The Ultimate Tonga Travel Guide: What’s it Like to Travel in Tonga?

Beach in Ha'apai Tonga

Tonga is one of my favourite countries in the world.

I can’t stop talking about how incredible it is. It’s full of some of the loveliest people on the planet, has some of the best beaches I’ve ever stepped foot on, offers up dozens of islands to explore, and can even be experienced at an affordable price. It’s even one of only two places in the world where you can jump in the water and swim with humpback whales.

I’m on a mission to convince everybody to go to Tonga and that includes you, so let’s get started with a post about what it’s like to travel in this South Pacific country.

Tonga is an island in the South Pacific Ocean — I’ve circled its location in red.

Where is Tonga?

Tonga is a small island country located in the South Pacific, roughly a third of the way between New Zealand and Hawaii. The country itself is made up of 172 islands of which 36 are inhabited. And if you know your Pacific islands, I can tell you that Tonga is found south of Samoa, east of Fiji, and west of the Cook Islands.

For a country that doesn’t see much international tourism, getting to Tonga is surprisingly simple if you find yourself in Oceania. There are flights up for grabs from Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, and you can usually score some pretty sweet deals on return tickets. I flew from Auckland to Tongatapu on a return fare of 350 USD.

If you’re coming from further afield, you can expect to spend more money to get there — of course — but it shouldn’t be all that difficult to find a flight. There are three flights a week operating from Los Angeles to Tongatapu (via a layover in Fiji). And if you’re based in Europe, Air New Zealand operates daily flights from London to both Los Angeles and Auckland — from either destination, you can then easily get over to Tonga.

Sea at Matafonua Lodge Tonga
Tonga is the definition of paradise!

Which are the Main Islands of Tonga?

One of my favourite aspects of travelling to a country that doesn’t have extensive coverage online is getting to do tons of research. However, I know not everybody enjoys this part of travel planning, and that’s why I’m writing up this enormous guide!

So I knew I wanted to visit Tonga — I love travelling to South Pacific islands, even if I know nothing about them — but I wasn’t sure where in Tonga I wanted to visit. After all, in the previous section I mentioned that this country is home to 36 inhabited islands. I had two weeks to travel in Tonga: which three or four islands would be best for me to visit?

It was time to start reading. Well, attempt to start reading, because let’s just say that information on the vast majority of these islands is scarce.

I find it easiest to look at a map, so let’s a look at how Tonga’s islands are spread out. As you can see below, there are four main island groups: the Tongatapu Group, the Ha’apai Group, the Vava’u Group, and the very isolated Niuas Group:

We’ll start with the easy one, which is the Tongatapu Group, in the southern reaches of the country. Tongatapu is the name of the main island of Tonga and home to the nation’s capital: Nukuʻalofa. It’s on this island that you’ll find the country’s largest airport, so it’s most likely that your flight will arrive here. The vast majority of tourists who do touch down in said airport, however, promptly leave. Tongatapu is seen merely as a stopover destination by many: somewhere you have to visit before you set off in search of paradise. Personally, I spent a day on the island, exploring all of its highlights, and found it interesting and worth exploring.

Within the Tongatapu Group, you have several other islands that are worth spending time on. The main one is called ‘Eua, and that was the one that I chose to visit. ‘Eua is accessible via one of the shortest flights in the world — such a cool experience! — and is home to some incredible hikes and vistas. In terms of other island options, there are a couple of specks of paradise off the coast of Tongatapu that are each home to a resort: PangaimotuAtata, and Fafa. If you’re in Tonga to have a typical beach vacation full of relaxation and rest, these three are the islands to check out.

North of the Tongatapu Group, you have the Ha’apai Group. This region of Tonga comprises 51 islands, of which only 17 are inhabited. Most visitors choose to visit one of three islands: the main island of Ha’apai, which is called Lifuka; Foa Island, which is home to the incredible resort of Matafonua (one of my favourite places in the world); and Uoleva Island, which offers up Serenity Beaches Resort. There are other islands with accommodation in Ha’apai, but they often can’t be booked online, so can be tricky to find and get to.

The most popular group of islands for travellers is the Vava’u Group, which is located north of Ha’apai. Unfortunately, I encountered a tropical storm while I was in Vava’u, so I didn’t get to see it at its best, but this part of the country is just as spectacular as the rest. In terms of where to visit, first of all, you have the large island of ‘Utu Vava’u. This is where the main town of Neiafu is found. I stayed on this island, in the excellently-reviewed Mystic Sands Resort. The second-largest island in the Vava’u Group is Pangaimotu, and Hunga Island is famous for being the spot where humpback whales gather.

And finally, you have the Niuas Group. And let me tell you, I want to go there so badly! However, there’s so little information about these isolated islands online that it left me hesitant to visit.

While getting there is relatively easy — the Tongan airline, Real Tonga, operates weekly flights from Vava’u — what do you do when you get there? There’s no accommodation on the islands, for starters, because why would there be when no tourists ever visit? Some people recommend bringing a tent and camping on the island; others urge you to phone the tourism bureau in the Niuas to ask them how to find somewhere to stay.

But what an incredible experience it would be, to visit a place that’s been entirely untouched by international tourism. To speak to people who are so isolated from the rest of the world, who only gained access to a high-speed internet connection three years ago. Maybe one day I’ll get there!

With your knowledge of the Tongan islands, you can now start to put together a travel itinerary. While I recommend attempting to see an island in each of the Tongatapu, Ha’apai, and Vava’u groups, you’d likely be just as impressed by the country if you choose just one island to explore in depth.

Beach on Matafonua in Ha'apai Tonga
Fancy having both of these beaches all to yourself? Visit Tonga in January!

The Best Time of Year to Visit Tonga

I came to Tonga in January because that was my only option.

I spend Christmases in Oceania, where I always aspire to explore a South Pacific country while I’m in town. January, then, is when you’ll catch me on the islands. Even though — yes —  it’s cyclone season.

Despite only being able to travel in the wet season, I’ve been fortunate with the weather. When I spent three weeks in the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and Fiji, I encountered just one day of rain. Over my two weeks in Tonga, I experienced only three wet days. So while there’s an inherent risk in travelling when cyclones are lurking, I anecdotally have had close to entirely blue sky on my trips.


Unlike other places I’ve visited in the South Pacific, in Tonga, low season means low, low, low season. I was the only person staying at my hostel in Tongatapu, one of two people in my guesthouse in ‘Eua, and spent most of my time in Vava’u alone. Ha’apai was the only spot that had several other people staying in the guesthouse, but it was far from full.

There are pros and cons to visiting at this time of year. The advantages are lower prices, never struggling to get into your dream accommodation (when I visited in 2018, some guesthouses were already fully-booked for high-season 2020), and the islands are peaceful and calm. The odds of sunny days are probably higher than you’d expect, too.

The cons outweigh the pros for me, unfortunately. Most people come to Tonga to swim with humpback whales as the coastline is swarming with these gigantic mammals between July and October. You’re practically guaranteed to get up close and personal with newborn whale babies if you take a trip out on the water. If you stay on dry land, you’ll likely end up watching whales swimming past your guesthouses from all over the country. Not being able to see the whales on this trip made me feel as though I was missing out on one of the main highlights of Tonga.

On top of that, I found the lack of other guests a little frustrating at times, and the fact that many of my guesthouses weren’t running tours in the low season meant I missed out on a couple of activities I had originally hoped to do.

If you can visit Tonga at any time of year, choose the high season unless you’re tight on cash or love the idea of being alone in paradise.

Horses on Eua in Tonga
Wild ponies roaming the wild island of ‘Eua

Connectivity Isn’t Great

Tonga is a developing country in the middle of a vast ocean, and with that comes a whole bunch of connectivity problems.

My guesthouses in Tongatapu and ‘Eua both advertised Wi-Fi online, but when I turned up, both owners informed me they didn’t actually have it. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to pick up a local SIM card from the airport in Tongatapu, along with 3GB of data, in case I needed to tether my laptop at some point during the trip. I did, often.

Despite this, I was barely online. The highest download speed I found was a mere 0.5 mbps in Tongatapu, and it was worse on every other island. I opted for a SIM card from U-Call, which has the best coverage but slowest speeds across the islands, and while I usually had an Edge signal, it was close to unusable for much of the time.

This is a destination in which to disconnect and to relish the opportunity to do so.

Wild pig on Eua in Tonga
It’s impossible to walk for more than ten minutes in Tonga and not come across a wandering pig!

Pigs Are Everywhere

In love with piglets? Come to Tonga. I’ve never seen so many pigs.

Introduced by Captain Cook in the 1770s, you’ll now find them roaming the streets, sunbathing on the beaches, fishing in the ocean, lazing in gardens, attempting to get into stores, and generally running around your feet whenever you leave the house. I must have seen hundreds of pigs while I was exploring the islands, never going more than a few minutes without hearing a telltale grunt.

Island of Tonga from above
Views from my flight to Ha’apai — we flew over so many beautiful islands and sandbanks

You Can Take One of the Shortest Flights in the World

The flight from Tongatapu to Eua is just six minutes long and let me tell you, it was the longest six minutes of my life.

The plane was more like a canoe than an aircraft, thanks to the lack of aisle, and there were only four seats. Our calm pilot rested his arm out of the window! It was a tiny vessel and a bumpy ride, but a terrifying cool journey nonetheless.

I highly recommend splurging $70 on the flight to experience what it’s like to soar in such a tiny object, but if money is tight or nerves are high, you can get the ferry for much less.

Cemetery in Tonga
Tongan graves are covered in sand, then decorated with colourful flowers, coral, and even beer bottles if the departed enjoyed a drink

This Is a Deeply Religious Country

Tonga is a very, very Christian country, although the locals will never try to convert you or judge you for not adhering to the same beliefs. There are, however, some rules you should abide by while you’re in the country in order to show respect.

It’s illegal in Tonga for men or women to go topless, and women should aim to keep their knees and shoulders covered unless staying at a resort. In practice, though, it’s fine for men to be topless at the beach, and I spotted plenty of local women wearing vests and strap tops. Wearing black in Tonga means that you are in mourning, so it’s wise to avoid wearing this colour if you’re not grieving.

The greatest impact the religion will have on your trip is keeping you inside on Sundays. On Sunday, it’s against the law to exercise in Tonga, and no business transactions can take place either. That means no swimming, so running, no snorkelling, no kayaking, no doing laundry, no working… this is a day to go to church, to feast, and to spend time with family. Plan for this in advance so that you don’t slip up and discover you don’t have anything to eat while there are no stores open.

At one particular church, I discovered that at every Sunday service, somebody will stand up and announce the sums of money each member has donated to the church that week. There’s so much pressure on the locals that they’ll often take out large loans to ensure they contribute the highest amount of money. The interest rates, unsurprisingly, are extremely high.

Small Real Tonga plane

Real Tonga is a Pain in the Ass

If you want to get from island chain to island chain, the easiest way to do so is with Real Tonga. They’re the only airline to operate in the country, and they’re, quite frankly, atrocious.

For starters, they operate an MA60, which is otherwise known as the Death Plane. It’s one of the most dangerous planes to have ever taken to the sky and regularly crashes. When Real Tonga added the MA60 to its fleet, New Zealand suspended $10 million of aid and issued a travel warning for the country. While Tonga withdrew the MA60 shortly afterwards, they’ve since snuck it back into their lineup, and I was unfortunate enough to fly on it.

It is my belief that although the MA60 is controversial and dangerous relative to other aircraft, it is likely safer than travelling by car. Or at least that’s what I told myself when the plane started juddering mid-flight.

Aside from that, flying Real Tonga can be a real frustration. I wasn’t issued any kind of receipt or boarding pass for my flight to ‘Eua, so had no idea if I was even on the flight until I got to the airport. They cancel flights regularly and often alter departure times without informing passengers. Once, when a pilot fell ill for a week, they cancelled all flights over that time because they had nobody else to cover for him.

My biggest recommendation would be to spend the night in Tongatapu before leaving the country because flights are regularly cancelled.

I ignored this advice and booked my flight from Vava’u to Tongatapu, then had an onward flight to Auckland two hours later. My flight out of Vava’u was cancelled and there was no way off the island for several days. I had to contact a friend in a panic and get him to log onto the Air New Zealand website and change my flight for me. My internet, unsurprisingly, was too bad to do so.

Flight over a beach in Tonga
Yet another perfect beach, spotted on my flight to Vava’u

Let Me Tell You About the Fakaleiti

Fakaleiti roughly translates to “like a girl”, and is one of the more interesting aspects of life in Tonga.

Traditionally in Tonga, if a woman were to give birth to only boys, she could then go on to choose one of them to be her daughter. The designated daughter, the “fakaleiti”, would then be raised as a woman, taught to cook, clean, raise siblings, and take care of her parents. She would wear dresses, if she wanted, and learn to apply makeup. In more modern times, being a fakaleiti can be a lifestyle choice, and there is little stigma attached to it, although there are occasional reports of physical abuse.

Fakaleiti don’t label themselves as gay or transgender, and reject being referred to by Western terms that can’t fully explain this type of — I guess — third gender. They generally consider themselves to be women and as such, have sex with straight men. Some, however, will marry women and go on to have children.

Beach in Ha'apai Tonga
The beach in Ha’apai was incredible: just look at the colour of that water!

The Eldest Sister Ranks Highest

If you thought that was fascinating, wait until I delve into social status within the country.

Men are ranked higher than women in Tonga, but within the family, the sisters are ranked higher than the brothers. The eldest sister in every family holds the highest status within the home, and in Tongan culture, if this sister asks any of her younger brothers or sisters for anything, they must give it to her and always obey her orders.

Most surprisingly of all, if the oldest sister decides she quite likes the look of her younger sister’s newborn baby, SHE CAN TAKE IT. Yep, she can take that baby and raise it as her own, and there’s nothing the younger sister can do about it. It happened to one of the staff members at a guesthouse I stayed at — and she was devastated — so it didn’t appear to be that rare of an occurrence.

While it’s pretty bewildering to those of us who haven’t been raised in a similar culture, it’s important not to judge. Many Tongans are happy and accepting of these social rules, and indeed, many younger siblings are more than happy to give their children away to their sister; to share everything within the family unit. It’s a complex issue and you’ll hear differing opinions on it as you travel across the country.

Beach hut in Matafonua
My beautiful beach hut in Ha’apai — I highly recommend staying at Matafonua Lodge while you’re in Tonga

You Can Go Budget or Full-On Luxury Travel Here

I found Tonga fairly easy to visit as a budget backpacker, as there were plenty of hostels and cheap guesthouses on the islands, inexpensive ferries if you didn’t want to take a flight, and the food was cheap.

In Tongatapu, my hostel charged just over 8 USD for a dorm bed, and there are backpacker islands in Vava’u that charge $30 for a private room on your own little beach.

That’s not to say that this is a destination for roughing it. There are plenty of gorgeous resorts and luxury experiences to indulge in if you’re willing to splash the cash. I planned to stay at the incredible Mounu Resort while I was in Vava’u, at a ridiculous $300 a night, but cancelled at the last minute when it was pouring with rain. It looks like one of the most spectacular islands on the planet.

Road on Tongatapu
A typical road on the main island of Tongatapu

There Are No Traffic Lights in the Country

Fun fact! It really doesn’t affect your trip either way, but I found it fascinating. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a country that doesn’t have traffic lights before.

Island time is king on Tonga and most cars drive so slowly that it’s never a problem. Outside of Tongatapu, traffic is very, very rare.

Tongan island from the plane
Just another beautiful Tongan island

There are so Many Islands to Explore

Despite Tongatapu and ‘Eua being less than a 10 minute flight away, they couldn’t have been more different.

You should go to Tongatapu to learn about the country. Its geography is flat, with a huge lagoon and a coastline lined with blowholes. There are royal tombs and palaces to take photos of, ruins to explore, and landing sites of famous explorers to check out. The island is blanketed in palm trees and looks beautiful when you come into land.

On the other hand, ‘Eua is a eco-friendly destination that’s all about hiking. It’s got rainforests and mountains, along with beautiful beaches in the west and rugged cliffs in the east. There are wild ponies to wander alongside, and myths and legends to learn about as you trek through the jungle.

Ha’apai is simply gorgeous. Every single beach photo in this post was taken in Ha’apai, and after seven years of travel, I count them as some of the best I’ve ever stepped foot on. You come here to relax, unwind, and skip along some of the most incredible beaches ever. There are around 50 islands making up the entire island chain, so you could spend months working your way around all of them.

In Vava’u, you come to swim with humpback whales, to charter a yacht, and to dive in clear waters. Vava’u has more tourists, nightlife, and accommodation options than Ha’apai, although the islands are still calm and sleepy. There are 50 islands in the Vava’u island chain.

Sunrise in Tonga
Did you know that Tonga is the first country in the world to see the sunrise?

There Are Some Seriously Isolated Parts of the Country

If you’re more adventurous than I am, you might consider checking out the Niuas. Despite finding flights that could take me there and back while I was in the country, I wasn’t quite brave enough to venture over there. There’s simply no information about them online.

Any (extremely dated) articles about the islands mention there being one guesthouse you can stay on, but then I discovered an article saying it had closed down after a tsunami in 2009 and hadn’t yet been rebuilt. On the Tongan tourism board website, they encourage you to phone the tourism bureau in the Niuas to ask them how to find somewhere to stay. Other websites advise you to turn up with a tent and camp, or arrive and hope a local invites you into their home to stay.

It sounds like such a fascinating part of the world, as there are very few places that have been influenced by close to zero tourists these days.

Girl on beach in Tonga
Covered up and on the beach in Ha’apai

Obesity is a Big Problem

On my flight from Tongatapu to Auckland, I couldn’t believe how many people requested a seatbelt extender.

Tonga has the highest levels of obesity in the world, and a big part of that is due to the type of food they import from New Zealand. Mutton flaps are popular in the country and they’re full of calories — 420 per 100 grams. An incredible 40% of the population has type 2 diabetes and more than 90% of the population is overweight or obese. Life expectancy has dropped from 75 to 64 in recent years.

In Tonga, big is seen as beautiful. At feasts, Tongans will say, “Kai ke mate,” which means, “eat until you die.” One of their kings — Tupou IV — holds the Guinness world record for being the heaviest monarch, weighing in at 220kg/33 stone/440 lbs.

View of Matafonua
The view from my beach hut in Ha’apai

The Locals are Lovely

In Tonga, every single local I encountered was friendly, welcoming, and helpful. I could sit and list the dozens of positive interactions I had, but I’ll narrow it down to just a few.

In Vava’u, every time I left my room, a local would pull over in their car and ask if they could drive me to where I was going.

When I told a local in ‘Eua that I was hoping to try a traditional Tongan pig while I was in the country, he rang around the island and 30 minutes later, presented me with a bag of crispy pork that his friend had brought around from his family’s feast.

When I got sick in ‘Eua, the airport staff told me they’d hold the plane for me[!] while my guesthouse owner took time out of her day to take me to the hospital, where the doctor left her home on her lunch break to prescribe me some medication.

Eua coastline in Tonga

Is Tonga Safe? Absolutely!

I’ve visited a hundred countries over my past decade of travel and I can tell you that, in terms of the safest countries in the world, Tonga would rank in my top 10. Crime levels are close to non-existent in this country and scams are rare. I listed all of the ways that I felt welcomed in this country in the previous section, and I at no times felt as though I was in any kind of danger while I was island-hopping around.

I felt safe on Tonga as a solo woman and didn’t feel as though I attracted any unwanted attention while I was on the islands — and I met other solo travellers exploring the country, too.

As with everywhere in the world, you’ll want to take basic safety precautions, as you would similarly do at home. So, not drawing attention to expensive drones and cameras, dressing conservatively, taking care not to drink too much alcohol, keeping a close eye on your possessions in public places, and all of that common sense-type stuff.

But if you’re worried about visiting Tonga due to safety reasons, let me reassure you: this is a wonderful country that will welcome you with open arms.

Palm trees in Tongatapu
Palm trees blanket the island in Tongatapu

There Still Isn’t Much Information About the Country Online

It isn’t too difficult to gain a general idea of where you should go in Tonga. You have the main island of Tongatapu and tiny ‘Eua, which is just off the coast of Tongatapu. North of these are the island chains of Ha’apai and Vava’u, and then even further north you have the remote Niuas.

When it comes to deciding which islands to visit in Ha’apai and Vava’u, though, I struggled. There isn’t much accommodation listed online and many of the guesthouses require you to call to book, listing their phone number on a website that hasn’t been updated in a decade. Because some islands don’t have power, it’s tough to get in contact with anybody.

I didn’t bother grabbing a Lonely Planet Tonga for this trip because I’m travelling for six months and didn’t want to lug it around the world with me, but I think it would have helped a lot to have a breakdown on which islands are best for which type of person. I did a lot of guesswork; most of it paid off.

I learned that Tongatapu is worth visiting for one or two days, ‘Eua is underrated and worth spending three or four days in, Ha’apai is paradise and you should spend as long as you can in Matafonua Lodge, and Vava’u should take up as much space in your itinerary as Ha’apai.

And that’s Tonga! I absolutely fell in love with this gorgeous country and can’t wait to start writing about it in more depth. Have I convinced you to visit yet?

Related Articles on Tonga

💰 The Cost of Travel in Tonga: A Detailed Budget Breakdown
🤫 Lying to Locals in Tongatapu
🐴 Exploring ‘Eua: Tonga’s Forgotten Island
🏖 Ha’apai: My South Pacific Island Paradise
🏥 Hospitalised in Tonga

About the author

Lauren Juliff

Lauren Juliff is a published author and travel expert who founded Never Ending Footsteps in 2011. She has spent over 12 years travelling the world, sharing in-depth advice from more than 100 countries across six continents.

Lauren's travel advice has been featured in publications like the BBC, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Cosmopolitan, and her work is read by 200,000 readers each month. Her travel memoir can be found in bookstores across the planet.


  1. Interesting information about the oldest sister. If she likes the husband of the younger sister, can she forcibly get him too? :)

    Nice read, btw. I will check more of this country.

    • March 15, 2018

      I don’t think so — I’ve only heard of it happening to the younger sister’s child.

      • Teimumu
        March 16, 2018

        Well FYI is wrong.
        1. You only heard the story.
        2. Whoever you had this conversation with i am pretty sure you did come across languages barrier.

        I ‘m a older sister who only have 2 kids, i gave my second child to my younger sister and her husband to raised because they can’t have children.

        In our culture and CUSTOMS we strongly stick together as a family. Our late King George V raised his younger’s brother only Daughter. The King passed away and younger brother become King and now she is the only princess in our little Nation.

        Hope this helps you understand of our culture. Just get your facts right and next time you visit come mingle with us locals COCOCOCOCONUUUTTTSSS ?.

        Sad you didn’t tried HORSE MEAT whaaatt??

        • March 16, 2018

          I’m not sure what facts I got wrong? I simply shared a story of an older sister raising her younger sister’s child as her own — that wasn’t incorrect. Although it’s not something I can fully understand, I try to keep an open mind about cultures that are different to my own. I found Tonga to be fascinating and can’t wait to return to learn more! And, I guess, to eat horse meat! :-)

          • Teimumu
            March 16, 2018

            Exactly it wasn’t incorrect but the way you phrase it “Beware older sister” . We don’t demand, as family we discussed and listen with empathy to our sisters and brothers in need. I respect you from another Culture trying to understand mine and if you really that open mind you could had asked more input from different locals to expand your horizon and understanding. Not from just one story.
            What enrich us Tonga to the world? Our Culture,Customs and Values, Families,Religions and ofcourse ? hehe.
            Well Glad you enjoyed our lil nation. Ofa atu

            • March 19, 2018

              I actually did speak to more one person in the country about it, but regardless, I understand how it could be interpreted as problematic or offensive. The heading was my attempt at humour :-) Thank you for your comments!

            • Charleen
              November 3, 2018

              Hello, that’s really nice to know more about your culture, i definitely want to visit and learn about your island, families and culture.
              If you have any recommendation for a solo girl travelling in Tonga let us know :)

              Thank you !

            • November 3, 2018

              There’s no way to subscribe to comment notifications on my site, so unless Teimumu randomly decides to head back to this blog post six months later, I doubt you’ll get a response.

              For what it’s worth, Tonga is incredibly safe for a solo female traveller, so there’s no real precautions you’ll need to take. As long as you cover up to show respect, you’ll have a wonderful time.

      • Imran sese
        September 5, 2020

        If i visit Tonga for 2 weeks, and i wanna stay at the low rate hotels, then how much will cost me?

        • September 5, 2020

          Around $70 a day, I’d esitmate

  2. March 15, 2018

    Well, I’m convinced!!

    Great article; I really feel like I know what makes Tonga tick! The culture sounds absolutely fascinating (I never knew about the fakaleiti or the oldest sister rights), and the people sound wonderful. I don’t think I’m brave enough yet for the MA60 though! That must’ve been nerve-wracking to say the least!

    • March 16, 2018

      The Tongans are so lovely! And the country wonderful. The fact that the culture is so different to ours just made travelling there all the more interesting.

  3. Aga
    March 15, 2018

    Love Tonga! Great photos and write-up, Lauren. I visited Tonga in 2015 and it was one of the best holidays we’ve ever had – the people are lovely and the whales are amazing. You have to go back to swim with the humpbacks! If you already love Tonga without seeing them, you’re going to fall even more in love when you get to see the whales.

    • March 16, 2018

      I know! I’m definitely planning on returning later this year, but probably not during whale season *again*. It’s so tough when you need to book so far in advance and I never know where I’ll be in 2020! It’s definitely something I know I have to experience in the future, though.

  4. March 15, 2018

    As beautiful as it is, I’m not convinced I want to visit. Crazy, I know, since I looooooove a good beach. Some of those practices, like being able to take the child of the younger sister are more than bewildering to me, it’s downright awful. I understand that I don’t understand the culture, however, as a mom, I am incredibly sad/heartbroken for the younger sisters who lose their children.

    And then I think about seeing the whales… that is a dream! As always, excellent post!

    • March 22, 2018

      Yeah, it’s tough. Many of the sisters are happy to do it, some of them are upset about it. It’s so hard to know the ins and outs when it’s someone else’s culture. It’s so definitely different to the way we live our lives.

  5. March 15, 2018

    Wow, amazing! I had a friend who did her Peace Corps stay in Tonga and adored it. I am horrified about the premise of the plane though! Yikes!

    • March 16, 2018

      Ha! Don’t Google it — all you see are terrifying reports of how unsafe it is! As I said, I like to think it’s safer than being in a car, but it was definitely nerve-wracking flying in one.

  6. March 17, 2018

    Oh goodness, you’ve DEFINITELY convinced me to add Tonga to my bucket list!

    Sadly, I’ll have to save it for some time in the future, as I’m currently not able to pay a flight all the way across the world – but I’ll definitely get there. And I’ll send you an email when I do ;-)

    • March 21, 2018

      Yeah, there’s definitely a reason why I only go to the South Pacific when I’m having a New Zealand Christmas! Such a shame it’s so expensive, because I know so many of my European/North American readers would adore Tonga.

  7. Scott
    March 18, 2018

    Another stellar post! I really want to go and swim with the whales, having swum with whale sharks off of Holbox Island in Mexico.

    • March 21, 2018

      Thank you! The humpback whales look incredible in Tonga — there’s a lot of babies around at that time of year, too, that you can swim with.

  8. Ricky
    March 20, 2018

    Incredible photos, especially of that crystal clear blue water. I’ve been to many places but never to Tonga. Maybe it’s time to change that.

    • March 21, 2018

      Yes! You won’t regret it :-)

  9. Sue McDonald
    March 21, 2018

    Was very interested to read about Tonga, especially as I am very keen on finding beautiful beaches with clear water and few people! I have been more than 10 times to the Cook Islands and love it there. Aitutaka is the most spectacular lagoon and motu islands. Tonga is certainly on my ”bucket list”. Off to Solomons , to sail around the best snorkelling and diving spots out from Gizo in June. Should be beautiful. Have you been to the Solomons? Samoa is also on the “list”.

    • March 21, 2018

      Both the Solomon Islands and Samoa are on my wish list! I hope to make it to both soon. Hope you have an incredible time on your upcoming trip, although I’m sure you will :-) And yes, I highly recommend Tonga for some of the best beaches ever! They were just as beautiful as the ones I saw in Aitutaki.

  10. Rob
    March 24, 2018

    I am staying in NZ for a year on WHV so looking to do some Pacific Islands.
    My interest in Tonga was already piqued when I happened to attend Rugby League World Cup semi final here in Auckland between them and England the atmosphere, flags and everything was crazy. This article helps me out a lot.

    If you could only visit say Tongatapu and ‘Eua would it still be worth visiting. Also did you book inter country flights while there or beforehand?

    • March 27, 2018

      You’d miss out on the best parts of the country, but it’d still be worth going. I’d recommend ‘Eua and Ha’apai if at all possible. I booked in advance.

  11. Easy Travel Gear
    April 12, 2018

    Great post there. I hadn’t heard about Tonga before reading this. Sure looks like you had a ball there and from the images I can tell its awesome. Be more interesting to read more about their traditions. Fascinating!

  12. Shreyba
    July 26, 2018

    This is the most useful resource for Tonga I’ve found on the internet! Thank you for writing it. My question: if you were to return to Tonga, where would you go on your second visit?

    • September 15, 2018

      Fun question! I’d definitely return to Matafonua, and I’d want to check out some different islands that are part of Vava’u, as I definitely didn’t get to see it at its best on this adventure. I’d also try to visit during high season to get to experience the whales :-)

  13. Rebecca Phelps
    August 30, 2018

    I was born in Tonga, but left as a child. I would really like to return and see the island. Thank you for the information :).

    • September 15, 2018

      Thanks for reading! I hope you make it back to Tonga :-)

  14. Brennan Randall
    September 26, 2018

    Hi Lauren! Wow, this has been so helpful! My partner and I are trying to decide whether to spend our six day vacation in Fiji or Tonga. From what it looks like, you didn’t spend much time exploring Fiji?? If so, can you offer any insight into which you would recommend?

    Again, thank you for taking the time to share your experience! It has really helped us. :)

  15. October 8, 2018

    Awesome post, I’m heading to Tonga next week and trying to do a little research but as you said, there’s not much available on the internet!
    The charming little hut you stayed at in Ha’apai looked awesome – can you give me the name of the guest house? If you don’t want to overshare it online I get that, but I’d appreciate an e-mail if that’s the case :)

  16. Serena Joy
    October 8, 2018

    wow, thank you for writing such an incredibly detailed post on Tonga! it’s really interesting that you included plenty of facts that don’t depict only the good parts of Tonga, such as the obesity trend. I really want to go to Tonga in 2019, I’ve heard that diving spots such as Swallows Cave are incredible, and your article makes me want to visit Tonga even more!!!

  17. Charleen
    November 3, 2018

    Hi Lauren, thank you so much for all of these informations.
    I think about going to Tonga for New year eve and I don’t really know where to go, if i have to book all my trip at the same place, or if i’m just going there and try to find an accomodation with the locals.. Where to go first, and what to do..
    Do you know if there is a website to book the ferry or flight or if it’s better to do it there.
    Thank you :)

    • November 3, 2018

      You can book the flights from the Real Tonga website, and I’d recommend doing that in advance: and I think you buy tickets for the ferries on board, so you can do that when you get there. New Years is low season in Tonga, so you shouldn’t have any problem with availability.

  18. Shy
    November 14, 2018

    Don’t be sad about the oldest sister thing! It’s not a big deal to give your children to other family members. My dad is Tongan and my mother is white. I am a twin and when we were born one of my aunties had trouble having children so she asked if my mom could give one of us to her (“you have two!”) my mom was appalled but it’s just a normal part of their customs. Family is family and we all love each other.

    • January 8, 2019

      Thank you so much for sharing, Shy.

  19. Lorna
    February 20, 2019

    Thank you so much for this Lauren, so informative. Given you were there in January do you know would it be as quiet over Christmas. Think this might be out spot for 2019!

  20. Air
    April 5, 2019

    This line is particularly worrying

    “It’s a worrying trend that I hope will start to reverse soon. It’ll be tough to do when beauty is associated with a larger size.”

    While I agree diabetes is a big problem, I however don’t think associating beauty with a larger size is. The difference lies in educating the locals about health vs vanity. i don’t think they’re purposely fattening themselves up to be more beautiful. it’s just systematically what’s available happens to be of poorer quality. You’ll see this in the Native American Reservations in the States as well.

    But please, let cultures celebrate beauty as they’ve always celebrated it. God knows we have enough skinny blue-eyed blondes in the world.

    • April 5, 2019

      Have you been to Tonga?

      Perhaps I could have worded it better, but when the life expectancy is plummeting, 40% of the population has diabetes, and 90% of the population is overweight, something needs to change. And when a larger size *is* seen as being most beautiful and aspirational, there isn’t a huge incentive to change. In Tonga, being obese reflects a higher social status, so the locals actually are purposely fattening themselves up to be more beautiful. Being large is revered here. It’s not just that the food is full of saturated fat, but that everyone overeats at enormous feasts and they do so regularly. Weekly. To prove they’re of a higher social status.

      From a BBC article about Tonga’s obesity problem:

      “But there’s no question the role that society plays here.

      “The bigger you are, that’s beauty,” says Drew Havea, chair of the civil Society Forum of Tonga.

      Size and status in Tonga have often gone together. The Tongan King Tupou IV, who died in 2006, holds the Guinness record for being the heaviest-ever monarch – 200kg (33 stone, or 440lbs). Being thin would traditionally have indicated a position lower in the social pecking order.”

  21. April 15, 2019

    Hi Lauren,

    This is a great article! I am considering travelling to Tonga for 2 – 3 weeks over the end of May and start of June this year. Have I left it do late to book accommodation and travel between islands?

    I am a vegetarian, do you think it would be difficult for me to eat there? I’m also struggling to narrow down an itinerary. I would like to do a couple of days of hiking, a couple of days on the beach, snorkelling/scuba diving and seeing the wild horses on ‘Eua. Where would you prioritise for these activities?

    Apologies for all of these questions!

    Best wishes,


  22. Bill
    April 20, 2019

    Travelled to Tonga back in 1993 and had a wonderful time. Was saddened to hear that there was actually political unrest and death a few years ago, so I hope things have stabilized now (2019). My highlight? Mariner’s Cave. Google it! :)

  23. Serge
    May 11, 2019

    Thanks a lot for such an interesting article! It’s so well-timed for me, coz I’m going to visit Tonga in 2-3 weeks.
    But the internet speed info got me disappointed :(( I’ve read recently that they got an optic wire on the ocean bottom… So they didn’t?

  24. Oh dear, did you end up taking the MA60 in 2019? We have a trip to Vavau coming up and I’m pretty nervous to hear that the MA60 has made its way back into the fleet…

    • August 18, 2019

      It was in 2018, but yeah, they definitely have brought it back. I just tried to convince myself that it’s still got to be safer than driving a car, right? Surely even the most riskiest plane is safer than driving? And it’s not like people are dying in plane crashes in Tonga every week. Nobody ever has, so you’ll likely be totally fine :-)

  25. Kieran
    November 20, 2019

    Great article. I visited Tonga in January 2011 and had a similar experience (i.e felt like I was one of the few visitors.) I met quite a few people who were working as volunteers but not other tourists which was nice! I would say one drawback about vising in January would be the rain. It rained very heavily for two days during my 10 day visit and every afternoon as well. While this didn’t totally ruin my trip it meant I had to be prepared to get wet as I enjoy being outdoors

    Great picture of the rocky coastline on Eua, brought back some memories.

  26. January 24, 2020

    Thank you for sharing Lauren. Just read this start to finish as I am considering going to Tonga in a few months on my own. Really great advice and I feel pretty confident it’s a cool place to travel solo. How long would you recommend?

    • March 15, 2020

      I’d say 10 days as a minimum, and if you could push for three weeks, you’d have an amazing time and see so many different parts of the country :-)

  27. Miranda
    July 14, 2020

    1. If a family has all sons, they choose one to be a ‘fakaleiti’ simply isn’t true. The third gender has always existed in Polynesia and isn’t something that is forced, they don’t simply go genie meenie minie mo and choose a son to be the fakaleiti lol

    2. The eldest sister having absolute power isn’t true either, the younger sister can still say no if she doesn’t wish to give up her child. Tongans are very family-oriented and so if a couple can’t conceive, they may ask a sibling to adopt/raise their child as their own. This kindness also goes both ways, its pretty hard to explain the dynamics of respect between siblings in Tonga as I can’t think of anything in “Western culture” that compares but its not as bad as you’ve described

    Nice blog about Tonga nevertheless and I hope you get to go back to Vava’u as that is my favourite island!

    • July 14, 2020

      As I said in the post: “Traditionally in Tonga, if a woman were to give birth to only boys, she could then go on to choose one of them to be her daughter.” Could! Not will. You misread my point.

      Also, there was a couple working at one of the places I stayed who were forced to give one of their children to the woman’s older sister. They were devastated and suffering from depression because of it. So that maybe skewed my opinion, but yeah, she, at least, certainly didn’t want to give up one of her kids. I fact check all of my information and reconfirmed that was the case with several books.

      From the book Social Structure, Space and Possession in Tongan Culture and Language:

      “The superior status of a sister and mehekitanga also becomes apparent in the most frequent kind of adoption in Tonga in which a woman adopts her brother’s child. In a wider sense, this can even be regarded as a case of claiming his property. In several situations I have observed that children leave the house when their mehekitanga is present to avoid her commands which they would have to obey.”

      And a guidebook to Tonga:

      “Tongan society is structured along matriarchal lines, with women holding a higher social status than in most other Polynesian countries. The oldest sister in each family, or the mehikitanga, holds the highest status within her family. According to long-standing tradition, if the mehikitanga asks anything of her brothers or younger sisters, her siblings have no choice but to obey her orders. For instance, the oldest sister might ask her siblings for sought-after items, such as a TV or a computer. More dramatically, when the oldest sister cannot bear a child, it is not uncommon for her to ask a younger sister for her baby. When this happens, the younger sister must give up the baby and allow the older sister to raise it as her own.”

  28. Peter Poulsen
    January 4, 2021

    Hi Laureen
    (sorry this is a long and complex set of issues one can discuss for pages!)

    Delighted you enjoyed Tonga, yes we have many attractions in a rustic less organized way.

    What may be considered tradition is not necessarily practiced by all families. Such texts should never say must, and never say never! Mehikitanga do have status and are recognized at social functions and family settings. But there is a degree of fluidity; there is also reciprocity and responsible asking. And there are layers within layers! No source should be quoted as absolute authority.

    You did not mention the strong brother – sister taboo. Siblings tend to avoid showing even mild romantic behaviour, even towards their partners in front of their opposite-sex siblings (or cousins). That is one of the reasons you seldom see males/females holding hands in public, and definitely not kissing. Important for visitors to appreciate.

    But again things are changing and some of these customs are fading….makes it even more interesting trying to understand what is and is not now ‘acceptable’. As you noted, dress codes are (like in so many places) becoming more fluid.

    And a small warning about stories you are told in your travels – they may or may not fully reflect the factual accuracy (one might expect in a non-fake news world). There are always those who like to tell stories just for the fun of telling stories; for entertainment; for a laugh; to influence others….. And visitors are always fun to tell stories to! Just more of the layers within layers….

    Noted a post about not knowing what would be doing in 2020! Little did any of us expect how different things would be.

    Tonga will still be here when we again have tourists, currently, we remain tourist and covid free along with a small number of
    Pacific island countries.

    Hope whatever it is you are safe and well.


    PS take anything I say as just one set of comments/observations to be triangulated and tested against other comments/observations – though I do strive for accuracy within what I understand things to be….

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *