Top 10 things to do in Tonga
Refreshingly real and undeveloped, the main island of Tongatapu has plenty of things to see and do. A guided tour is a great way to learn about the history and culture behind the main attractions. Or hire a car and take a self-guided trip around the island. To get out on the water, find a whale watching adventure or book a day trip to one of the small islands just offshore.
1. Watch or swim with the whales
In Tonga you can take a boat trip to swim with magnificent, graceful humpback whales between July and October. Tonga is one of the few places you can do this and for many visitors it's a life-changing experience. These giant cetaceans return to the same area in the Pacific from Antarctica each year to breed and give birth in the warm, clear waters. Experienced local guides assess the whales' willingness to engage with humans before taking small groups into the water one at a time. A whale swim is often rated as one of the best things to do in Tonga.
2. Experience the Mapu 'A Vaea blowholes
At Houma you can experience the raw power of the ocean. Here, all along the coastline, clear blue swells strike the shore, push a short distance under the rock shelf and fountain up with a whistling roar through natural blowholes. When the tide's in and the swells are big, this must-see Tonga natural attraction is at its most spectacular, creating water spouts up to 18m high. The blowholes are definitely one of the best things to see on the island.
3. Swim or watch the sunset at Ha'atafu Beach
Head to Ha'atafu, one of the best beaches on the main island of Tongatapu, for a swim or snorkel in the crystal-clear lagoon. Book in for lunch at one of the beachside accommodation providers, walk along the long beachfront and linger on to watch the sun dip below the horizon. Ha'atafu Beach is at the northwest end of the island in the area of Kanokupolu, about 30 minutes by car from the capital Nuku'alofa.
4. Explore Anahulu Cave
Walk carefully down the often slippery steps of Anahulu Cave to see ancient stalagmites and stalactites, plus a beautiful freshwater pool. Bring your togs for a refreshing swim in the cool clear water as you float underground surrounded by the limestone formations. There's a small entry fee and the cave has some lights, but it's a good idea to wear sturdy shoes and maybe bring a torch. There's a pretty beach at the entrance to the cave for a picnic or high-tide snorkelling.
5. Catch a ferry to Pangaimotu
Take a day trip to beautiful Pangaimotu Island Resort. Relax on the sandy beaches, snorkel the reef or climb up a shipwreck and dive into the azure water. You can also enjoy a tasty lunch at the Big Mama Yacht Club and check out the island's popular resort. The 10-minute ferry ride to Pangaimotu leaves Tongatapu every morning from Monday to Saturday and returns late afternoon. On Sundays it's one of the few things that are open, so there are three morning and afternoon ferry sailings.
6. Walk the natural land bridge at Hufangalupe
Discover this amazing land formation created when the roof of a sea cave collapsed, leaving only its entrance as a giant flat-topped arch. Walk across the arch high above the ocean as the waves wash beneath you and into what was once a large cave pool. Located on the southeast coast about 30 minutes from Nuku'alofa, the land bridge can be hard to find, so navigate with Google maps or book an island tour.
7. See the fishing pigs
Bring your camera and go hunting for the fascinating fishing pigs of Tonga. Plan your trip for low tide and head to the shallow inner lagoon near Mu'a, about 30 minutes east of Nuku'alofa. These descendants of Captain Cook's globetrotting pigs have learned to hunt for crabs and shellfish in the shallows. It's such an unusual sight to see pigs wading around in the ocean with their snouts underwater rooting out a meal. Apparently the fishing pigs are prized locally for their naturally salty flavour.
8. Shop at Talamahu Market
Join the locals and shop for fresh fruit and vegetables, along with very affordable local handcrafts that make great souvenirs and gifts. Talamahu Market in downtown Nuku'alofa is an easy way to experience real Tongan life and one of the top things to do in Tongatapu. You'll also find a few places selling food and refreshments. The market is open Monday to Saturday from 8:30am to 4:30pm. Come early for the widest choice. Saturdays mornings are a good time to experience the market at its bustling best.
Explore some iconic Nuku'alofa bars and cafes
Friends Café is a long-standing go-to place for visitors and locals wanting breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks or coffee. Since opening in 1999, it has built a loyal following and expanded into the historic Isabella House next door. The café includes a popular tourist information centre to help you book Tonga activities and attractions. The Billfish Bar & Restaurant has also been a local favourite since it opened in 1995. It serves tasty pub food in a relaxed, friendly environment across the road from the harbour. After the last dinner service, the Billfish becomes a lively night club that's popular with locals.
Treat yourself to a Tongan feast
Make sure you experience the Tongan tradition of celebrating with a delicious and generous feast. Dishes typically include traditional favourites, such as suckling pig and 'ota 'ika, raw fish marinated in lemon and coconut cream. You might also be offered steamed fish, chicken, octopus, beef and a tasty range of fresh local vegetables. A few accommodation providers hold regular Tongan feast and cultural nights, like the popular Vakaloa Beach Resort. The cultural performances are always delivered with passion, pride and energy. You'll often find that most of the guests are locals, a sure sign of authenticity.