TREA­SURED MO­MENTS

Ge­orgina Ar­mour ef­fort­lessly slips into Tonga time on a trip to the is­lands of Vava’u

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

Pic­tures (right): Bradley Hook

No dig­i­tal en­hance­ment re­quired: Clock­wise from main, hump­back whales;

fales

on Trea­sure Is­land; Swal­lows Cave at Vava’u; the squeaky jetty

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