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Rediscovering the South Pacific


© St. Petersburg Times

Traffic? What traffic?

There are, I suppose, a few more cars on the streets of Nuku'alofa now than there were 14 years ago when my wife and I first began visiting this quaint South Pacific island country. But traffic? No way.

Yet Tongans will apologize for just about anything that they think might inconvenience a visitor -- even the world's smallest traffic jam.

Islanders have a phrase for this sort of behavior: Nofo fiefia. It means "making others feel at home" and it's an important part of their life.

Tonga is still a country where the leading newspaper comes out but once a week -- and is filled mostly with "good" news; where television is broadcast only in the main town, only in the evening and only for a few hours. There is not a single traffic light in the country, nor are any needed.

Quaint is the word everyone seems to use to describe Tonga. There's a lot to be said for quaint.

That's part of the appeal of Tonga -- this absence of hustle and bustle, of highrise buildings and shopping centers, of some of the unneeded conveniences and many of the unwanted drawbacks of the typical American or European city.

There's a wonderful scarcity of crowds, crime, tourist traps and bad attitudes.

Of course, the fact that it is clean, comfortable, safe, friendly and English-speaking are also big pluses.

The 40-minute ride into Nuku'alofa from the kingdom's small but modern airport on the main island of Tongatapu follows quiet, narrow, country roads lined with coconut palms and miniature villages.

Interspersed among the flat fields of the ubiquitous roadside coconut plantations is rich agricultural land overflowing with huge vegetable plants that look like they are leaping out from the covers of seed catalogs.

Husbands and wives tending their vegetable crops look up and smile as you drive by. Schoolchildren, dressed in neat uniforms, wave. And now and then a couple of foraging small pigs, destined to one day grace a Tongan feast, dash out of the yards of their owners, slowing you down a bit.

Except for those small pigs and some of the schoolchildren, no one seems to be in much of a hurry. Women dressed in traditional, full-length Tongan outfits stroll along the side of the road, carrying colorful umbrellas to shade them from the sun.

You begin to feel that you have stepped back in time. And then you're certain that you have -- as you pass a Tongan family out for a leisurely ride in their horse-drawn wagon.

So, what is there for a tourist to do?

While there are no beaches immediately in the Nuku'alofa area, the main island of Tongatapu does have excellent, uncrowded, unspoiled beaches about a 45-minute drive from town.

And it was just a short stroll from our hotel to a boat that takes minutes to whisk you to one of the idyllic, tiny islands that offer beautiful beaches of fine white sand and spectacularly clear water.

But we put off tanning and snorkeling until later to first walk around town and to shop. Nuku'alofa -- Tongan for "City of Love" -- is a dusty, tiny (pop. 20,000) town of mostly old wooden buildings, with a couple of modern structures. Like so much about Tonga, it seems out of a different era.

A common sight are islanders dressed in their traditional ta'ovala, a finely woven pandanus-leaf mat that is worn over a wraparound skirt or kilt. It is secured with a cord of coconut fiber. Wearing such mats around their waists is considered a sign of respect to the King, and it is also considered the way for a Tongan to dress for more formal occasions.

My wife loves Tongan baskets, so we walked to the Friendly Islands Marketing Cooperative store, Nuku'alofa's largest outlet for handicrafts. Most everything in Nuku'alofa is within walking distance.

Tongan handicrafts are prized for their quality and beauty, yet they are quite affordable. A Tongan will spend endless hours to turn cut strips of pandanus leaves into useful items.

Shipping them home by sea doesn't cost much. Buy a couple of really big baskets and stuff everything else into them. They arrive about two months later.

Be sure to include some tapa cloth. Tapa, highly valued in the kingdom, is produced by women pounding the bark of a mulberry tree into long, thin pieces of tapa cloth, upon which they then hand-paint traditional designs, using brown and tan dyes.

Another wonderful shopping value in Tonga are wool sweaters. Wool sweaters? Remember, New Zealand is just south of Tonga. The combination of imported New Zealand wool and Tongan craftsmanship produces a first-rate product at about one-third the price you'd pay in an American store.

The sweaters are produced at a plant located at the Small Industries Centre, a five-minute taxi ride from downtown Nuku'alofa. You can watch sweaters being knitted, buy directly from the producer and even place a special order that you can pick up in couple of days or have shipped home.

Other items produced and available at other operations located at the Centre include reasonably priced black coral jewelry and leather goods, including coats, belts, even horse saddles. The Sights of Tongatapu

Before setting out to see the sights, stop by the Tongan Visitors Bureau on Vuna Road, for helpful tips, excellent maps and brochures. Browse awhile at the open-air crafts market next door. We like to buy small sandalwood carvings to use in clothing drawers as fresheners.

Just down the road, facing the ocean, is the Royal Palace, a must-see landmark. Built in 1867 and sited on a six-acre compound surrounded by a low wall, Norfolk pines and ironweed trees, it is a gingerbread, Victorian-style, white frame building with gables and scalloped eaves, crowned with bright red roofs.

The only Pacific island country never brought under foreign rule -- although it long had a treaty of friendship with Great Britain and is a member of the British Commonwealth -- Tonga is the last remaining Polynesian kingdom. The king is not just a figure-head: He rules and is beloved by his people.

Tongans and tourists alike enjoy catching a glimpse of the 78-year-old monarch, His Majesty King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. The best way to do so is by attending Sunday services at the Free Wesleyan Centenary Church.

Be sure to visit the Tonga National Centre, a museum and cultural center of traditional oval fale (house) design, where you view displays detailing Tongan history, witness craftsmen making handicrafts and are entertained by dancing and singing.

The Tongatapu attraction visitors seem to relish most are the Houma Blowholes. They stretch for more than three miles along the southern shore of the island and are truly riveting. High tide on a windy day is the best time to visit them.

As pounding ocean waves roll in under reefs and shelves, enormous pressure builds up and is explosively released upward through hundreds of natural vents in the coral limestone, sending fountains of sea water soaring geyser-like -- up to almost 100 feet into the air. It makes tumultuous roaring sounds and eerie whistle noises, leaving behind for a few moments a trail of misty rainbows that quickly vanish but are soon replaced by a new round of rainbows.

Other sights of Tongatapu include the Lapaha Archaeological Site, an area containing Tonga's richest and some of the South Pacific's finest archaeological remnants; the Kolovai Flying Fox Sanctuary, where thousands of huge bats with immense wingspans hang from trees; Hufangalupe (The Pigeon's Doorway), a scenic area featuring a large natural coral bridge, steep cliffs and a beautiful beach; and the stalactite and stalagmite caves near the village of Haveluliku.

If you are a stamp collector, or if you have any friends who are, be sure to stop by the Philatelic Bureau. Tonga is world renowned for its unusual and colorful postage stamps.

An especially interesting time to visit is during the Heilala festival, which coincides with the king's birthday on July Fourth. It is a weeklong celebration of parades, parties, concerts, sporting events, beauty pageants, dances and yacht regattas, highlighted by the awesome Night of Torches in which the entire length of Nuku'alofa's waterfront is lighted up by burning torches. Sunday Sacred

Spending Sunday in Tonga is reminiscent of a different era. It is against Tongan law to work or to conduct business on Sunday. Even restaurants, except those at tourist hotels, close. Driving a taxi or bus is prohibited. Tongans don't fish, work in the garden or even hang out the laundry on Sunday. Even swimming is taboo.

Just about everyone in the country dresses up in his or her Sunday best and heads to church services, Bible in hand. The sound of hymns fills the air. The rest of the day is for relaxing, taking a stroll and visiting friends, neighbors and relatives.

Tourists may be able to find a boat to take them to an offshore island, where they can escape the Sunday prohibitions. But the wiser traveler attends a Tongan church service. The melodious sound of the a cappella singing is unforgettable.

Most visitors to Tonga see only the main island of Tongatapu. It is certainly representative of the entire kingdom and in itself is a look at an interesting, unique culture. But if you can find the time, do visit some of the kingdom's other island groups. The Ha'apai Group, the area where the mutiny on the Bounty occurred, has fantastic beaches. So does spectacularly scenic Vava'u, the crown jewel of the kingdom, which also has one of the world's finest natural harbors.

Tongans call their way of living mo'ui nonga, "a peaceful life." Experiencing it, even for just a short while, can give the visitor a different -- and better -- outlook on life.

Fred J. Eckert is a freelance writer living in Spotsylvania, Va. If you go

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies directly to Tonga from Los Angeles. Alternatively, you can fly to Fiji on Qantas, Air New Zealand or Air Pacific, and then connect on an Air Pacific or Royal Tongan flight to Tonga. Or take one of the daily Air New Zealand flights from Los Angeles to Auckland and then an Air New Zealand or Royal Tongan flight from Auckland to Tonga.

Entry documents: U.S. citizens need only a valid passport and an onward ticket. A visa is not required.

Currency: Tonga uses the pa'anga. The exchange rate is about 75 U.S. cents to one Tongan pa'anga. Currency exchange is easy.

Accommodations: The International Dateline Hotel is generally considered Nuku'alofa's best, while the Paradise International in Vava'u is considered the best in the kingdom. There are numerous small establishments, including island resorts, offering a range of grades. Bookings can be made at the Tonga Visitors Bureau.

Safety: Tonga is one of the world's safest destinations. Visitors are welcome and are extraordinarily well treated. Drinking water is safe.

Information: Contact the Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga, 360 Post St., Suite 604, San Francisco, CA 94108; tel: (415) 781-0365; fax: (415) 781-3964. You will also find excellent tourist information available upon arrival in Tonga both at the airport and at the Tonga Visitors Bureau in Nuku'alofa or in Vava'u.

Originally published January 19, 1997

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