Ha’apai: My South Pacific Island Paradise


Matafonua Lodge in Tonga

I’ve got quite a few of these going now.

There’s Koh Yao Noi (my Thai island paradise), Otres Beach (my Cambodian beach paradise), Tofo (my Mozambican beach paradise), and now I’m throwing Ha’apai, Tonga into the mix, because after seven years of travel, I think it’s the prettiest place I’ve ever been.

Beach on Matafonua in Ha'apai Tonga

Yeah, I’m fairly certain I’ve found paradise.

If you’ve been following along with my Tonga updates, you’ll already know I can’t get enough of Ha’apai. I’ve been talking about it non-stop since leaving the islands and I’m determined to convince as many people as possible to experience it for themselves. I’m even planning on taking Dave there before the end of the year. 

Where even is Ha’apai, though? 

Ha’apai is the name given to a chain of islands in Tonga. There are 51 of them in this part of the country — although only 17 are inhabited — and information about them, like everywhere else in Tonga, is scarce. In not-at-all shocking news, when it came to deciding which islands in Ha’apai to visit, I was lost.

At first, I planned to spend my time at Taiana’s Place on Uoleva Island, which is known as the both the best and cheapest ($13 a night) spot for backpackers in Ha’apai. However, with limited power on the island coupled with my dislike of making phone calls, making a booking proved difficult and I took the easy way out. I went to booking.com to hunt down somewhere else.

That was when I found Matafonua Lodge, on Foa Island.

At $100 a night, it was out of my budget, but as I looked at the gorgeous photos of the lodge and paired them with the impeccable reviews, I was immediately convinced to splurge. Here are some photos of Matafonua, taken by Darren Rice, one of the owners and whose Instagram you should be following.

Matafonua Lodge in Tonga

Matafonua Lodge in Tonga

Matafonua Lodge in Tonga

matafonua lodge

Yes, okay, Matafonua, you may take all of my money.

Getting to the lodge is easy.

Once you’ve made your way to the main island of Tongatapu (yes, I know this is the trickiest part for most of my readers!), jump on a 40-minute flight with Real Tonga to Ha’apai, followed by a 20 minute minivan transfer to Matafonua, and you’ve made it! The view is going to blow your mind.

From the moment I arrived, I knew my time here was going to be one of the highlights of my life, and let’s get this out the way now: Yes, I am fully aware this post is going to read like it’s sponsored, but you guys know I’m hashtag neverspons. I paid for my stay at Matafonua with my own money, as always, and I’m going to gush about this place non-stop because I loved it that much.

Beach hut in Matafonua

At Matafonua, you stay in humble beach huts that are perfectly positioned to make the most of the cooling sea breeze.

I was originally concerned to learn the bungalows don’t come equipped with air conditioning or a fan, but once I arrived and opened the windows, I could see why the owners opted for an eco-friendly approach. It was cool and comfortable in my room throughout the day and the breeze kept the mosquitoes away, too. Sleeping with the windows open meant falling asleep and waking up to the gentle sound of ocean waves lapping against the sand.

You don’t have to worry about safety in this part of the world, either. Matafonua is isolated at the very tip of Foa Island, as you could probably tell from the drone photos above, so it’s fine to sleep with your windows open and leave your bungalow unlocked during the day. You’ll most likely only run into other Matafonua guests and friends of the owners while you’re staying here.

Matafonua view

Sunrise in Tonga

One morning, I awoke in time to see the smallest hint of light making its way across the sky.

Sunrise! 

Tonga spoons up against the International Date Line so is one of the first countries in the world to see the sunrise.

As an aside, I tripped and fell down a fascinating rabbit hole when researching this — if you’ve ever wondered why the IDL is such a weirdass shape, it comes from the start of this millennium. So many countries wanted to harvest the tourism income from people celebrating the year 2000 in the country that first sees the sunrise that many — including Tonga — began switching up their timezones in order to throw their claim of first! into the mix. You can read more about these fun and games in this New York Times article from 1999.

I sat on the beach and buried my toes in the sand, watching the sun start to peek over the horizon. As I did so, my mind flitted to nearby American Samoa. It was just 600 miles east of where I was currently sat, but its timezone meant it was a whopping 23 hours behind Tonga. While it was 6 a.m. on a Wednesday in Ha’apai, it was only 7 a.m. on a Tuesday there.

Beach in Ha'apai Tonga

Have you ever stayed in a guesthouses that seems to attract only wonderful people? A place where it’s easy to make friends, where everyone is infinitely more focused on conversation than technology, and where you immediately extend your stay because you’re not convinced travel gets any better than this.

There are only a handful of places in the world that fall into this category for me (Atilla’s Getaway in Selcuk, Turkey, and Frendz Resort in Boracay, the Philippines are the two that immediately come to mind), and Matafonua now sits right at the top of the list.

Thanks to the nightly communal dinners, being a solo traveller in this part of Tonga meant making friends and always having somebody to chat to. When you throw in the spectacular location that made everybody spend all day at the lodge — why would you choose to leave? —  this was a spot where, even in the low season, it was impossible to feel lonely.

Girl on beach in Tonga

My days at Matafonua slipped into a routine that revolved around relaxation.

I’d wake up with the sun each morning and leave my hut for a solo wander along the beach before heading to the restaurant for breakfast. If I was lucky, there would be a basket full of homemade banana bread waiting for me, and if that was the case, I’d definitely eat far too much of it. I’d spend the rest of my morning chatting to the other guests about travel, catching up on emails, and continually snapping photos of the beach, because I was desperate to capture how it felt to be there. I mostly ended up with 350 identical photos instead.

The food was surprisingly tasty at Matafonua — I’d rank their restaurant as having the best food of anywhere I’ve been in the South Pacific so far  — so I’d always take full advantage of the delicious options and order some freshly-caught fish for lunch.

Sea at Matafonua Lodge Tonga

By this point, the beach would be calling me and I’d be feeling guilty over not spending as much time on it as was humanly possible.

I’d throw my laptop in my room and head out onto the sand. Sunbathing on what felt like my own private beach, swimming in the warm ocean, and snorkelling metres from a family of leopard sharks: there’s so much to do at Matafonua, and I wasn’t even there for whale-swimming season. Kite boarders and SCUBA divers will especially love it here, as the wind and water provide world-class conditions for both activities.

For other activities, you can opt to head out on the kayaks to the uninhabited island in the photo above for some privacy, or jump on a stand-up paddleboard to work off the banana bread you undoubtedly devoured at breakfast. You can rent a bicycle to ride the eight miles to the nearest town, try your hand at freediving, and go horseback riding at sunset along the beach. In short, for a small guesthouse in an isolated part of the world, there was a hell of a lot to keep you busy.

I feel no shame in holding up my hands and confessing I did exactly none of that. Instead, I was content to spend my afternoons lazing on the beach, cooling off in the ocean, reading a book, and doing little else.

After a quick shower, I’d make my way back to the restaurant to spend my evening gazing out at the view with friends. This was a time where phones and the internet were the furthest things from everyone’s mind, and conversation was the order of the day.

The dinner specials were guaranteed to be amazing (special shout out to the Malaysian fish curry!) and pairing them with a New Zealand wine made the evenings even more enjoyable. Sometimes a storm would roll around, but most of the time it wouldn’t, and we wouldn’t care either way. This was a time for putting away devices, chatting to people from around the world, and wondering if Tonga is one of the most underrated destinations in the world.

Spolier: it is.

Matafonua Lodge

Leaving Matafonua Lodge was one of the hardest travel decisions I’ve made, and I came this close to extending my stay.

If I hadn’t already booked my flight to Vava’u along with several expensive accommodation options, I would have most likely stayed for another week. And sure, I would have felt guilty over skipping the Vava’u island chain, but I also know how rare it is to find a place that has you head-over-flip-flops in love with your life. In case you hadn’t figured it out from the most gushing blog post I’ve ever written, Ha’apai was that place for me.

Vava’u, it would turn out, was not. More on that in my next post!

 

Have I convinced you to add Ha’apai to your travel wishlist? If not, what the hell is wrong with you? :-)

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33 Comments

  1. Natalie
    April 22, 2018
    Reply

    Yes, you’ve convinced me that Ha’apai is a place I MUST visit. The sooner the better! Spoiler: it won’t be sooner, I totally blew the travel budget visiting Tulum and Cancun over spring break.

    However, I’m sure I’ve got to see Ha’apai, Raratonga, and everywhere else you’ve posted in the South Pacific (except for the places you’ve said aren’t great). At some point, it will be a focus to fly across the planet and see it all.

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      Ha! Well, Tulum is totally worth blowing a travel budget for :-)

      And I wish the South Pacific was more accessible for my American/European readers! It’s so far away and tricky/expensive to get to that it’s a tough sell for most people who read my site, but it’s such a wonderful part of the world to travel in. I hope you make it there eventually! :-)

  2. Brooklyn Murtaugh
    April 22, 2018
    Reply

    Yes, yes you have convinced me to visit :)
    It definitely does sound like paradise!

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      Yay! I can’t wait to return and stay for *weeks*!

  3. Scott
    April 22, 2018
    Reply

    Did you get a chance to see their sister resort, aka the Sandy Beach Resort? I know it’s pricier, but I wonder if there’s THAT much of a difference and worth the extra price?

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      Yes! I had dinner there one night. It was nice enough, and you’d have a more comfortable, spacious room rather than a beach hut, but I didn’t think it was worth the extra money, as the rooms were still quite basic.

  4. Kate
    April 23, 2018
    Reply

    I’m beyond convinced! For views like that, Ha’apai can take all my money, now and forever!

    Kate

    • Lauren
      April 23, 2018
      Reply

      Yes! I can’t wait to get back there.

  5. Dominique
    April 24, 2018
    Reply

    I will never be able to learn the names of all these Pacific islands, beaches and cities. I have bookmarked this blog post though, because I might not be able to remember the name – the place sounds lovely. Beautiful beaches, friendly people, and affordable prices – why haven’t I been yet? :-)

    • Lauren
      April 26, 2018
      Reply

      It’s such an underrated part of the world!

  6. R
    April 25, 2018
    Reply

    Holy, look at that water!!! Just stunning Lauren. Did you get to surf?

    • Lauren
      April 26, 2018
      Reply

      I didn’t! I’m terrible at surfing.

  7. Patti
    April 27, 2018
    Reply

    Had not heard of Ha’apai before but you have totally convinced me to add it to my list. Looks so beautiful and Matafonua Lodge looks like a great place to stay.

  8. Tiphaine
    April 28, 2018
    Reply

    I stayed there in 2015 and I can confirm that everything in this article is true, Matafonua really is Paradise. Everything about this place is perfect…. and the whales….. there s no words to describe the experience!

  9. Staff
    April 28, 2018
    Reply

    Was there this time last year. It is a “wow”.

  10. Tevita
    April 29, 2018
    Reply

    Great review! I mean more than great lol. Thanks for sharing our beautiful island with the world

  11. Anne
    May 16, 2018
    Reply

    Nice review!!!!
    We are going there next week. We are staying in Ha‘atafu right now. But all I can think of is Matafonua :)
    It‘s my boyfriends Birthday over there, where I secretly arranged a few nice surprises.
    But just in case I love it, what am I going to do for the rest of my travels? Will it devaluate other beautiful islands in the South Pacific? Am I ever able to come back again?

    Questions I really want to get answered :)
    Can’t wait to get there, especially after reading this.
    By the way, which side of the airplane is better for a nice overview of the scenery?

    Thanks and all the best to you!

  12. Maira
    May 17, 2018
    Reply

    Gosh! It looks like paradise, look at the water so clear. A perfect place to try surfing.
    Can’t wait to go there!!

    • Lauren
      May 19, 2018
      Reply

      Yes! I hope you make it there :-)

  13. Khasab Sea Tours
    May 19, 2018
    Reply

    This place is piece of paradise. Great pictures & wonderful places for swimming.

    • Lauren
      May 26, 2018
      Reply

      There’s nowhere else like it in the world!

  14. Yvee
    May 20, 2018
    Reply

    I’ve been loving your posts about Tonga! I honestly hadn’t heard of these Islands until you wrote about them (and I thought I knew most countries!).
    Your photos look ridiculously beautiful and idyllic! Definitely going to try and get to Tonga one day!

    • Lauren
      May 24, 2018
      Reply

      I’m so happy to hear that, Yvee! My posts about more obscure places never do well, so it always makes my day to hear someone enjoyed reading them! I hope you make it to Tonga one day :-)

  15. Bas
    May 23, 2018
    Reply

    Currently at this very same lodge and I just cannot agree more with everything you’ve said about it as well as Ha’apai! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Lauren
      May 24, 2018
      Reply

      Yay! I’m very jealous :-)

  16. Eric
    June 11, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks for the great tip!
    Did you book the airport transportation from the hotel as well?
    It seems the price for high season is not as affordable as I thought. ( NZD 175, NZD 35 for airport transport )

    • Lauren
      June 15, 2018
      Reply

      Yep, I booked the airport transport, too. There might be cheaper alternatives once you land, but I’m not sure. And yeah, unfortunately, it’s pretty expensive in the high season!

  17. Alex
    July 20, 2018
    Reply

    This looks amazing but it looks like they have no availability for my dates. Do you have recommendations for other places – we have a decent budget for this part of our honeymoon. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lauren
      July 20, 2018
      Reply

      Have you looked at Sandy Beach Resort? It’s their sister resort and only a couple of minutes away from Matafonua.

  18. Ute
    January 13, 2019
    Reply

    Hi Lauren.Thank you so much!In September we are off to Uoleva and now you have convinced me also staying there at this place for some nights.I will be travelling with my 2 sons and Im sure we will love it.Do you remember how much the food was at the restaurant?Thank you. .I will read your review again!!!ute from Germany

  19. H
    February 9, 2019
    Reply

    Hello thank you for your article ! So many nice stories and j formations about tonga

    I plan a special strip in solo too in Tonga Fiji Vanuatu Salomon Samoa.. to look for local art and culture and particularly wood carvings , I wanted to ask you in Tonga do you know which I Island I should go to hope find treasures like that in villages or elsewhere .. (like old sculptures, masks..)

    Many thank and have Lovely week end !
    H

    • Lauren
      February 10, 2019
      Reply

      Oh man, sorry, no, I really don’t know. I’d probably ask around in Tongatapu to see if any of the locals have any more information for you.

  20. Kelly
    June 4, 2020
    Reply

    Sounds like paradise to me! Just how basic are the bungalows?

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