Georgina Armour effortlessly slips into Tonga time on a trip to the islands of Vava’u
IF pirate lore has it that X marks the spot where hidden treasure lies, one could imagine that a map of Tonga’s Vava’u group of islands might just have that elusive mark etched across it. Arguably one of the prettiest spots in the South Pacific, there are no international hotel chains, no nightclubs and no spas here. There are barely any buildings of more than one storey on any of Vava’u’s 50 or so islands; in fact they are, for the most part, uninhabited. Which means that it’s possible to have an island to yourself.
For such a wonderfully remote destination, Vava’u is easily accessible from east coast Australia. After a 41/ hour flight from Sydney
2 and short transfer by light aircraft, my partner and I are walking through the harbour town of Neiafu on the Port of Refuge, Vava’u’s capital, in the loosest sense of the word.
‘‘ Did you get the plane with the holes in the floor?’’ asks New Zealand expat Marie-Claire, as we tell her about our transfer to Vava’u while sipping otai, a delicious tropical fruit smoothie in Cafe Tropicana, her Neiafu eatery. We reply that, thankfully, our plane was fully intact, but marvel at the laid-back nature of the so-called Friendly Isles.
James Cook gave Tonga the label in 1777 on his third journey through these parts. Ironically, the friendliness he experienced was reportedly part of a cunning plan to kill him and his men.
The Pacific’s only remaining kingdom, Tonga, is still visibly traditional. Many locals going about their daily business in Neiafu are dressed in black and sport ta’ovala (woven mats) around their typically large waists, although American hip-hop culture has ostensibly permeated the consciousness of the younger members of society.
Later, as we’re unceremoniously left on a deserted beach to await a boat transfer to our island resort accommodation, we’re inducted unknowingly into flexible Tonga time. But the wait on Ano Beach is hardly a chore as we absorb our first experience of the islands’ visual perfection; postcard manufacturers would not need to digitally enhance such images. OUR boat approaches Eue’iki, nicknamed Treasure Island after the NZ-made reality television show that was filmed here. Whiterthan-white powdery sand slopes into water so clear that at its shallowest it’s paler than the lightest shade of aquamarine. Treasure Island Resort — and resort is used in the barest sense of the word — is the only development on this otherwise deserted island.
Stepping off the boat on to the squeaky jetty, we pad barefoot to our accommodation, one of the island’s eight fales , which blend so seamlessly into the surroundings that we don’t see them at first.
I sink on to a lounger under the shade of a tree; the vibe is so relaxed that even the palm trees are at low angles, looking as if they are about to lie down. I only stir when the sound of singing, accompanied by the delicious aroma of the evening meal, permeates the warm air.
The food served in the open-air licensed restaurant is top quality, which is a marvel considering we’re on a tiny island and it takes the best part of an hour over land and sea to deliver provisions from the nearest town. One trouble-free key ingredient is fresh fish, caught from the jetty with a hand line and coconut contraption by Lafitan (Tani), owner of Eue’iki and the resort.
As we share a digestif after dinner, Tani proudly tells us his island is the only one
where you can swim with whales straight off the beach’’.
Indeed, Vava’u is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales and Eue’iki overlooks the area the whales use as a nursery, giving guests at Treasure Island Resort a head start over those who have to journey from other islands.
The following morning, I venture out by boat on a guided snorkelling trip. The crystalline water makes this activity addictive and the journey reveals the island group’s further beauty and diversity, from coral reef and palm-fringed sandy beaches on uninhabited tropical islets to deep ocean channels and dramatic basalt cliffs with hidden caves.
It’s exceedingly warm but a cooling breeze consistently blows; these are the tradewinds that carried ancient Tongan warriors on their Polynesian conquests and these days must please the many yachties who ply Vava’u’s waters. Regarded as one of the world’s best sailing locations, we see yachts drift by from time to time and try to pick the charters from those seafaring souls on trans-Pacific odysseys. ON our last day, feeling rather like characters from TV’s Lost , we embark on a walk around the island’s perimeter, a journey that we are told takes about one hour. For a place where time seemingly stands still, our trip has flown by but I am determined to make the most of the last day.
In stark contrast to the gently sloping sandy beach we’ve left behind, the walk around the island reveals dramatic rocks and secluded caves tumbling on to narrow strips of sand briefly uncovered every few seconds by the lapping water.
I scold myself for not wearing reef shoes: slipping and sliding over the coral reefs in thongs is not easy; neither is balancing precariously on one leg trying to rescue my footwear as it floats away.
But nothing can detract from this wonderful feeling of being shipwrecked explorers of a deserted island.
A black-and-white striped sea snake slips through the glassy water, weaving between seemingly suspended fish and made all the more surreal by the thousands of electric-blue starfish that dot the seabed.
‘‘ Everyone who comes here tells me they’ve been around the world and never seen an island like this,’’ says Tani on our last night. I think it might just be true. www.treasureisland-vavau.com www.flypacificblue.com www.tongaholiday.com
No digital enhancement required: Clockwise from main, humpback whales;
on Treasure Island; Swallows Cave at Vava’u; the squeaky jetty