Tonga , the "Friendly Islands", is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean.
Tonga is divided into three island groups, or regions.
There were pro-democracy riots in Nuku'alofa in November 2006 which left 8 people dead and flattened (by fire) large portions of the town centre. Tonga is one of the last absolute monarchies in the world and is based upon an essentially feudal system where the king disburses land and positions without recourse to any elected body. Although Tongan royalty is largely loved and revered by Tongans, younger people have an appetite for stronger accountability and a more modern constitution. It is a pre-capitalist economy with none of the corporate chain stores and with local small businesses providing all necessary goods and services. Tourists will find it a friendly and appealing place to visit although don't expect the same level of infrastructure as holiday resorts in more developed countries.
The archipelago of "The Friendly Islands" was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga acquired its independence in 1970 and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It remains the only monarchy in the Pacific.
You either come in by airplane or yacht.
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland and Los Angeles. You can also arrive from Fiji. Virgin Blue flies from several Australian state capitals as well as Auckland. A crowd of local taxi drivers meets each incoming flight at the airport and they usually charge 25-30 Pa'anga for a lift into Nuku'alofa. The Teta Tours mini-bus also meets flights and will deliver you to your hotel or guest house for 10 Pa'anga.
Lots of people arrive by private yacht since Tonga is a common stop on the around the world circuit.
To get between island groups, you basically have to fly (or yacht). The one national airline is owned by one of the princes and is called Air Peau. As of late 2004, they flew a 60 year-old DC-3 which was quite an experience.
To get around the main island, Tongatapu, 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). 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. There are few or no road signs on Tongatapu so you'll need a good map if you're touring in a car. The speed limit on most of the island is 40kph and this is stuck to by the local drivers. You're meant to also buy a local Tongan driving licence on top of your existing licence before you drive (25 Pa'anga). The roads are good in and around Nuku'alofa but deteriorate the further from the town and the further south you travel.
Most cars in Tonga 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.
Service 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.
Tongan is the most widely spoken language in Tonga. English is as well also understood because many of the high schools teach exclusively in English.
The national currency is the Pa'anga, or Tongan dollar.
Although Tonga is a developing country, prices for many things are comparable to or slightly cheaper than New Zealand. A good meal out will cost 30-50 Pa'anga, a beer in a restaurant or bar costs about 5-6 Pa'anga, hiring a car is about 50-60 Pa'anga a day and cigarettes are 7-8 Pa'anga for a pack of 25.
Tongan feasts are a must do although for most visiting tourists on short trips, the choice of restaurants will have to suffice. For a small town, Nuku'alofa offers a decent range of restaurants and bars although they are divided into two localities about 20 minutes walk apart. In the town centre there are a few around the main market and post office whilst down towards the ferry terminal there are a few others. 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.
Beer and liquor are available from many outlets, including Fijian, Australian and New Zealand imports to compliment the local brews. If you are keen to check out native drink, try Kava (something like liquid novacaine) at least once.
The local beer is called Ikale and is sold in 330 ml bottles in most restaurants and bars (4.50-5 Pa'anga). Or you can buy the same bottles from one of the many 'Chinese' roadside shops or a supermarket for 2 Pa'anga or less. Imported beers are mainly from Australia although there are also some from Europe. Most are sold in 330 ml cans or bottles.
Tonga is lively well into the evening, generally becoming suddenly very quiet at around 11pm. Expect to see people walking around until late.
Not really an issue in tourist areas, Tongans are very familiar with foreigners. For maximum respect, keep your knees covered (both men and women). This is a very conservative Christian country. Keep in mind that Sunday is strongly revered, the vast majority of the population will attend religious services, very few shops will be open and there is very little to do.
Hotels will be open, as will the restaurant within the Dateline Hotel and some Chinese establishments. Small shops may open later in the afternoon, there is a bakery open in Nuku'alofa.
TV stations will be closed or play Christian shows, radio will also play Christian content from 12 midnight Saturday to midnight Sunday.
The cinema in Nuku'alofa usually has a Monday morning screening just after midnight Sunday.
Tonga features many major Christian denominations, many of the pentecostal services are very enjoyable. Strike up a friendship with some locals and you will have no problems finding an enjoyable Sunday experience despite the lack of commercial activity.