Tonga was somewhere I’ve had my eye on for a while now for one big reason: it’s one of the only places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales. In September of 2018, I finally got there but after spending a minor fortune on flights and pre-booked whale swim tours, my budget was pretty lacking when it came to actually seeing and experiencing Tonga. However, it turns out that the island of Tongatapu is pretty easy to explore- even for those trying to stick to a budget. Looking for some inspiration? Here are the best things to do in Tonga: a Tongatapu Island guide.
Getting To Tonga
Tonga is a small island kingdom in the South Pacific and getting here can be quite expensive. Most flights will be from Fiji or New Zealand and will land on the main island: Tongatapu. From Tongatapu you can either take a domestic flight or a ferry to the surrounding islands. However, before you leave, you should spend a day or two exploring Tongatapu itself. Sure, it’s home to the capital city, Nuku’alofa, but there are some interesting things to see and do as well.
Getting Around Tonga
If you really want to Explore Tongatapu, your best bet is to rent a car. This can be done pretty cheaply for 60-80 Tongan pa’anga for a day which is about 25-35 USD. For an island tour, you really only need a one-day rental. Technically, drivers renting a car in Tonga should have an international drivers license AND a permit to drive in Tonga. However, most car rental spots only require a driver’s license from your home country. Police, however, may ask for the Tongan permit if they pull you over (just don’t go over the speed limit- you’ll be fine).
For getting around town you can use taxis or the local bus. The local buses are easy to flag down and you pay at the end depending on how far you go. Taxis are not metered, so check with your accommodation ahead of time the average costs to ensure you don’t overpay. If a taxi driver does overcharge you, argue it (nicely and politely).
Finally, hitchhiking, or even just a car pulling over to offer you a ride is common in Tonga, however, I definitely do not recommend it after my nightmare experience. If you haven’t read that story, you can do so here.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Tonga
Tonga can be visited year round but chances are you are coming to swim with the whales, so you want to make sure that you visit during humpback whale season. Whale season in Tonga takes place from June to October with the best months being August and September. We went in September and were not disappointed as we saw plenty of mother humpbacks and their calves.
Hotels in Tongatapu
When it comes to Tongatapu accommodation, there is a variety of choice though limited options in terms of numbers. Most hotels and hostels in Tongatapu are located close to the capital, Nuku’alofa, which is quite small. If you are looking to stay in a resort, you will find most of them outside the city centre or on one of the smaller surrounding islands.
For recommendations on Tongatapu accommodation I recommend the following:
Hostels: Tongatapu doesn’t have a ton of hostels. I stayed at Hafu’s House which is a backpacker-type property and can be found on Airbnb.
You can also check Airbnb!
Tongan Food and Drink
Traditional Tongan food consists of a lot of fresh seafood and pork as well as fruits and vegetables. Meat is a huge part of the Tongan diet, and vegetarians may have a difficult time eating out, so may want to consider staying somewhere with a kitchen so they can cook.
For such a small city, Nuku’alofa has plenty of dining options available. A few of my favourites include:
- Chef Zero: a hidden gem off the beaten track. A little expensive by Tongan standards but absolutely worth it. Delicious seafood options including lobster. Chef Zero is also BYOB or you can get juices and soft drinks there.
- Billfish: A fun restaurant/bar with a lively atmosphere at night.
- Marco’s Pizza: Decent pizzas for a good price. They also offer takeaway options.
- Coffee Post: Great little café for coffee or breakfast.
**I don’t recommend Friends Café, though it consistently pops up as one of the top places to eat. I found it to be a bit of a tourist trap with expensive, tasteless (or icky) food.
The Best Things to do in Tonga: Tongatapu
Swim with Humpback Whales
Swimming with whales in Tongatapu is amazing and was one of the best experiences of my life. There are a few options but I highly recommend Whale Swim Fish and Dive Tours. They are one of the priciest options on this island, however, it’s worth it. They use small boats with a maximum of 8 people and their team is amazing. You can read more about swimming with whales in Tonga and how to plan and book your own experience here.
Find the Snorkelling Pigs
Not quite sure why they are called snorkelling pigs because they don’t actually snorkel (how cool would that be?) but Tongatapu’s pigs do like to run around during low tide and basically bulldoze the sand with their snouts looking for…. something to eat. Make sure you go at low tide to see this!
Visit Mapu a Vaea (the blowholes)
These blowholes are famous and everyone will tell you to go. They are kind of cool since they occur down a large stretch of the coastline but don’t get too excited because, at the end of the day, they are just blowholes. That being said, this is also a good spot to scan the ocean for any breaching whales.
Swim in the Anahulu Cave
The Anahulu cave, located on the east side of Tongatapu, is a large network of limestone caverns. It’s also a natural underground swimming pool.
Search for Hufangalupe
Hufangalupe, of the pigeon’s doorway, is a natural land bridge and one of the most scenic places on Tongatapu. It can be a bit tricky to find, so be sure to use google maps. There’s also a stunning beach beside it.
Wander the Talamahu Market
The Talamahu market is your best bet at experiencing the real Tonga, especially on Saturday mornings. Food and drink, clothing, toys, beauty products. You name it, it’s here. It’s a busy spot with all the locals coming to shop and socialize- definitely worth a visit.
Take a Photo at Ha’amonga ‘a Maui
This stone trilithon is known as the Stonehenge of the Pacific and might be the most visited touristic site on the island of Tongatapu. Nobody really knows why it’s there, though it’s assumed it was some sort of archaeoastronomical observatory. Whatever it is, it makes for the perfect opportunity for a cheesy jump shot.
Find the Three-Headed Coconut
Now, I don’t know about you but I kind of expected the Three-Headed Coconut to be pretty epic. Some giant figure or statue. After all, there are tons of signs for it. Actually, it’s just a coconut tree with three branches instead of one. Not quite as exciting as I hoped, but definitely unusual.
Day Trip to Pangaimoto Island Resort
Just a ten-minute boat ride from Nuku’alofa is Pangaimoto Island resort; the perfect day trip for a beach escape. Snorkel around the wreck, lounge on the beach, and have lunch overlooking the ocean. It’s open daily with one boat which leaves the harbour at 11 am.
Day Trip to Fafa Island
Similar to Pangaimoto Island Resort, Fafa Island is another fun day trip destination. It is a proper resort, so you’ll share the island with those staying overnight, but it is a bit more upscale than Pangaimoto. Boats leave the harbour at 11 am. Please note, booking should be made in advance, especially on weekends.
Day Trip to Atata Island
A final island day trip option is Atata Island. It’s the furthest away, but also offers the most. Kayaking, snorkelling options, and of course a delicious lunch on the beach. Reservations for Atata Island should be made in advance.
Take in a Cultural Show
A couple of the resorts in Tongatapu offer cultural shows: traditional dancing, storytelling, and a meal. It’s a fun and interactive way to learn a bit more about the local culture and try some of the local food. Reservations should be made in advance.
Must-Pack Items for Tonga
- A rashguard: Perfect for swimming with the whales and snorkelling. Rash guards will help protect you from the sun. Even on overcast days, the sun is very strong here and you will get burned. Check rashguards for women. Check rashguards for men.
- Reef safe sunscreen: Sunscreen is a must but please make sure to get a reef safe product as you are swimming with marine life. Stream2Sea is a great pick.
- A dry bag: For being on the boat, or the beach, or island day trips I recommend bringing a dry back for your clothes, towel, cell phone, and money.
- An underwater camera: Especially if you are swimming with whales. I personally used the GoPro 5 Session with the floaty handle for my photos. But there are other, affordable options as well including this one by Olympus or this one by Nikon.
- If you plan on doing a bunch of snorkelling, you may want to consider investing in your own mask and snorkel. It’s kind of nice to know the only mouth that’s been on your snorkel is yours and that your mask isn’t full of 100 people’s spit. You’ll get plenty of use out of it too because there are lots of snorkelling opportunities around Tonga.
Final Tips For Tongatapu Island
If you are planning to visit Tongatapu, here are a couple additional tips that will come in handy.
- Wifi isn’t common: not in accommodation or restaurants. If you want to have access to the internet your best bet is to get a sim card upon arrival. I got 2 gigs for 20 Tongan Pa’anga (about $8 USD) with Digicel. Just make sure your phone is unlocked!
- Nothing is open on Sunday: Seriously. Nothing- even the airport is closed. So be sure to shop for groceries for food the day before or else you’ll go hungry. The island resorts (Pangaimoto, Fafa, and Atata) are open on Sundays so everyone tends to go there for the day.
- Despite the fact that Tonga does have a (small) expat community and lots of people come to see the whales, foreigners still get a lot of attention. The word Palangi means westerner and you can expect to hear it a couple dozen times during your trip.
- Ferries to Tonga’s islands can be unreliable: there is more than one story out there of travellers who have been stranded on islands thanks to the ferry not actually leaving. It’s a travel risk for sure, so I recommend not booking a ferry to Tongatapu on the day you plan to leave Tonga. Give yourself a bit of wiggle room- just in case!
- Tonga is quite modest, so dress appropriately. A tip we were given is if you are showing your knees, then cover your shoulders or vice versa so you don’t show too much skin (but can still keep cool!) Definitely don’t expect to walk around in a bikini unless you are right on a beach.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Tonga
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.