In the Spring of 2004 we chartered a 38’ catamaran from Sunsail and sailed throughout the Vava’u island group of the Kingdom of Tonga. Here's my trip journal:
TUESDAY, APRIL 13
Kim and I flew on Northwest Airlines from Green Bay to Minneapolis to LA, had a four-hour layover, met up with Lester, and flew Air New Zealand from LAX to Samoa to Nuku’alofa Tonga.
We only experienced five hours of April 14. We flew into Samoa at 3 AM, had a beer at the airport bar (they opened specially for us), flew out at 4, and crossed the International Date Line…
…into Thursday. We landed in Nuku’alofa at 6AM and checked into customs. It seems like airports everywhere just feel like airports, but upon looking out the windows it really hit me that we were a long way from home.
It took us a while to realize we were going to have to take a cab from the international terminal to the local terminal. Our cabbie, “Big Jim” let us know about that, and he drove us the ½ mile required. At first I thought we were hustled because we easily could have walked it, but then it dawned on me that most tourists want the cab ride because they don’t pack as light as we do.
Lester had the impression that local flights were more like a bus, meaning you just show up and pay, so he hadn’t bought a ticket yet. After waiting in line he was informed that the plane to Vava’u was full. Since I was the contact person with Sunsail we decided Kim and I would leave Lester behind to fly alone on the next flight. While we waited for our flight we played pool and drank beer (Victoria Bitter Ale).
The plane was 60 years old if it was a day. But the view was amazing, and Kim held my wet, clammy hand.
We landed in Vava’u at 8:30, and we had the best Sunsail reception we’ve ever had anywhere in the world. As we stumbled bleary-eyed from the airport, Dave the charter master and a gorgeous Tongan woman met us and put fresh flower leis around our necks. They were very welcoming and the bus was air-conditioned and new. We found out later that since we were going to the hotel first we should have taken the hotel shuttle. The leis and the greeting were actually for a different group…
We took at nap at the hotel, walked around town, and waited for Lester in the thatched hut by the pool. He got to the hotel at 3:30. The Paradise International Hotel, the nicest hotel in Tonga, was old and cheaply repaired after the last hurricane. None of the shingles matched. But the grounds were beautiful and the pool was awfully nice. The air conditioning worked great and there were no bugs.
We walked around again with Lester, had drinks at Ana’s Café, and ate dinner at The Mermaid. During dinner it rained harder than I have ever seen. We headed back to the hotel in the dark and then crashed. We slept hard in the comfy AC air.
NEIAFU, LOTUMA BAY
We walked downtown for coffee, went to a shop with Internet access, and emailed home. We stopped by Sunsail and did our boat talk as Chris and Amanda showed up (in leis). Unfortunately, Chris and Amanda’s friends, Chris and Cathy, ran into visa problems and couldn’t get out of New Zealand. Chris is a native of Trinidad, and although he thought he didn’t need a visa Air New Zealand thought otherwise and they wouldn’t fly him. So it was going to be just the five of us on the boat.
We provisioned, went to the Mermaid for lunch, and went to the chart briefing with our source of local knowledge, Fala. Then the five of us sailed off for Lotuma Bay, just three miles away.
We anchored in sand just upwind of a coral shelf, we snorkeled, kayaked, and just floated in the water with a beer or two. A large charter group anchored near us. They were all Czech men, and they were all naked. That evening we took the dinghy to the Tongan Beach Resort and had a comatose dinner (jet lag, fatigue, and afternoon beer).
That night it rained often and the wind briefly climbed to 25 kt, so I lay awake most of the night thinking about that coral shelf behind us.
We woke up and motored back to the charter base. We were already out of ice!! We found out that Chris and Cathy were going to give up on getting to Tonga and vacation in New Zealand instead. We topped off our ice and headed back out.
We motored to Swallow’s Cave and hovered off shore while taking turns going into the cave with the dinghy. The inside of the cave was covered in graffiti that dated back hundreds of years. There was also a huge colony of bats sleeping.
We motored to Mariner’s Cave, an underwater cave with an air pocket just inside. In the chart briefing Fala said that if you can dive underneath the boat and come up on the other side, you can easily make it into the air pocket. I hovered the boat off shore, and Chris and Amanda snorkeled in. No luck finding it.
We sailed down the east coast of Hunga, navigated through a maze of reefs to Foeta Island, threw out the anchor, and swam in the bathwater-warm ocean. Then we motored around the island to the west lagoon entrance. Fala had told us the water was shallow at the entrance and we were only allowed to enter within two hours of high tide. The entrance wasn’t marked as well as I would have liked, and a rain squall followed us in, so I was awfully nervous.
Inside the lagoon we tied up to a mooring ball at the International Sportsman’s Club and Resort. The guidebook painted quite a picture, and we were excited about eating and relaxing here. Kim and I took the dinghy in, and the resort owners and some guests were sitting there eating. Since their friends were visiting they decided to close!! We made pasta on the boat, did some stargazing, and crashed. Since we were at a mooring ball in a protected lagoon, I slept really well.
We got up, made breakfast, and waited in vain for the 8:30 weather report from the Mermaid. High tide was at 6:45 so we took a leap of faith and left the lagoon just within our 2-hour deadline.
We motorsailed past Langito’o, slowed down for the unmarked reef northeast of Ovaka, and motored around the corner into the anchorage off Vaka’eitu.
We snorkeled, kayaked, drank, and watched the sun go behind the island. Then we dinghy’d in to a rustic dock on the island and hiked up the hill to watch the “second” sunset.
While we watched the sun go down we saw HUGE fruit bats flying around. It looked like they had a 2’ wingspan, and I learned later that they are referred to as flying foxes. We walked further down the path to a rustic-looking hut and met Benny, the Austrian owner of the restaurant. It was getting dark, and what with the man-eating pterodactyls flying around I was anxious to get back to the boat.
The anchorage had five boats in it, and Lester insisted on playing loud music and partying loudly. I worried about the noise, but I learned later that the naked Czechoslovakians were all up at Benny’s until 3 AM to celebrate their acceptance into the European Union.
We went to bed for the most wretched night so far. It was extremely hot and humid so we opened all the hatches for what little relief they could offer. Then it would rain and we would all get up to close the hatches and lay back down, stifling. Then the rain would stop and we’d open the hatches back up again. Five to six rain storms came through and I slept about three hours.
We went to breakfast at Benny’s, a strange, rustic restaurant in the middle of a jungle. It had a thatched roof, no walls, and tons of mosquitoes. A spider with a 5” span roosted in a web above the table.
Benny’s one employee put a coffee can full of burning something just upwind of the table and it repelled the bugs a bit. A group of New Zealanders walked up with their 2-year-old kid and took another table. They had bad news about the weather – 35 kt out of the northwest and more rain.
At 11 AM we left for the charter base to reprovision, get dry towels, and get the boat fixed. It was becoming clear our boat, Tikiti Boo, was a bit of a lemon. It rained all afternoon. We had a late lunch at the Mermaid,
drinks at the Bounty Bar, more drinks at the brand new International Hotel, and supper at Ana’s café.
We took a long, wet dinghy ride back to the boat from the Sunsail base (with a new and more reliable dinghy motor). We had another night of alternating rain and sweat.
PORT MAURELLE, MARINER’S CAVE, MAKAVE
We were finally able to listen to the weather from the Mermaid at 8:30. I discovered our radio worked just fine, but the boat’s clock was 10 minutes slow! The night before Fala had stopped repairs halfway through, leaving our starboard engine inoperable. He finished up in the morning and we took off.
We stopped at Port Maurelle for snorkeling and kayaking. It was a beautiful spot and a secure anchorage. Though we were short on time we headed back to Mariner’s Cave and looked a little harder for it. Still no luck.
Then we began our long and hurried trip past Oto and Ava, in between Kapa and Taunga, and to the Faua tapu passage through the reef. We saw sea turtles and many beach-ball-sized jellyfish in the water. We pulled into the Makave anchorage with the sun low in the sky. The Moorings cruising guide described the anchorage as “superb,” even though it was hard sand and dead coral and we dragged around all night.
After dark (a mistake) we piled into the dinghy for a long ride across the bay to the Ocean Breeze Restaurant. I was looking for an unlit stone jetty described in the cruising guide when I hit the reef I thought I was avoiding. We were still a half mile from shore. There was no way to know how to get in, so, crushed, I turned back to the boat. Kim made a supper of potatoes, onions, and sausage.
We had a leisurely morning and then navigated through the obstacle course of reefs to Kenutu. According to the guide book, “A trip to Kenutu wouldn’t be complete without a hike to the windward side.” But the vegetation was so dense we just couldn’t swing it. We saw many crabs and starfish on the beach. Our replacement dinghy motor crapped out on us on the way back to the boat, so Kim came out in a kayak and towed us all back.
We headed back through the reefs and through the Fanua tapu passage to Tapana, where we tied up to a mooring! Luckily we got the dinghy working again so we could all go in for one of the most surreal moments in our lives, the restaurant La Paella!
We called ahead to La Paella on the VHF and motored in after dark. We walked up a path to a thatched hut where two dogs jumped out and barked at us. Our Spanish hostess shoed the dogs away and seated us in the dining area (capacity 24) with no walls and a thatched roof. Flies and moths buzzed around the naked light bulbs while small iguanas stood guard, eating them as we ate our dinner.
Maria, our hostess, took our drink orders and informed us that there was one item on the menu – Paella. It was very good, but we had to accept the meets on faith the dogs didn’t look suspicious or resentful.
That evening we started a shtick that lasted through the rest of the trip and beyond. I stole a quote from the Patrick O’Brian seagoing stories where the captain would look across the dinner table at another gentleman and say, “A glass of wine with you, sir.” At that point they would smile at one another and each would take a drink. It became a very efficient way to apply peer pressure to slow drinkers.
After dinner a colorful plastic shower curtain was thrust aside, revealing Maria’s husband who started singing for the five of us. WEIRD! He was really beatnick-ey, and they handed out small percussion instruments and sang together at driftwood microphone stands. The two cute dogs knew that when the music started they were allowed back into the restaurant. When they weren’t howling with the singer or chewing on a carved wooden turtle they were over by us begging to be petted and letting us pull burs from their fur.
The singer was ambitious, wailing with his guitar while our server harmonized and played a shaker. It wasn’t bad…just weird…
As we stumbled back to the boat we saw an upside-down big dipper, impossibly low in the sky. The pointer stars had nothing to point to…
THURSDAY, APRIL 22
We had made reservations to attend a traditional Tongan feast that night, so we planned to sail to Taunga (according to the guidebook the best beach in the world) and return to the same anchorage at Tapana. This was easily within dinghy distance from the feast.
Once we got to Taunga we were hot, tired, and hung over, so we didn’t even leave the boat. Then our numerous attempts to raise restaurants on the VHF failed, and because we were out of food we sailed all the way back to the charter base. From there we would cab to the feast.
Our sail back to Neiafu was the best so far, with 2 ½ hours of motorless sailing, rum drinks, and music. We had to alter course once to avoid a freighter off the island of Sisia.
We had lunch and drinks at the Mermaid, then we moved the boat out to a mooring ball, showered, dinghy’d back in, and caught a cab. Fifteen minutes later we pulled up to Hunakauea Beach in pouring rain. There was a makeshift market area with locals seated on mats selling handicrafts.
We went into a hut and drank some Kava (I was nervous about where the water came from) and talked with some other tourists. There was a group of 16 middle-aged Americans who did a different Moorings charter every year. They had been all over the world. There was a captain and two crew who had just delivered a 40’ Moorings monohull from Charleston, SC to Neiafu. One of the crew, Shawn, was a 22-year-old Canadian who was backpacking through Central America before hopping aboard.
Then the dancing started. A young woman started her low-key Tongan version of the Hula and we were asked to put money under her spaghetti strap if we liked it. I was weirded out because it seemed disrespectful, but it was apparently a bona fide tradition and even the three-year-old girls expected it. When a group of young boys did a warrior dance I spoke with their teacher and gave her money to split between them.
By this time the food was laid out in the hut and we all filed in for the eating. Each kind of food was put in an open half-cylinder of bamboo, and these were stacked all over the table. This wasn’t a sterile resort hotel feast…The surroundings were rustic and everyone running the show (money takers, performers, cooks, servers, etc.) were 100% Tongan.
We slept in, snacked a little for breakfast, and started cleaning the boat. We put our luggage in the cockpit, radioed Sunsail, and motored in to the dock.
During our checkout with Roy something occurred to me: Despite a general feeling of decrepitude on our old boat, the major systems hadn’t given us any trouble. Of course the starboard battery only started the engine half the time, it always eventually started. For the checkout interview one of the technicians asked me if we found any cockroaches on the boat. I said one. He asked if I killed it. I said yes. So he checked “no” on his checklist. He never heard the rule that if there is one, there is always a lot more than one!
After checking back into the Paradise International Hotel, we walked to the Internet Café and then to Ana’s for drinks and lunch. Then more drinks at the Mermaid, and a stop at the T-shirt shop for Tikiti Boo crew shirts. I couldn’t help but notice a beautiful Swedish woman in the shop who had a strikingly slim figure. I found out later she had recently recovered from a one-month bout of Dengue Fever.
After dinner at the Dancing Rooster we swam at the hotel and had ice cream for dessert. Then another night of air-conditioned bliss.
Chris and Amanda flew out that morning. We had lobster omelets at the hotel and walked downtown to Adventure Backpackers, where we rented old, cheap bikes. We biked up Talau mountain with inoperable shifters and intolerable heat only to be attacked by five dogs at the top. Well, they didn’t exactly attack us, but they barked, snarled, and chased us. Lester barked back as he sprinted through the pack, still the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.
We returned the bikes, showered, cooled down, and walked back to the Mermaid for lunch. Now regulars at the Mermaid, my “usual” was Ota Ika, a kind of ceviche made with snapper. Always curious about languages, I asked the waiter what Ota Ika meant. He said, “Raw fish.” Oh…
We walked back to the hotel, cooled down, then had dinner at the new International Hotel (sashimi and grilled snapper). We walked back to the hotel, cooled down, and had more ice cream for dessert.
We never left the hotel that day. It was Sunday, so literally everything in town was closed. We’re so used to tourist destinations that we assumed they were impervious to cultural forces that make the locals take days off. We had all three meals at the hotel, looked at our digital photos in the business center, talked, and drank gin and tonics. We also took some time to learn Tongan. We talked for quite a while with a San Franciscan who moved there with his wife and just had a child.
Kim and I had a quick breakfast with Lester, said our good byes, and he headed to the airport. We would meet up again in Nuku’alofa.
We had a leisurely morning, read showered, and checked out. We walked into town to the ATM and the T-shirt shop, and we walked back to the hotel in a downpour. We tried to dry off as we ate lunch, waiting for the airport shuttle.
We were alone on the shuttle until we got to the Moorings charter base, where they picked up 18 more people, all of whom we had met at the Tongan feast.
The flight to Tongatapu stopped briefly at the Ha’api island group before continuing on. Big John the cabbie picked us up at the airport and took us to the International Dateline Hotel, but Lester wasn’t able to get a room there. The hotel he was able to get was all cinderblock.
Big John gave us a tour of the island, including the Royal Palace, churches, Captain Cook’s landing spot, ancient burial sites, and the Stonehenge of the South Pacific.
We had dinner at Lester’s hotel (big cockroach on the floor) and took a brief nap in his room (with all the lights on).
I woke up at midnight and stared at the ceiling until Kim’s iPod went off at one. It was a good thing we left the lights on because our packing up motions kicked free three large cockroaches.
Big John picked us up at 1:20 AM, and we picked up a New Zealand family at the Dateline International. It was a three-hour flight to Auckland and I tried to stay awake by reading Patrick O’Brian’s “The Commodore.” We had a twelve-hour layover in Auckland, so we had breakfast at the airport, watched the sunrise, and cabbed downtown.
We walked around the waterfront ogling the huge yachts (saw a new Alloy Yachts sailboat named Tiara), had breakfast, looked through the Maritime Museum, and walked to the Heritage Hotel to meet up with Chris and Amanda, who were on a two-day “layover.” Then we cabbed back to the airport, ate sushi, and shopped at the huge airport mall. We drank a few beers and waited for our flight home.