yacht and will advise immigrations and agriculture of your arrival. All will come to the yacht to take care of their business. A nice touch is to provide a small snack of iced-tea or juice and some sandwiches or cookies for the officials. Should you arrive at night or on weekends or holidays, they expect you to anchor out with the Q flag flying. Once cleared in, you have a 24-hour window to purchase duty-free supplies, a pleasant feature.
Tonga has never been colonized and thus has no larger country to provide monetary aid. The people are quite industrious and paddle out to yachts in many of the anchorages to sell fruits, vegetables, fish, lobster, and beautiful handmade woven baskets and painted tapa cloth. The handicrafts of the Tongan people are second to none, especially the woven baskets, tapa cloths, and wood carvings. Besides what we wanted for our own souvenirs, we decided to give many as Christmas gifts, packaging them in a large basket and sending them back to the mainland U.S. as surface freight for a very reasonable cost.
During the Tongan winter months (June through September) the weather is usually quite settled and comfortable, although some years it will come under the influence of the South Pacific Convergence Zone, which will bring weeks of overcast skies with occasional rain showers. Daytime temperatures run in the high 70s to low 80s, cooling off quite rapidly as the sun goes down.
As mentioned earlier, one of the nicest things about the Vava’u Group is that there are so many anchorages within mere miles of each other, none of them requiring the voyager to go out into the open ocean. Additionally, hurricane holes are numerous and provide relatively safe anchorages even during cyclone conditionsalthough no anchorage is ever 100% secure against the mightiest of these foes.
The land rises steeply from the shore in most areas, and all of the islands are wooded, being covered with coconut palms, pandanus, hau, frangipani, and other trees and bushes. Most of the habitations are located on higher ground. The depths between most of the islands are well in excess of 150 feet, shoaling quite rapidly as you approach shore in the areas where anchorages are available, and steep-to where they are not. There are two interesting caves in the area that are quite near each other: Swallows Cave, into which one can take a dingy; and Mariner’s Cave, which is entered only by an underwater tube. Those who have dived into it say that, if you can snorkel well enough to dive under a yacht with a six-foot draft, and surface 10 feet on the other side of it, you will have no problem with the entry. I wouldn’t knowas I can’tbut one of my guests went in and mentioned that each time a wave surges against the opening, which increases the pressure inside the cave, a green mist forms and you can feel the pressure on your ears.
During the months of May through August, humpback whales come into Vava’u to breed and calf. On one occasion, while our guest was diving into Mariner’s Cave, our steel ketch Havaiki was examined by a 30-foot humpback that kept swimming around us, perhaps attracted by the rhythmic sounds of our watermaker. At other times we were thrilled by the antics of larger whales coming completely out of the water as they broached.
The voyagers that decide to spend a few months in Vava’u end up using Neiafu as their reprovisioning center. Most come in weekly or bi-weekly for the purpose, congregating at The Bounty Bar, which overlooks the harbor in the center of town, or at Ana’s Waterfront Café, part of The Moorings charter yacht operation. Bill Bailey and Lisa White of The Moorings go out of their way to help out voyagers, even allowing them to deposit accumulated trash in their receptaclea great help as there is no organized trash collection on the islands.
Voyagers can receive mail and packages at the post office via General Delivery. It sometimes takes a day or two after the mail arrives for it to be ready for pick-up, as each piece of mail is laboriously enteredby handinto two notebooks. One is for letters, and the other is for packages. Most air parcel post mail takes only 14 to 21 days to arrive from the mainland U.S. In addition, The Bounty Bar, The Moorings, and the Paradise Hotel all receive faxes and mail for voyagers. A voyager’s net operates Monday through Friday at 0830 local time, on VHF channel 6. By listening to this, one can hear who has arrived, who is leaving, the weather, the tides, who has faxes or mail at the above-mentioned commercial locations, and other useful yachty information. The communications center in town provides 24-hour-a-day phone service, so the voyager is never really out of touch with the rest of the world. Air transportation is somewhat convoluted, though, requiring the passenger to fly either to Honolulu and then to Samoa on Hawaiian Air’s twice-weekly flight, connecting with Air Samoa’s twice-weekly flight to Neiafu after an overnight stay or two in Pago Pago; or via Fiji to Nuku’alofa and then up to Neiafu via Air Tonga, which flies two flights a dayexcept on Sundays, when no work is done in Tonga.
Ana’s, with its large dingy dock, is the main voyagers’ hangout in Vava’u. After climbing the stairs to High Street, it is a just a short walk to downtown. Tokens can be purchased for fresh hot- and cold-water showers at The Moorings, and the evening happy hour is well attended. Wednesday mornings usually develop into Scrabble contests, with two Scrabble sets being available. The restaurant itself is built just in front of a beautiful little rock grotto that serves as a sort of hideaway, holding a few small tables.
There are two laundry services available in Neiafu. Celina’s Laundry picks up and delivers to Ana’s, or you can walk up the stairs to the Vava’u Laundry located across the street from The Moorings. Many small parts and tools can be located in one of the three or four auto parts stores in town.
Voyager’s can join The Port of Refuge Yacht Club at Ana’s for a one-time $5 membership fee, entitling the member to free local phone calls, free incoming faxes, and a discount on shower tokens.
Tongan feasts are held on various nights throughout the island group, which receive mixed reviews. Numerous bar/resorts are scattered throughout the islands, although the use of the term resort is misleading in a few cases, with accommodations being no more than palm-leaf shacks and beds that are merely pieces of wood laid on concrete blocks and covered with mosquito netting. There are a number of restaurants in the area, and those that sport living quarters, such as hotels, are opened nightly, including Sundays. Restaurants without lodgings are closed on Sundays, as is everything else.For a really nice introduction to the various anchorages, The Moorings has prepared an excellent cruising guide based on numbers they have given the various anchorages in the area. These (as well as its chart) can be obtained through The Moorings, The Armchair Sailor, or other yacht-supply outlets. Even the local people now tend to refer to the harbors by number rather than name.Free-range porkUnusual sights and sounds abound here. One of the more interesting sights around the islands are the numbers of pigs that roam around. It’s not unusual to see a sow followed by half a dozen or more piglets scurrying across the road to scrounge around in the vacant lots or along the shore. They seem to be more numerous than dogs around the area, and more destructive. Most homes are surrounded with fencing of some sort to keep the pigs out, and you will even notice fences of branches running from shore out to sea in various places that serve the same purpose. While anchored in Neiafu Harbor, you will hear muffled generators of cargo and passenger ships at the main wharf, a few dogs on shore, the ubiquitous Pacific Island roosters, and church bells. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church stands on the highest hill overlooking the harbor, and from time to time you will hear the beautiful tones of the steeple bells as well as bells from other churches in town. On Sundays, daily morning mass, and whenever the choir practices, the magnificent vocal strains can be heard in the harbor. At other anchorages you will hear crickets and three or four different songbirds, as well as a rooster or two and perhaps a rare dog.The beautiful island of Hunga forms the south side of the main pass. This island is unique in the Vava’u group, as it is the only one with its own beautiful, well-protected lagoon. Entrance to the lagoon is gained by entering through a 95-foot-wide pass on the seaward (western) side of the island. Timing, though not critical, is important, and once through the pass itself you must cross over a coral reef that provides six-feet of depth at low tide, so entering within two hours of high tide will allow your heart to pump a little slower. Once inside the lagoon, a turn to the northwest corner will bring you to the Club Hunga, where Pete and Hapi Appleton have spent the past few years building up their voyager-orientated bar and restaurant. Hapi stays busy trying to teach the young village girls traditional Tongan dances, songs, and customs, sometimes putting on shows at the club, usually on Friday nights when they have their yachtie feast. Hapi also leads visitors on what she calls a bush walk through her plantation and up to village of Hunga (population 300), located on the northeastern hilltop, explaining the various uses (including medicinal) of the trees, plants, and vines that grow there. During whale season the walk will lead you along a cliff from where you can usually spot whales playing outside the pass. She teaches her visitors to plait baskets and roof coverings from coconut fronds, while Peter will show off Einey, his beer-guzzling pet pig.
One day we went to church with Hapi in the village of Hunga. It just so happened that the minister was retiring that day, and the village was throwing a going-away feast in his honor. Everyone in the church, including my wife Jas and myself, were invited to go along, and it was beyond description. The villagers all brought their foods to the meetinghouse, where the tables (banana leaves covering the floor) were laid out in two long rows. The food included at least 24 sucking pigs, numerous chickens, taro, breadfruit, tapioca, salads, cooked and raw fish dishes, cooked octopus, and puddings, topped off by ice cream.
The European Community has provided the village with a small clinic and quarters for a medical staff. Unfortunately, there is no money to provide for a medical staff, so the clinic stands empty. Should any medical personnel wish to go on up to a six-month, unpaid sabbatical, the clinic will provide housing, and the village will provide food.
We feel sorry, in a way, for the sailors who come to charter yachts here. They typically have only 10 days to two weeks to take it all in. Many voyagers also make the mistake of giving these islands short shrift. On numerous occasions we heard them on the radio nets telling friends that they’ll be in Tonga in two weeks, will spend two weeks there, and will then be on their way to wherever. We’ve been here three months now, and regret that we only have three more weeks leftwe still haven’t seen all of the anchorages, and wonder if we will. One thing’s for sure, we’ll be back again.