Tonga: the friendly islands where time begins

We reached Vava’u, the most northerly group of Tongan islands, just before sunset on 18th September 2019. We were exhausted from our very difficult 16 day passage from French Polynesia and were very tempted to break our first golden rule: never enter an unfamiliar anchorage at night. However, we opted to round the northern point of Vava’u and seek shelter in Vaiutukakau Bay on the north-western side, taking three hourly watches to make sure we didn’t drift out into the current and rougher water.

At first light we sailed into the scenic waterways of Vava’u and passed a number of islands, heading for the main port, Neiafu, where we had to clear in. We tied up to the main dock and were informed by the friendly customs official that we had missed a day along the way. Tonga is the first country west of the International Dateline, which meant that we were now 11 hours ahead of our family and friends back home, instead of 11 hours behind.

The anchorage at Neiafu.

After a few abortive anchoring attempts we were happy to tie up to a mooring buoy near our friends Francois and Rosemary on ZigZag, who were moored amongst about 50 other yachts. This is a busy season for Tonga as many cruisers who are on their way to New Zealand for the cyclone season spend the last few weeks of the Pacific cruising season here.

Having heard of our difficult passage to Tonga, Rosemary and Francois treated us to pizzas on the first night of our landfall.

Tonga is indeed wonderful cruising ground! The 171 islands of the Kingdom consist of three island groups, Vava’u being the most northerly one. Less than 40 of these coral and volcanic islands are inhabited.

Tonga is situated in the heart of the South Pacific, east of Fiji, south of Samoa and 1300nm northeast of New Zealand. The Kingdom of Tonga is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy and the only Pacific nation that was never under foreign rule. Today the Tongans are a proud nation and are as friendly now as when Captain James Cook visited the Ha’apai group in the 1770’s. He was so overwhelmed by the friendliness of the islanders that he called Tonga “The Friendly Islands”.

Interesting root vegetables on offer at the Neiafu market.


In Neiafu we managed to get a new linkage welded for the port steering before we set off to explore the islands and waterways of Vava’u.

Many of the islands have a rocky base and a lush green top.

Volcanic ash that settled on the islands hundreds of years ago makes the soil rich and fertile. The islanders live mainly from coconuts, mangoes, paw paws, bananas, bread fruit and root types that grow prolifically. Free range chickens and pigs are to be found on all the islands and on some islands they keep cattle. Obviously fish makes up a big part of their diet.

Somehow everybody knows which pigs belong to whom, even if they roam free.
Exploring Kapa Island.
Nuku is one of the many uninhabited islands of Vava’u.
Moondust anchored off Avalau island.


Ha’apai, Tonga’s middle group of islands, is only a day sail south of Vava’u. The islands in this group are more widely spread and have many potentially hazardous reefs in between therefore I was looking out from the bow and Pete had Google Earth charts open, as well as our Navionics charts on the chartplotter whilst we cruised this area.  Judging by the number of shipwrecks we’ve seen this was prudent.

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Mushroom Rock off Ha’ano Island was our first stop in Ha’apai.
Uoleva Island has a long stretch of golden beach.
Taro leaves are used to parcel meat, chicken or fish which, combined with onion and coconut milk, are cooked in an underground oven.

Traditionally the Tongans cook with fire, using a wooden pole to spitbraai pigs and coals to heat an underground earth oven. Root vegetables are put into the earth oven first, then the taro parcels. They also serve raw fish in coconut cream and spices, with breadfruit pudding for dessert.

One of the lodges preparing dinner on the beach by roasting a pig and cooking in the earth oven (on the left).

Tongan people are very religious and traditional and are distinguished from other Polynesians by their dress. For formal dress (equivalent to a coat and tie for us) men wear woven mats (called Ta’ovala) wrapped around the waist as a sign of respect. The female equivalent, which is a waistband with woven patterns hanging down, is called a kiekie.

Walking through Ha’afeva town we met the local minister of the Seventh Day Adventist church and his wife.
We caught a beautiful 10kg Dorado under way to Nomuko Island. Two days later we got a 13kg Dorado almost as big as me.
The whipwreck of Takua, a fishing vessel that ran onto the reef at Nomuko-Iki Island in a storm. Sadly two men lost their lives in this tragedy.

Our last stop in Ha’apai was the idyllic and picturesque Kelefesia. This uninhabited island with its white sand, turquoise water, limestone bluffs and shelves of coral was truly intriguing. Rocky patches in the anchorage are covered in coral of all possible shapes, varying from ice crystals to brain, lettuce, fungus, dried twigs and rose shapes. This included both soft and hard coral in a variety of colours.

One of Kelefesia’s limestone bluffs.
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The view of the anchorage from the bluff.
Beautiful turquoise water of the shallow reefs.


Our last stop in Tonga was the Kingdom’s main island, Tongatapu, where we had to do a few admin chores and wait for the right weather window before sailing to New Zealand to avoid the Pacific cyclone season. Tongatapu means “sacred south” and this southern island group not only hosts the royal residence and burial tombs of ancient kings but also Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, where we had to clear customs and immigration.


8 Replies to “Tonga: the friendly islands where time begins”

  1. Og maar dit is fantasties! Daai Dorado het my mond so laat water. Ek sou vir maande daar kon bly. Wanneer beoog julle om in NZ te wees? Stuur vir julle baie liefde xxx


    1. Isla, Tonga is indeed postcard beautiful and people lovely. Sailing the Pacific is very different as the distances are much bigger than in the Caribbean. For that reason you have to love sailing but also, the islands are more unspoilt, which we like.


  2. Hello Pete and Karin
    What can I say WOW! A proper adventure that will live with both of you forever!
    Well done on both of you for keeping it together and hope the boat behaves and the seas be good to you To NZ and beyond.. : )
    Itching to go. Maximillien calling me but kids still at school !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rich,
      We arrived in NZ on 8th November, after spending two glorious days at Minerva Reef en-route between Tonga and NZ. It wasn’t the easiest sail down, so we are very happy to be here for the next six months due to the Pacific cyclone season. Well, the kids won’t be at school forever…. 🙂


  3. So interesting to hear all about your amazing travels and what beautiful places to be visiting. So glad you are having such a wonderful time and lovely to see all the photos!

    Liked by 1 person

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