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Day 5, part 2

A cultural experience

rain 22 °C

Oholei Beach Resort, the venue for Lonely Planet's most highly recommended cultural show in Tonga, is across the other side of the island from Heilala, a good hour's drive away. We were picked up at 6, a scant half hour after we got back from the tour of the island. It was raining when we got there so they handed out umbrellas for the walk down the many steps to the beach below and through the sand to the large restaurant fale set into the cliffs right on the beach.

There was a band of four young Tongan guys playing a variety of music. The place was set up with narrow tables covered with banana palm leaves and narrower bench seats, all cemented into the ground. The wait staff were really attentive then the owner stepped up to the microphone. Picture a well-coiffed gent with an ample belly, a red flower behind his ear, shirt with a Tongan tapa pattern on it and a long black lavalava. Socks and sandals completed the ensemble. He said a few words of grateful welcome and began singing Englebert Humperdinck’s Blue Spanish Eyes – very badly.

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He talked to us about his family history and the background of the resort, which was destroyed in a hurricane in 2010. Turns out, he is a very religious man and before dinner he preached to us, sang a hymn and had his four grandchildren recite a psalm before he said a long grace with all the staff and his family on stage. Then we could finally eat the delicious food they laid out, including, of course, a suckling pig with fantastic crackling. Yum!

After dinner, we were ushered into the cave next door for the cultural show. It was fantastic, and just the right length of time to leave us wanting more. The women were graceful in their tapa cloth costumes and the guys were energetic, jumping and swirling in their grass skirts to the drums and music.

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The last performance was a fire dance. The first to come on was the chubby 12 year old grandson of the owner, who was very impressive, throwing the flaming torch around. Then his skinny 10 year old brother or cousin ran on stage and did the same! They were great, even though they dropped the torch a few times, bless them, not to mention the burns you could see on their legs. Then the real experts arrived. Young men with lots of energy, crazily twirling and throwing the torches. It was incredible, and well worth enduring the preaching to see such a spectacular performance. The photos don’t do it justice but you will at least get a taste.

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After such a long day it was a very quiet trip back to Heilala.

The next day – day 6 – was another overcast one with quite a bit of rain. Did pretty much nothing but read, other than a short walk along the beach for lunch at Holty’s Hideaway. They make the best burgers and chips in Tonga, and possibly the world! It’s run by an Aussie woman who showed me the accommodation they have there too. She was very hospitable and I’m going back tomorrow (Sunday) for lunch.

Posted by judesbucketlist 00:14 Archived in Tonga Tagged cave tonga tongan_culture fire_dance pacific_island Comments (0)

Day 7

Paradise found - at last!

sunny 25 °C

Finally, a glorious day! There were enough fluffy clouds to take the edge off the sun. Perfect snorkelling weather, which is what I did twice before lunch & once in the afternoon at dead low tide. The only problem with snorkelling at that stage is that you have to keep your body as straight and thin as possible on the surface, or run the risk of grazes on the coral.

The coral here at Ha’atafu is mostly dead, with small amounts regenerating. Not sure why that is, possibly that the water got too warm at one point. It's still a great experience though!

There were quite a few fish around, some were a bit bigger than I had seen already, but still no reef shark & I still haven’t found Nemo. When I wasn't snorkelling, I sunbathed for a while and may actually come home with a slight tan! Had lunch along the beach in one direction, and dinner in the other.

I’ve put up a bunch of photos that show just how lovely the day was – and the sunset. There’s not much else to tell so enjoy the scenery!

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These lovely ladies are two sisters who are staying at Heilala - it's their first time away from NZ & they are in heaven!

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Posted by judesbucketlist 19:53 Archived in Tonga Tagged sunset paradise tonga tropical_island heilala ha'atafu_beach Comments (0)

Day 8

Palangi in the city

overcast 24 °C

Turned out grey again today, and I wasn’t in the mood to swim, so caught a ride in Heilala’s van into Nuku’alofa.

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A couple of houses on the way to town - contrasting lifestyles

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These friendly boys posed for me as I took the photo out the van window

It really is another world, another Tonga, that doesn’t quite gel with the villages along the way. There were times when I wasn’t so sure I was totally safe there on my own, though I have nothing at all to base that feeling upon. The people are not as friendly, and in the markets they have learned the ways of other developing nations, meaning you have to haggle if you want a good price. The town’s persona is definitely more influenced by the fact that a lot of the younger people, in particular, have been to Auckland or Australian cities and come back with different expectations of life, some less savoury than their parents and grandparents would have liked.

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I was sucked in to giving these guys $5 for "bus fare", but they were funny & sweet and let me take their photo so I didn't mind

I walked around town for a while, including the waterfront again, trying to find a positive side to the place, but there really isn’t anything that stands out, except for two little boys having fun in the water, being watched over by their Dad.

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Not sure the young fella on the left is too happy, but the wee one on the right is having a ball!

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I had to take one arty shot...

Nuku'alofa has a character all its own - if you can call it that - cobbled together from the Chinese money that’s paying for the upgrade to the waterfront, the kids in (and out of) uniform, the people who are just hanging around leaning on fences and walls with nothing to do, and the government buildings & workers in business wear, Tongan style.

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Interesting display for a 'meat shop'

I had lunch at Friends Café again – a very un-Tongan meal of French toast & bacon, though there was a nod to Tonga with the fried banana & vanilla syrup (vanilla is grown in Tonga)! It was delicious too. I usually lose weight when I go away on holiday, but I have a feeling that may not be the case here… there’s a lot of starchy food (potatoes, kumara, breadfruit, taro, bread), and little in the way of veges, certainly in restaurant meals – just a tiny salad if you’re lucky.

Took the bus back to Heilala. That is an interesting experience! People just squeeze in, the door stays open & they call out when their stop is coming up. And you pay when you get off. The driver today didn’t just stop at our stop, but drove us right up our side road to the gate – how’s that for service?

Sitting here typing this up at 5pm, it feels fairly cool with the breeze blowing, though my temperature app tells me it’s 24 °C – which I don’t believe. Expecting better weather tomorrow, and definitely on Wednesday before I head home. Not sure there will be much of interest to write about, but at the very least I hope to get some more lovely photos.

Posted by judesbucketlist 21:04 Archived in Tonga Tagged waterfront tonga pacific_island nuku'alofa Comments (0)

Day 10

Last day, last words (and a little rant - you have been warned) Oh, and a spider for any arachnophobes

sunny 25 °C

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More pics of Heilala's grounds

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There were a few of these in the trees - they don't bite but are creepy looking as you can see. And big, about 10 inches from front toes to back toes. Ick!

On the last night – Tuesday – the lovely sisters Nicki and Kath joined me at Vakalau, the resort next door. They are vegetarians and until then had found it challenging to find a decent meal. At one point, they had been served mashed potato with caramelised onions and cheese on top – that was served as a full meal! Luckily they had brought some food with them, like noodles, so had managed – to a point. The meal they had at Vakalau was the best they had had to date. It was just a salad with garlic toast and chips, but they said it was delicious, as was my mahimahi. The cocktails at Vakalau are pretty darned good too! So a word to the wise – if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, Tonga would not be your best option. Pescatarians however would be like pigs in mud; the fish is amazing!

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There was another beautiful sunset that night.

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And the cocktails were delish!

Wednesday, my last day, was a stunner – the best of the 10 days, typically! In fact, I’ll let the photos do the talking…

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Like I say, stunning!

I wasn’t leaving for the airport until 6pm, so after packing, I spent the gorgeous morning snorkelling and sunbathing, and read in the shade in the afternoon before heading to the airport. Vei, our guide for the island tour, was my driver. Interestingly, he isn’t Tongan, but Samoan (and half American – his father is Texan), but his mother has royal Tongan blood he says.

He told me that there’s a high level of unemployment in Tonga, which explains the high number of people who just hang around in Nuku’alofa, doing nothing, and in villages just sit on the steps of their houses. It’s not necessarily because there isn’t the work. In many cases it’s because of the amount of kava that is consumed. For some, they drink it late into the night, then sleep through the morning so can’t hold down a job. Very sad for the nation really.

I asked him about the shops that are dotted along the roadsides everywhere. They are mostly unsightly painted concrete block boxes containing shelves of convenience store goods, and instead of a window there’s a grille that stretches the length of the counter and up to the edge of the roof. They are often open for 24 hours and the grille is there so that when the person behind the counter falls asleep, customers have to wake them up to get their goods. Otherwise they will just take them – not out of any desire to steal, simply because it’s easier than having to wake them! I wondered whether they would get much custom in the wee small hours, but I’m assured that because people are out drinking kava until all hours, there is a living of sorts in this kind of business.

It seems kava controls much of what happens in Tonga, and not in any helpful way.

So, I chose to go to Tonga to have a relaxing time in a tropical paradise, and had hopes of swimming with whales or at least lots of snorkelling and see plenty of different tropical fish in pristine waters. As so often happens when you have high expectations of a holiday based on the pictures you see, reality fell somewhat short.

Firstly, October is really too late to guarantee seeing whales up close, especially from Tongatapu, though the northern island groups of Ha’apai and Vava’u would be more likely. The coral at Ha’atafu Beach was dead and colourless due to overfishing and the numbers and variety of fish is pretty limited. Thankfully, it is deemed a reserve now and no fishing is allowed, so the coral is beginning to regenerate and the fish are recovering slowly. Unfortunately, this meant my holiday was ill-timed to be as fun and enjoyable as I’d hoped and expected. It was relaxing, but the weather also definitely put a dampener on things – out of 10 days, only 2 were worthy of a tropical paradise. Timing is everything!

To me, Tonga is not a paradise – the other islands may be different, but certainly not the main island of Tongatapu. There is enormous potential, but they have a great deal of work to do. The state of the housing is abysmal, kava has too tight a hold on the population, and too much acceptance.

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Nuku'alofa cannot be described as welcoming or picturesque

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This is not the worst inhabited house by any means! I couldn't bring myself to photograph the worse ones.

Travel sites, including Lonely Planet, rave about how friendly the people are. Sure, the little kids and some older ones will wave as they go past in their buses. But with a few exceptions, face to face I found them to be impatient and even surly at times. Shyness can explain some of this, and perhaps by October they have had enough of tourists.

To me, the biggest issue for Tonga is that the environment gets only a cursory nod, with receptacles for cans in most villages, but there is garbage everywhere and many burn off spent crops rather than digging them in. The smell of smoke is everywhere. If Tonga doesn’t get smarter about the environment, tourists will have little to appreciate and numbers will dwindle away.

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Such a contrast to the pristine paradise we are led to expect

You could argue that Bali is also grubby and not caring about the environment, and I’ll agree. The difference is that Bali has a lot more to offer the curious tourist with so many different things to do and learn about the culture. I found the Balinese friendlier and more willing to help, and felt more comfortable in the towns when I was on my own, compared to Nuku’alofa particularly.

Heilala Holiday Lodge was quaint and pretty, and the owners Sven and Karolina were helpful in organising pickups and dinners. Their food however was extremely expensive for the amount on the plate and lack of variety, and compared to the other restaurants in the area. When it comes to people, the irrepressibly happy Vei was the highlight – I don’t think he stopped smiling! And the Kiwis I met at Heilala were great.

Would I go back? Obviously doubtful, unless it was for just a few days to swim with the whales in another island group. Even if the weather had been better, I doubt my answer would be different – good weather can mask only so much. I also know that I prefer a different way of travelling, at least as long as I travel solo. Staying in one place for the whole holiday made it harder to find new things that I wanted to do, particularly when the options are so limited and weather dependent.

I’m afraid this blog has reflected my experience, so for the most part it hasn’t been a bright and positive read. For me though, it’s important to tell it like it really is and not gloss over the negatives. I’m not going to blow smoke up your you-know-what.

Next trip? Not a Pacific island! Back to Europe methinks. Don’t hold your breath though – it will take a while to save for that one.

Posted by judesbucketlist 16:35 Archived in Tonga Comments (1)

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