Although the Viking Sun successfully navigated around Cyclone Tino to arrive in Tonga a day early, his wrath could be felt and seen throughout the kingdom, with many places still without power. Historically called the “Friendly Islands,” Tonga’s official name is the Kingdom of Tonga. It is a Polynesian sovereign state made up of more than 170 islands, only 36 of which are inhabited.
We were greeted with a warm “Malo e lelei” (hello!) by the Tonga Police Dancers, and our cruise staff arranged transfer service to Likualofa for an afternoon at the beach. Along the way, we saw the devastating effects of severe storms that have decimated mango and bread fruit crops, and buildings in varying stages of destruction and repair. The biggest cyclone to hit Tonga in 60 years was Cyclone Gita in 1918. Gita took out historic churches, communications centers, rooftops, and schools, many of which are still in the process of being re-built.
Unlike the soft, sandy beaches in Tahiti and Bora Bora, the beach at Likualofa is mostly limestone and coral, but the water is 50 crystal clear shades of blue/green. There are numerous pine trees dotting the beach, making umbrellas unnecessary. The coral and limestone make walking and getting into the ocean a challenge and the undertow makes it difficult to get out, but the water provides a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the day. And Doug spotted an ambitious land crab blending inconspicuously on a coral reef!
The next day we explored the port town of Nuku’Alofa and learned more about life in Tonga. Tonga was united under one monarch in 1845 by King George of England. A British protectorate until 1970, they acquired their independence and became a sovereign nation, but remain an active member of the Commonwealth. Tonga has a population of just over 100,000 inhabitants, and the official languages are Tongan (spoken at home) and English (taught in schools.)
The Royal Palace is the official residence of King Aho’eitu Tupou VI and the royal family. The white Victorian wooden palace was built in 1867. The palace is not open to the public, but it is very visible from the waterfront. The royal family uses the palace for official functions, but they have another home in which they actually reside.
The Maia’e Kula (Royal Tombs) were built in 1893 when His Majesty King George Tupou I passed away. These are considered sacred grounds by the Tongans, and they are not open to the public. Another Tongan custom is to drape one’s house with purple and black bunting when someone has recently passed away. It is considered a sign of respect for the deceased, and we saw several draped houses and businesses.
Arts and Crafts are a big source of income for Tongan women, and the Langafonua Handicrafts Center stocks the best range of traditional Tongan handicrafts and fine arts. The center was set up to preserve the ancient craft skills and promote Tongan handicrafts in 1953. Everything in the center is made locally to reflect the proud culture and heritage of Tonga.
The Marketi Talamanhu is a lively produce market where vendors sell a variety of fresh, local produce ranging from huge taro roots, sweet potatoes, pineapples, and melons to string beans, greens, and tiny bananas.
The people of Tonga live up to their historic moniker as the “friendly island.” In spite of signs of poverty all around us, everyone we met was genuinely friendly and very proud of their island and heritage. For special occasions, the women and men wear traditional garlands of red flowers and handmade wrap skirts called ta’ovalas as a sign of respect. Our guides wore these skirts over their clothing to let us know how much they appreciate tourists. In fact, if one word could be used to describe the Tongan people, it would be “respectful.” Trip Advisor ranks Friends Cafe as Tonga’s best coffee shop, and we have to agree. It might not stand up to Papa Latte’s in terms of quality, but the warm, respectful service and the smiles of the Tongan people make it a cut above!