Last day, last words (and a little rant - you have been warned)
Oh, and a spider for any arachnophobes
More pics of Heilala's grounds
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!
There was another beautiful sunset that night.
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…
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.
Nuku'alofa cannot be described as welcoming or picturesque
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.
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.