Tongatapu is Tonga's largest island with over two-thirds of the country's small population. It is a coral island surrounded by coral reefs. The capital, Nuku'alofa, on the north coast, has a relaxed air, despite the troubles of a few years ago (see article on Tonga). There are some interesting places to visit and some nice beaches with good snorkelling and Tongatapu provides a good opportunity to view a unique culture. Most of the interesting places are outside Nuku’alofa but most of the places to stay are in the capital. There is a good bus network and car rental is possible.
There are several flights a week from Auckland, Sydney and Suva. See Tonga for more details.
Nuku'alofa is small enough to walk around and taxis are available. (You can take a bus from around the terminal, but the bus is unreliable, taxi is a better option). You can go by boat to the minor island around Nuku'alofa from the pier.
Tongatapu can just about be seen in one day by car or motorbike. You can rent cars and motorscooters. A Tongan driver's license for T$25 is available and can be obtained at the police department with your home license.There are few or no road signs on Tongatapu so you'll need a good map if you're touring in a car. Unfortunately there are no complete road maps in existence yet. The speed limit on most of the island is 40kph and this is stuck to by the local drivers. The Police have radar guns to check. The roads are good in and around Nuku'alofa but deteriorate the further from the town and the further south you travel.You can hire a car from the Friend's Tourist Centre (near the main post office) for about 50 Pa'anga and a tour of the island is about 120 km.
Most cars on the island are in a terrible state, maintained on a budget and held together by a combination of 'Western Union' stickers and prayer. The low speed limit helps to keep accidents down.
Teta Tours and Toni's guest house offer day tours of all the main tourist sights (40-80 Pa'anga depending on how many are on the tour).
Buses to various points on Tongatapu run from the bus concourse on the seafront in Nuku'alofa although there are no timetables posted and local sources say that they are not reliable after about 1530 hours on most days. With no bus stops you just stand on the side of the road and flag the driver down (do not wave, they will wave back and keep driving). The most popular buses in Tonga are generally the loudest, so when you want to get off a reasonably loud "STOP" will do it (again, just anywhere you want them to stop). If you don't like kids or crowds avoid the buses at the end-of-school time, they get packed out and the only limit on how many people in a bus is how many can fit in. The general cost of getting from Nuku`alofa to the surfing destination of Ha`atafu on the western penninsula is roughly T$2.20.
Tongan is the official language but English is very widely spoken
Take a day trip to Pangaimotu or one of the outer islands. A trip to Pangaimotu Island costs about T$20 return. The small island, the closest one to Nuku`alofa has a half sunken ship wreck to snorkle around. However, beware of jumping off as the bottom is shallow on some sides and the rusted ship is sharp. The ship also attracts sea snakes. The island takes about an hour to meander around and has a restaurant which serves good food and hires snorkling gear (costly). Good idea to go on Sunday when most other things are closed.
The market located in the center of the Nuku'alofa is an exciting place where you can bargain for jewelery and souvenirs.
For a small town, Nuku'alofa offers a decent range of restaurants and bars. Expect to pay 15-40 Pa'anga for a main course in a restaurant and about 5 Pa'anga for a takeaway at one of the roadside sellers. Seafood is usually good.
The Oholei Beach Dinner and Show is set in Hina cave on the beach on the south-east side of Tongatapu, near the airport. It includes a Tongan dinner and a traditional show (inside a limestone cave). The cost is about T$30 each and can be booked from the Tonga Visitors Center. Transport is extra. Make sure you understant the travel arrangements when you make the booking e.g. where and when to be picked up.
Most restaurants and eateries are closed on Sunday but there are a couple of Chinese restaurants which are open Sunday.
Tongatapu is very safe but the usual travel precautions apply. Don't flash expensive cameras and jewelry and don't leave passports, money, clothes, etc. lying around in hotel rooms. If you're staying with locals (there is a good chance you'll be invited to stay at someone's home on Tongatapu) take your valuables with you during the day and secure them at night
Tongan drivers are sometimes erratic so watch out. Asking for a helmet when you hire a bicycle is advisable. Dogs can be a nuisance especially in some areas outside of the capital.
Water that crashes over the reefs into the lagoons is sucked back out again through gaps in the reefs. Be careful when snorkelling that you don't get caught in one of these channels of water heading for open sea or you could be seriously damaged by the coral.
There are several internet cafes in town. The Friend's Cafe is most expensive at about T$8 an hour and some places charge as low as T$2 an hour. Avoid inserting camera cards into the slots due to the risk of viruses. Use Skype to call overseas because it's about T$1 per minute if you buy a phone card.
Embassies and High Commissions
'Eua Island is located only 17.5km east-southeast from Tongatapu. It is the highest island in Tonga and is not related geologically to the other islands, being much older. It has beaches on the western side but dramatic cliffs on the east coast, with Tonga’s largest tropical rain forest, which is a great place to go trekking.
‘Eua is just an eight-minute flight from Tongatapu on Chathams Pacific Airline . There is also a ferry that leaves from Nuku’alofa at 12.30 in the afternoon on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Cost is T$25. The ferry can get rather crowded, so be early. On average, the ferry will take about two and a half hours, but can take much longer (5-6 hours!) in poor weather. Note that flights and ferries can be delayed or even cancelled without notice in poor weather conditions.