Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Snorkel Tonga!

One of the things I've really grown to love as a result of living in Tonga is snorkeling. It's so amazing to catch a glimpse of the other world that exists just below the surface of the water! Here are some of my favorite snorkeling pics from the past two years:





Hope you enjoyed!

Monday, October 31, 2011

My Must-Do's on Tongatapu

Good 'ol Tongatapu. The main island of Tonga and the place I've made my home for the past two years. Though it doesn't have the beaches of Ha'apai, the sunny harbors of Vava'u, or the rugged cliffs of 'Eua, (or the, um, megapodes of the Niuas), Tongatapu is not without it's charms. Most would agree that it's main attraction is the fact that it holds the capital city, the "Big Pineapple" itself, Nuku'alofa (or "the Nuke"). Here you can get luxury items like cheese, coffee, alcohol, and vegetables on a regular basis, go to restaurants and nightclubs, and visit ministry buildings and businesses that could allow shopping and errands to be accomplished more easily than on outer islands.

However, I want to focus on Tongatapu's other charms, what I personally think are the most worthwhile sights and experiences for the visitor. I must admit that this is a biased representation, reflecting my opinion and, of course, things that I have actually done. There are things that I have never done, either by choice or circumstance, that might be even cooler, so take these recommendations with a grain of salt. But anyway...

Here are my "Must-Do's on Tongatapu":
1. Keleti Beach

            This is by far my favorite beach on Tongatapu. It's not huge, but it has it all- white sands, water in shades of green and blue, tropical fish and coral for snorkeling, ringed by a reef of blowholes that are fun to watch and even get a shower from. This is all backed by cliffs covered with lush vegetation that add even more to the beauty of the place and provide a shady spot to sit most times of the day. A great place for a picnic!

Location: the southern coast of Tongatapu.

How to Get there: the beach is (somewhat) easily accessible from town by bike, car, or taxi (about $15 TOP each way). I think you can take any bus except one going to the west side and just get off at the sign. If biking from town, ride down the main road (Tafa'ahau) towards Pea. Turn right down the road where you see the "Keleti International Resort" sign. When you get to the end of that road, turn left, and soon you will see another sign for the resort. Go down that road and there you'll be!

Warnings: Be careful walking on the blowholes and use common sense, especially as the tide begins to rise. You don't want to get sucked into one of those! Also, women should probably not go alone and keep your friends in sight, as there was an attempted rape there a year or so ago :( Also, there are a lot of sharp coral rocks around, so wear sturdy shoes for that.

2. The Blow Holes
            I think that every visitor to Tongatapu should make it a point to get out to the blowholes (Tongan: Pupu'apu'i). In the words of my Japanese friend Toru, they are "dynamic." Before you know it, you'll get sucked into watching the waves crash against the side of the cliff and waiting in anticipation for the spouts that will follow as the water is forced through the holes in the rock and shoots up high into the air like a geyser.

Location: On the South Coast of Tongatapu in the village of Houma.

How to Get There: You can easily drive, taxi, or take a bus. Take the Houma or Utulau bus. You can also bike, though it might take awhile.

Warnings: This is NOT a swimming thing! You just watch the blowholes from the veiwing platform or walk along the cliff, do not try to go down to the water. The rock here is very sharp and jagged so wear sturdy shoes.

3. Whale Watching/Swimming

            Tonga is known around the world for excellent whale watching during the season that humpback whales come here to have their calves (June-November). In the two times I have gone, we have definitely seen whales and watched them jumping and playing around in the water. You can also swim with the whales, something I wanted to do but never go the chance, but which I hear is awesome!

Location: All island groups. You can even see them from the shore sometimes. The only company I know of who operates on Tongatapu is Deep Blue (who I went with). They were very cool and gave us a volunteer discount, and as an extra bonus we got to hold a sea turtle that they had saved from the fish market to release. They also let you come again for free if you don't see whales the first time.

How to get there: Go to the wharf. Deep Blue is the building with the whale painted on it. You can easily drive, bike, bus, taxi, or walk from town.

Warnings: As was the case with me, you might not get to swim with the whales if they are moving too fast, so keep that in mind. Make sure you charge your camera, because you'll want to take pictures! Also bring sunscreen.

4. Oholei Beach Resort's Floor Show

            In my two years here, I have seen a total of  five floor shows (International Dateline, Vakaloa, Liku'alofa, and the Culture Center are the others), and Oholei's is by far the best. For one, they have a great buffet, with all-you can eat Tongan food and a roast pig (if you're into that). Unfortunately, during this time you will be serenaded with cheesy "island-y" music straight out of the 1970s and subjected to a number of jokes that are simultaneously corny and strange (as with all of these kinds of shows). Following that you are led into Hina cave, which actually has the distinction of having a real Tongan legend attached to it about a young woman, Hina and her true love, Sinilau. The dancing takes place in the cave and is performed by dancers who both look good and dance well (not the case in all floor shows, let me tell you!) The show includes a lot of fire dancing as well, which is pretty amazing to watch.

Location: The East Coast of Tongatapu, near the village of Lavengatonga.

How to get There: The location on the east side is sort of the downside of Oholei. Since the buffet is held in the evening, taking a bus is not an option (well, you could potentially take a bus there, but not back), so taxi or car are your best options. If you're a badass you could bike it, too (I'm not).

Warnings: Since it's in a cave with an open roof, it's not protected from rain, so dress accordingly. Also, beware of flirtatious dancers.

5. Parliament Day (Laka Falealea)

            This is  a yearly event in Tonga, where all of the schoolchildren come out to celebrate the opening of the Parliament with a march through town, ending at the royal palace in the center of town, where they perform their items for the King. If you are there at the time, try to get somewhere where you can see the parade. The atmosphere is lively as half the country comes out to see the parade, and the school bands are great and really entertaining, trying to out-do each other with their songs and dancing as they march. The event will also give you a crash course on Tongan high schools and which uniforms are which.

Location: Downtown Nuku'alofa

How to get There: If you are in town, just walk towards where the crowd is congregating or where you hear brass band music coming from. The parade usually starts by around 9 AM.

Warnings: Not too dangerous, maybe just wear sunscreen because the parade takes awhile, and it might be smart to keep a close eye on your things if you are standing in a large crowd.

6. Education Day
            Like Parliament Day, this happens only once a year, on the Kings birthday (or his mother's). This day entails all of the schools of Tonga coming out to perform songs and dances for the King and/or queen. It's a great way to see a wide variety of traditional Tongan dances performed by students, who have been practicing for months for this event and are decked out in beautiful dance costumes. If possible, try to get a seat in one of the red government chairs (you'll get served snacks and coffee!). I think you were supposed to have an invitation but I didn't and I still got to sit there for some reason. They even gave me a free kahoa!

Location: Teufaiva Stadium in Nuku'alofa.

How to get there: Walk, bus, taxi, bike, depending on where you are. The year I went it was held in May for the queen mother's birthday (she's the King's mom). It was supposed to start around 9 am but it was kind of late.

Warnings: Bring a camera, and if you have a zoom lens, that's even better, because the dancers are all the way down on the grass.

7. Pangaimotu

            The tiny island of Pangaimotu, off the northern shore of Tongatapu, provides a nice getaway from the main island, espeically on Sundays, when there is nothing else to do. The small, sandy island is privately owned and has a boat that runs on the weekends bringing people to and from town. There is also a restaurant on the island where you can order lunch, and a purposely sunken boat where you can snorkel and jump from into the water.

Location: In the ocean (duh), north of Nuku'alofa. Not sure exactly how far away but you can easily see it from town.

How to Get There: There is a boat that operates every day bringing people there and back from the wharf in town, which is how most people get there. The times are on the hour from 10 am to 2 and then in the afternoon from 3 pm to 6. The wharf is the small one where the building with the whales and dolphins is. The normal price is $20 TOP (includes there and back) but recently they have offered a volunteer price of $10 TOP, so bring your ID if that applies to you. The boat ride only takes like 10 minutes. You can also walk out from Tongatapu in a certain area at low tide, or you can swim (I've never done it).

Warnings: The owners do not allow outside food, so if you are going to bring it, be sneaky and eat it out of sight of the restaurant. And if you walk there, make sure you time your walk appropriatley so you don't get caught in high tide and also wear proper footwear. And if you are Peace Corps, wear your lifejacket (or else)!

8. Tongan Feast

            A Tongan feast (kaipola) is something that must be seen to be believed. The amounts of food are incredible. If you are lucky, you'll catch some traditional dances and probably some middle-aged women acting like rodeo clowns- activities could include dancing, yelling, grabbing people, rolling on the ground, and possibly more. Feel free to stick money on the oiled bodies of the dancers (fakapale), if you're so inclined. This is an event where you will get a taste of real culture and really see Tongans in their element.

Location: All around Tonga.

How to Get There: I think the best things is to ask a Tongan if there are any feasts going on because you would like to go. If they don't give you a satisfactory answer, ask someone else.

Warnings: If you are a palangi, you might get awkwardly brought up to the head table even if you have nothing to do with the reason the feast is being held. They can drag on, and on, and on, especially once the thank-you speeches start. You might want to think of an exit excuse in advance. And also, apparently it really is possible to "eat until you die," so, for the love of god, be sensible.

9. The Ha'amonga

            The Ha'amonga is a must-see if you are in Tonga for any length of time. It is a stone monument that was built almost 1000 years ago by the 11th Tu'i Tonga. I don't think anyone really knows why, but some think it was for marking the seasons. It looks sort of like Stonehenge (see picture). You can have a picnic on the lawn near it and can  even climb to the top of it, if you're feeling adventurous.

Location: On the eastern side of Tongatapu near the village of Niutou'a.

How to Get There: You can drive, taxi (around $40 TOP), or take a bus (the ones designated Niutou'a or Hahake). You can also bike- the ride is about an hour or so from town.

Warnings: If you are not in good shape you probably shouldn't try to climb it. It is made of that jagged coral rock that is found all around the island, so be very careful. Also, there are often handicraft vendors around there who might try to give you a hard sell. There is better stuff for better prices at the market in Nuku'alofa, so don't feel like you have to buy from them if you don't want to.

10. Tongan Church
            I'll be honest, I'm not a church person. Not at all. I pretty much only go to church when forced to and I haven't been in over a year now. However, if you come to Tonga, you should go to church once to hear the amazing singing. I mean, really good. Tongans are exceptionally great singers and have beautiful harmonizing.

Location: Absolutely everywhere. There are churches in every singe village in country. At least one, but probably more like 10. There are several very large churches in Nuku'alofa, like the Catholic, Wesleyan, Anglican and Free Church of Tonga.

How to get There: Start walking in any direction (ok, maybe not into the bush).

Warnings: The singing might not actually be good, but rather be a form of what can only be described as synchronized screaming, which is not pleasant to hear. This danger is especially high in Ha'apai. To minimize this, try to go to a bigger church, where the choir are more likely to be trained properly.

Here are some more activities you can do on Tongatapu, for you convenience, I have sorted them into two categories:

Also Pretty Cool:
Vakaloa Resort: a really nice resort on the west side with friendly service and great rooms.
'Anahulu cave: a cave on the east side with a freshwater pool at the bottom you can swim in!
Wesleyan Conference: the yearly conference of the Wesleyan church- a week-long feast with lots of dancing too.
Langafonua Women's Cooperative: a great handicraft shop with good-quality merchandise and a pleasant shopping atmosphere.
Not That Cool:  
Liahona: a village with a huge Mormon church. Well, might be cool if you're Mormon.
The Bats of Kolovai: a bunch of fruit bats in a tree. Also they smell bad.
 2-Headed Coconut Tree: yep, a 2-headed coconut tree.
The Land Bridge: as far as I can tell, this is just a photo-op and not much else. But I do hear there is a beach nearby, so it might be worth checking that out.
Tombs at Lapaha: I'm actually really into archaeology, so I thought I would like this. However, when I went all we saw were two pretty boring stone slabs, but I heard there is more to it, so I will try to investigate that before I leave Tonga.
Museum: For one, it seems to be almost never open. I did catch it last year once when it was open and there isn't much to it. The National Museum in Fiji has a lot more and better Tongan artifacts!
Fishing Pigs: pigs sticking their noses into the sand on the beach.
Captain Cook or Abel Tasman Landing Places: Just little lookout points and plaques. Might be cool if you are really into history.

Check out my post of when my parents came to Tonga for pics of a lot of these places!