Tonga – Guide for Backpackers
Where the beaches are something of a dream, but nothing compared to the marine life!
While doing your trip Down Under, why not visit some of the paradise islands of the South Pacific? With many islands surrounded by crystal clear waters, perfect for exploring coral reefs and sea caves, Tonga would not be a bad place to add to the travel list! Sunny Tonga is the first country in the world to see dawn – a great feeling when watching the sunrise from an isolated beach. The country is made up of 176 islands, 40 of which are inhabited. This guide will go through the main islands, but remember you can always take short excursions to the small islands, some of which are resorts with the island all to themselves.
Buy bus or car on the larger islands, navigating on land is easy and affordable. Hiring a bike or simply using your legs will get you around the smaller islands. But you will not want to spend too long on land, as Tonga is one of the very few places on Earth where you can swim with whales!
Traveller’s tips for backpacking in Tonga
- Try the local cuisine! Traditional dishes are cooked in an underground oven (‘umu). This is best combined with traditional dance performances, such as what is found at Liku’alofa Beach and Vakaloa Beach Resort.
- Whale swimming season is between July and October.
- Dress and behave respectfully. It is against the law to appear in a public place topless. For public places, wear sleeves, shorts and skirt below the knee. Wear short and T-shirt at beaches. Bikinis and bathing suits are acceptable in resorts.
- Ask before taking photos with other people in them.
- Do not stand on, touch or remove anything from the coral reefs.
- Do not buy any products made from coral, plants or animals.
- Drive on the left side of the road.
Arriving in Tonga
So many islands, so many different airports! But the only ones you need to worry about are the international ones, Eua’amotu and Lupepau’u. Eua’amotu is 21km from the capital city, Nuku’alofa, and is airport most backpackers arrive in.
Entry Requirements for Tonga
Visitors from most countries can enter Tonga for up to 31 days without a visa, but can be extended for up to six months. These countries are:
Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Canada, Cook Islands, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Estonia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia (New Caledonia, Tahiti, Wallis & Futuna), Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kiribati, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Norway, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russia, Samoa, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lusia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Sweden, Switzerland, The Bahamas, Tokelau, Turkey, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom & Northern Ireland, United States of America, Vanuatu.
If you are not from one of these countries, you will need to contact the Tonga Immigration Department for an appropriate visa.
Get more tips for air travel in our guide to cheap flights.
The majority of Tongans live on the island of Tongatapu, which also the location of the capital city, Nuku’alga. The city holds the impressive Royal Palace and Royal Tombs – a particular significant site because Tonga has the last remaining Polynesian monarchy, which dates back 1000 years. Tonga has never been controlled by a foreign power. Go Tonga!
To immerse in the Tongan capital culture, visit the Talamahu Market, which takes place every Sunday. It’s a great way to taste local produce on a budget and pick up a few souvenirs.
Want to see something truly historic? Check out the Ha’amonga Trilithon on the northeast of Tongatapu, a mysterious stone structure believed to be erected in 1200AD. It has been dubbed the Stonehenge of the South Pacific. Built around a similar time, the Terraced Tombs or Langi are about 19km east of Nuku’alofa. Made up of coral rocks rising 4 metres high, they were made for an ancient dynasty.
Nature takes over along the terraced coastline. See blowholes shooting water 18 metres into the sky, just 1km from the village of Houma. Also, the south of Tongatapu has stunning coastal scenery, such as Hufangalupe (The Pigeon’s Doorway), which has a huge natural coral bridge over churning seawater and beautiful beaches. Ever wanted to swim in an underground cave pool? ‘Anahulu Cave is a stalactite cave near the village of Haveluliku, with a small admission fee.
Finally, drive north to Ha’avakatolo to see hundreds of flying foxes, a.k.a. native peka or bats with fox-like heads, clinging to the trees.
For the outdoorsy type, ‘Eua Island is covered in rainforest and mountainous terrain to explore. Take a 2h30min ferry from Nuku’alofa to this rugged island, home to the ‘Eua National Park. Horse trekking, 4WD tours and biking are all ways to see the island, but for those who like hiking, here’s the options for you:
Lookout Track Hike (3 hours)
An easy walk to views of the coast, dramatic cliffs and seabirds.
Lokupo Lookout and Coastal Trek (7 hours)
A pretty demanding day hike through some awesome volcanic and rainforest landscape. Descend down a steep track to the pristine Lokupo Beach, then join the Veifefe Track back up to the cliff tops. You are likely to see or hear the koki, a parrot only found in ‘Eau.
Fangatave Caves and Beach Trek (5h30mins)
This is a guided trek because of the adventurous scramble down rock ledges and climbing through sea caves.
On land is pretty cool, but in the ocean is something else! Whale watching tours operate from the island, and those wanting to get a little wet can jump in the ocean and join the whales too.
Isolated beaches, palm trees, clear waters… If you are looking for a postcard-perfect paradise, then the Ha’apai is the Tongan island group for you! Lifuka is the hub of the Ha’apai Group, with many easily accessible beaches, awesome snorkelling spots, and a causeway over to Foa Island.
The main settlement is the laidback village of Pangai, somewhere to get all your conveniences before heading off to, what feels like, your very own beach. On the east coast of Lifuka, which is only a 10-minute walk from Pangai, are some beaches with rocky patches and snorkelling locations when the tide is high. Don’t miss Poseidon’s Gate, a barrier reef that comes close to the island. The beach area is also great for camping and, shocker, snorkelling!
Another beach worth checking out is Mui Kuku Point, just a quick bike ride from the town. Just take a turn left before the airport runway and follow the fence until the beach opens up from behind the bushes.
Feeling adventurous? Hire a boat and make your way to Tofua and Kao in the west of Ha’apai. Tofua is Tonga’s most active volcano, which is best seen by hiking to the crater lake (1 hour) and watching the steam rising from the neighbouring island of Kao. The island’s are also teaming with birdlife.
Kayaking trips, snorkelling trips, sailing, and horse riding are all ways to enjoy Ha’apai. Many accommodation providers only offer these activities to their guests so it is a good idea to bear this in mind when choosing accommodation. However, if you want to stay on the island, the cheapest option is to camp, as there are no backpacker-style hostels.
34 islands, 21 of which are in habited, 115 square kilometres is the size of the Vava’u’s main island, and 100% is how much fun you’ll have.
The centre of Vava’u is Neiafu, which acts as a second capital of Tonga. All the city conveniences you could expect are here, as well as bars and cafes. With affordable hostels and close proximity to some of the most stunning sights in Tonga, Vava’u is a great base for backpackers.
Some sights worth putting on your Tonga bucket list is walking to the top of Mount Talau, just five minutes from central Neiafu, to get a great perspective of the island. A couple of caves to check out are the underwater Mariners Cave (take your snorkel) and Swallows Cave, accessed by boat and home to hundreds of birds.
Activities, again, are similar to those found in the other Tonga islands: whale watching, whale swimming, kayaking, diving, fishing, sailing, being a beach bum… But, hey, who can complain?!
The least developed island group in Tonga, the Niuas are truly an off-the-beaten-track location. Niuatoputapu and Niuafo’ou is a taster of how South Pacific islands used to be. Walk the empty white-sand beaches, up an extinct volcano and in the forest. Snorkel with the brilliant array of colourful marine life in the lagoon. Meet the locals and learn about the remaining Tongan traditions in the small town of Hihifo.
There is only one accommodation option to stay the night, Kalolaine Guest House, and the domestic airline takes passengers to Niuatoputapu every Wednesday and Miua Fo’ou every Thursday. That’s island life!
How’s your Tongan?
Although English is widely spoken, there are some basic Tongan words you can learn before your big trip!
- malo e lelei (mah-loh-eh-leh-leh-e) – Hello
- ‘alu a (aluh-ah) – Goodbye
- malo (mah-loh) – Thank you
- kataki (kah-tah-kih) – Please
- ‘io (yeoh) – Yes
- ‘ikai (i-kah-ih) – No
- Fefe hake? (Feh-feh-hak-eh) – How are you?
Where to stay in Tonga?
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