In 2019 my wife, Molly, and I cast off lines from our homeport in New Hampshire with the goal of circumnavigating. We had gotten as far as New Zealand before Covid closed the world. We traveled for almost three years, and during that time we savored archipelagos galore, having made stops in the eastern Caribbean, the Galapagos, Tahiti and French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands. And yet the virtually unknown Kingdom of Tonga was the most pleasant surprise.
One of the most enchanting cruising grounds in the world, it has crystal-clear waters, lush green islands, white-sand beaches, vibrant reefs and friendly English-speaking people. But those things are only part of Tonga’s charm. This chain of 171 islands, of which only 36 are inhabited, offers mile after mile of sheltered water with deep channels and snug anchorages. It’s a sailor’s paradise unlike any other in the South Pacific.
Prior to this trip, Molly and I had sailed the East Coast and Caribbean, but we had never operated in the Pacific; that is, until we transited the Panama Canal early in 2019, aboard Chanticleer, our 1991 Valiant 40. This type of cruising was all new. There were longer passages, bigger swells, vast spaces without a speck of land and virtually no harbors. Because we were raised where cozy harbors abound, we found the Pacific’s open roadsteads that postured as harbors somewhat unsettling. Sure, one could tuck inside the reef at places like Tahiti or Huahine and find a calm anchorage. But underway again, you would be back on the deep blue sea in the blink of an eye. Tonga’s protected waters and numerous harbors beat that. Think Maine, with palm trees and no fog.
We sensed this immediately on the day of our landfall, after a 1,000-mile passage from Suwarrow, Cook Islands. That morning we crossed the International Date Line, transforming Sunday, October 6 into Monday, October 7. Half an hour later, seaward of Vaiutukakau Bay, we sailed into the lee of Vava’u, the largest island in Tonga’s Vava’u Group. The Group is made up of 40 islands (more or less) that rise up among a labyrinth of channels and shoals. We headed up a bit, shook out a reef in the main, trimmed the headsails, and reverted to hand steering. Suddenly we were in close-quarters yachting mode, which is very different from passage-making. My logbook captured the moment. This is glorious sailing, close reaching in flat water.
Newly energized, we steered for the northeast point of Hunga, hoping to weather it. Squeaking past, still in deep water, we noticed how wave action had undercut the edges of the limestone so that the islands—all formed of uplifted coral—were mushroom-shaped, especially noticeable at low tide. We stood on toward Nuapapu, then tacked. Squeezing by little Kitu close-hauled, we couldn’t bear to start the engine. We continued to tack. Eyeballed the shallows. Hugged the bold coasts. Cut the red buoy. Tacked again, with our boom brushing the cliffs. We stood on to the green buoy and luffed up at the last minute to honor it, then tacked once more before we eased sheets into Neiafu, the most capacious harbor in the South Pacific. We were ecstatic. We had not sailed the boat like that since the Virgin Islands almost a year before.
Other Pacific destinations had been breathtaking, but it was always like flipping a switch, going from deep-sea passage-making to anchor down. When we approached Neiafu (the second largest town in Tonga with 5,000 residents that’s located on Vava’u), it was as if a welcome mat had been unrolled to what would become five weeks of memorable cruising. Anchored securely that evening with friends Martin and Laura from Three Sheets aboard for a drink, we basked in the shore sounds of birds, cicadas and the giant fruit bats called flying foxes, which emerge at dusk. Our wonder would only increase as the days passed.
Neiafu is one of four administrative centers of this island nation, and the charter boat capital of Tonga. Several sailing charter operations exist, each with a handful of boats, as well as sportfishing charters and whale-watching vessels. Tongan sportfishing is among the best in the world. The country’s borders are still closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, but they will open again. If you don’t have the time or inclination to sail half-way around the world, fly instead, and grab a charter.
There were no marinas in Neiafu. There was no fuel dock or supermarket. But genial vendors in open-air markets sold wonderful fish, fruit and vegetables, and marketing became a high point of each day in town. Neiafu had a pharmacy, a butcher, several banks and a few decent restaurants and bars, in addition to shops, that are locally called “Chinese shops” (because most shop owners are Chinese) that carried tinned food, soap, soft drinks, liquor and the like. It was all pretty simple. As time passed, we would learn how remote and unspoiled this island kingdom remains.
We spent several weeks in the Vava’u Group. Short day sails were the norm, with sweet anchorages near snorkeling spots, beaches and trails to villages. One day we sailed out of Neiafu, heading for Anchorage #8 near Nuku. Anchorages around Vava’u are all numbered by the charter companies because pronunciation of local names is so difficult for palangi, as foreigners are known. Soon I was snorkeling over our anchor to check it and paying the local man who arrived in his classic skiff the anchorage fee, of $15 Tongan, which is equivalent to $6.50 U.S. Such a fee was uncommon, but worth it to talk with him and admire his boat.
Welcoming though it is, Tonga is a poor country. Most Tongans eat well, though consumer goods and medical services are in short supply. Half of all Tongans live abroad, searching for earnings and funds to remit home. Yet Tongans remain intensely proud of their language and culture, and proud that they are the only South Pacific monarchy never colonized by a foreign power. Talking with fishermen, shopkeepers and others, we found Tongans happy to introduce visitors to their ways.
Traditions matter in Tonga. Males and females frequently wear a tupenu, or cloth skirt. On formal occasions or in official roles (as Customs officers, for instance), men and women also wear over their clothes a ta’ovala, which is a dress mat woven from leaves of pandanus plants and secured with coconut fiber cord. Family, friends and church are the pillars of Tongan society, and overt unrest is rare, unlike in some tropical destinations. We were honored when Petiola Makatu’u invited us to her small, rural church in Pangaimotu. The heartrending acapella singing of the parishioners blew us away.
Entering the virtually landlocked harbor on Hunga looked harder than it was. The entrance between the rocks is only 100 feet wide, but there is 12 feet of depth and no surf. Hunga Haven, a “resort” run by a convivial Canadian named Barry, consisted of a tiny white beach, the modest home he had built for himself, and two thatched cabanas for guests, each with a double-bed mattress and a can of bug spray. That was it. I had heard “resort” and imagined we might go out for dinner. The joke was on me. Outside of the bigger towns and a few larger resorts—which offer traditional Tongan feasts with roast suckling pig, fresh seafood and papaya—one does not dine out in this country. I dove on Barry’s mooring. Tongan style, it was a cast-off engine salvaged from a derelict boat. It sufficed. From Barry’s we walked through a lovely dense forest to the south end of the island, rich with bird life and evidence of foraging pigs.
One of our favorite spots was Fangakima, or Port Mourelle. One afternoon working on deck, only one other boat in the cove, I took in the scenery—the bush, the beach and the distant islands. “My soul is rested.” The thought came out of nowhere. I was relaxed.
As charming as Vava’u was, we sailed south to the Ha’apai, a cluster of islands and reefs with fewer residents and visitors. Ha’apai includes narrow islands whose leeward sides consist of white sand beaches the length of which we had never experienced, anywhere. Silence and solitude abound. Yet these islands sit between two phenomenal geological features. Thirty miles east, one of the global ocean’s deepest spots, the Tonga Trench, plunges nearly seven miles down. Eight-five miles southwest, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano lurks near the sea surface. Its eruption in January 2022 inundated southern Tonga with ash and triggered a tsunami. For all its beauty, Tonga is prone to natural disasters.
Anchored off sweeping beaches in the Ha’apai, or to leeward of tiny round islets populated only by Fairy Terns and Black Noddies, we snorkeled the coral and walked the sands. Paper charts and chartplotters were somewhat unreliable here, so underway—with the sun high and preferably astern—we eye-balled our way through reefs and channels. Charming schoolgirls welcomed us in Pangai. We shared meals occasionally with other cruisers. Weeks passed.
Vava’u had been gorgeous. Ha’apai, with its lonely expanse of islands, sea and sun, was magical. Boats have always been flying carpets, whisking boaters away, whether for an afternoon or a three-year cruise. Sailing to Tonga, we encountered one of the last slices of South Pacific paradise, a wonderland that fired our imaginations. We didn’t want to leave, but cyclone season was coming.
Cruising Guides to Tonga
In Tonga, we were fortunate to locate a copy of Sailingbird’s Guide to the Kingdom of Tonga, by Charles Paul and Katherine Pham-Paul. First published in 2004 and re-issued in 2012, it covers the Vava’u Group in detail, with sketch charts of anchorages and dive spots, as well as good photos. An alternative source, covering the entire Tongan archipelago, is Ken’s Comprehensive Cruising Guide to the Kingdom of Tonga by Ken Hellewell (2003). A budget production that we found less satisfying, it nevertheless includes sketch charts, photos and waypoints. Both books are out of print, but used copies can be bought online. Sail South Pacific produces a useful app called Sail Tonga Cruising Guide. While its charts boldly insist they are “not for navigation,” they are pretty handy. The app also contains information on tides, local culture and routes to (and within) the archipelago.
This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue.