Revision as of 20:16, 15 December 2009
Vava’u is a group of more than 50 islands in Tonga, about 150 miles north of Tongatapu. They are either raised coral limestone or coral atolls. The beautiful harbour opposite the main town of Neiafu (known as the Port of Refuge Harbour) is a common destination for yachties sailing the South Pacific. The waters of the islands are known for their clarity, it being said that you can see the bottom at 40 metres. The area attracts many humpback whales between June and November and there are lots of companies organising tours to see them. There are numerous places to stay, to suit most budgets.
Port of Refuge Harbor at Neiafu
Findings of Lapita pottery suggest that early-Polynesians were on these islands close to 3000 years ago. These days there are around 20,000 people living in the Group. Neiafu and surrounding villages are home to about a third of the Group’s overall population of around 20,000, with the majority of the population living in small villages on the other islands. Neiafu is the official port of entry for yachts coming to Vava'u, which attracts over 500 yachts every winter sailing season between June and October. A string of islands and reefs along the eastern edge of the Group shelters the area from strong winds and ocean swells and humpback whales come to these protected waters to give birth. This is the high season for tourism; between December and April few people visit and many tour companies and restaurants close down. Neiafu town is the centre of activity. It is on the southern point of the main island of 'Utu Vava'u and has an attractive setting on one of the world's most beautiful harbours. Neiafu offers all the usual amenities including banks, schools, tour companies, restaurants, cafes and bars, supermarkets, a market and a hospital. It doesn't have a beach but boats to one of the nearby coral atolls with superb sandy beaches are easily available.
No shortage of watermelons in Neiafu's market
Vava'u has a tropical climate with average temperatures up to 29ºC in January and down to 24ºC in June. It is sunny throughout the year. Between November and April, it is more humid and thunderstorms and cyclones do occur. From May to September there are southeast trade winds but during the summer months the winds are from the northeast.
The main islands are:
- 'Utu Vava'u. This is the largest island, where Neiafu is found. It is a limestone island with heights up to 213m in the west. The island provides a home to eleven indigenous bird species and contains Mt. Talau national park, with some of the limited remaining native vegetation. Tropical vegetation includes the pandanus or screw pine, the casuarina, and the mulberry tree, the bark of which is used to make tapa cloth.
- Pangaimotu. This is the second largest island in the Group. It can be seen across the water from Neiafu and is connected by land bridge at the most southern point of ‘Utu Vava’u. There are some good beaches and plenty of secluded cove beaches and protected bays with good snorkelling. Avai'o'vuna Swamp is a small coastal wetland on the island.
- Hunga Island. This is some 35 minutes from Neiafu Harbour and provides the main concentration of humpback whales. The island lies in deep water and has sheltered waters and bays which provide a resting place for humpbacks with calves.
Neiafu, the harbour and surrounding islands
International flights arrive on Tongatapu. There are flights at least once a day (ex. Sunday) by Chathams Pacific Airline  to Vava'u from Tongatapu and Ha'apai but the planes are small and space is limited. There have in the past been direct flights to Vava'u from Fiji but like many air routes in the South Pacific these no longer seem to be available (December 2009).
The MV Olovaha travels once a week from Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu to Vava'u via Ha'apai, usually departing on Tuesday and arriving on Wednesday. It makes a return journey to Nuku’alofa on Thursday. It cannot be said to be a particularly comfortable experience, particularly in the summer months.
Bicycles, mountain bikes, motorbikes and boats can be rented from several hotels and agencies. Taxis are available.
- Vanilla. Vava'u is a major production area for high quality vanilla and wandering around the countryside on the main island will give you a chance to see how the vanilla bean grows. The plant, a member of the orchid family, has a small cream or yellow flower which must be hand pollinated. The bean then takes nine months to grow, after which it is dried and cured, which develops the flavour and turns the pod dark brown or black. It is said to be the most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world. The value of individual beans means that farmers go to great lengths to protect them from theft, including pricking their individual code numbers on each bean with a pin.
- Mt. Talau National Park. This was established in 1995 to preserve one of the few remaining areas of relatively undisturbed native forest. It is located on the main island. The Park has several tree species that are endangered in Tonga. Most of the birds and reptiles native to Tonga can be found here. Mt. Talau is also important as a source of Tongan legends. The entrance is approximately 2 km from the center of Neiafu aand the trail is approximately 1km.
- ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden., Tu’anekivale village (on the east coast of the main island.), . The garden aims to promote the survival of native and exotic species and also to provide a sanctuary for bird life. Conservation successes include tree ferns, sandalwood species, bamboos and breadfruit species. You can leave a permanent memory by planting your own tree. There is also a Visitors’ Center where you can see tapa and other artefacts being made and sample the traditional drink of kava. Lunch is provided (if booked in advance) on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On Thursday evening there is a Tonga Feast.
- Walks. There are several good walks from Neiafu including the climb up Mt. Talau (131m-see above) which has excellent views over the harbor. Toafa Church on the west point of Vava'u has good views of the cliffs of Hunga island and other islands.
Entrance to Mariners Cave
- Boat tours. Day trips around the islands are available from several companies for about T$50 per person. These tours visit Mariners Cave (which is accessible through an underwater tunnel), Swallows Cave (excellent for snorkelling) and one or two of the many secluded beaches around the Group.
- Diving. Visibility is excellent and the diving is great. Lots of dive sites, offering hard and soft corals, sea fan grottos, wall diving and magnificent caves. Equipment can be rented and diving tours arranged. There are several PADI qualified dive instructors. Companies include Beluga Diving , Dive Vava’u , and Dolphin Pacific Diving .
- Sailing. Vava'u is one of the most popular yacht cruising areas of the South Pacific. You can charter boats without provisioning or fully provisioned with a skipper and a cook. Short or long duration charters can be arranged. Companies offering charters include Sailing Safaris , Melinda Sea Adventures, , Orion Charters (day charters only), Sail Tonga , and Moorings International ([email protected]).
- Whale Watching. From June to November humpback whales calve and mate in the calm waters. It is not only the sight that is fascinating: the male whales sing. Whale songs vary according to location: each year the song at each location changes. The effect of their singing on humans swimming with them is magical with the sound vibrating through your entire body. Whale watching excursions are available from Sailing Safaris , Endangered Encounters , Melinda Sea Adventures, which offers whale tours under sail , Whale Watch Vava'u  and Vava'u Adventures , among others.
- Snorkelling. There are some great beaches throughout Vava'u. Snorkelling and reef viewing opportunities abound.
- Kayaking. Guided tours of six and eight days to remote islands are available between May and December by the Friendly Islands Kayak Company. You may run into turtles, porpoises, whales, flying foxes and many seabirds.
- Kite surfing. This is offered by Kite Vava'u. 
- Fishing.Vava’u offers Blue Marlin, Black Marlin, Striped Marlin, Sailfish and Short-billed spearfish, as well as pelagic species such as Yellow Fin Tuna, Dog Tooth Tuna, Mahimahi, Wahoo and Giant Trevally. Fishing trips are organized by Ika Lahi, which also offers accommodation on the lagoon of Hunga Island, as well as by Target One , Hakula Fishing , Ika Puna Game Fishing and Kiwi Magic .
Map of Vava'u Group painted on Tapa
- Tapa. Items made of tapa make an original souvenir. For details of Tapa making techniques see Tonga.
- Baskets. Perhaps a bit big as a souvenir, unless you are on a large yacht, but the women of Vava'u make some excellent baskets, woven from coconut fronds and pandanus leaves.
Most restaurants have ship-to-shore VHF radio so passing yachties can order food or book a table.
- Aquarium Cafe, ☎ +676 70493 ([email protected]). 08.00-late. Good food plus internet and wifi. Runs a book-swapping service. VHF Ch. 16.
- Balcony Restaurant and Bar, (On the harbour five minutes walk from Neiafu center), ☎ 70395 ([email protected]). Breakfast to sunset. Claims the best harbour view and sunsets in the area. Traditional Tongan Sunday lunch. VHF 16 "The Balcony."
- Coconet Café, (Center of Neiafu), ☎ +676 71311 ([email protected]). Bar and grill with Thai Food. Internet available and offers laundry services and equipment rentals. VHF 16 “Coconet”.
- Dancing Rooster, (Next to the Catholic Church in Neiafu.), ☎ (676) 70 886 ([email protected]), . Swiss owner and chef. T$30 for weekly BBQ..
- Giggling Whale, (At the Vava'u Villa hotel.), ☎ +676 59057 ([email protected]). 11-23. Aims to be 100% fresh, natural and local.VHF16 “Giggling Whale”
- Mala Island, (At Mala Island Resort (see below).). 20.00 till late. Pig roast on the beach on Sundays.
- Mango Cafe, (In front of Moorings Yacht Charters. Has a mango coloured roof.), ☎ +676 70664. A modern waterfront restaurant with a large deck over the water. Claims the best selection of wine in Vava’u.
- Mermaids Bar and Restaurant, (At the Vava’u Yacht Club.), ☎ +676 70 650 ([email protected]). Fresh fish, lobster, and even bangers and mash. VHF 16/68 "Mermaids".
- Mounu Resort, (On the beachfront of Mounu island.), ([email protected]), . Good restaurant and “Moby Dick’s“ bar. VHF 77 Anchorage No. 41.
- Osteria Gambero Rosso, (Opposite Tonga Visitors Bureau), ☎ +676 12474. 11-14 and 17.30-22.30. As the name implies, the Osteria offers Italian food. Specialities include Lasagne with lobster and Spaghetti with lobster. VHF 16 "Osteria".
- La Paella, Anchorage 11, ☎ +676 70348 ([email protected]), . Spanish restaurant on Tapana Island, a ten minute boat trip from ‘Utu Vava’u. VHF 11 “Tapana”. T$70 for set menu of tapas, paella and dessert..
- Tonga Bob’s, is in the centre of Neiafu, overlooking the harbour. A variety of drinks and cocktails as well as Mexican cuisine. Live entertainment nightly. Satellite TV. The main base for kite surfers.
- Adventure Backpackers, (In Neiafu), ([email protected]), . Popular place but with just nine rooms. Dormitory T$28; Single T$40-80; Double T$50-90.
- Vava’u Guest House, ☎ (676) 70300 ([email protected]). Four fales close to Neiafu. Single $15/$30, twin $40.
- Mala Island Resort, (15 minutes from Neiafu), ([email protected]), . Right on the beach of a 20 acre island. Dormitory T$25;Double T$60-125..
- Tapana Island Resort. Two fales on the beach. For contacts see La Paella restaurant, above. Double T$60-80..
- Hilltop Hotel, (This is on the highest point of Neiafu.), . There are eight rooms, four of which overlook the harbour. T$130-150 for a double.
- Twin View Motel, ☎ Tel: (676) 70597 ([email protected]). On a hill overlooking the harbour. US$55-90 for a double.
- Vava’u Villa, (A few minutes outside Neiafu.), ☎ +676 71 010 ([email protected]), . Newly opened bed and breakfast. Boats available for hire. T$150-180 double.
- Vava’u Harbourview Resort, (On the shores of Port of Refuge Harbour, 2 km from Neiafu.), . Large tropical garden. Private jetty, for swimming and boat landing for whale watching, etc. Tennis court. Bicycle/scooter hire can be arranged. T$180 for a double.
- Blue Lagoon Resort, Foiata Island., ☎ +676 71300 ([email protected]), . Eight fales on the beach. T$300 per night for a double fale..
- Tongan Beach Resort, (on 'Utungake island), ☎ (676) 70380, . Twelve fales on the beach. Wifi. T$250 per fale per night.
- Café Tropicana is the original Internet Cafe in Vava'u. Located next to Adventure Backpackers in the centre of Neiafu, it offers espresso coffee, tropical fruit smoothies, all day breakfasts, and light meals. Alcohol licence. Famous for its Vava'u Brownies and Vanilla Coffee.
Internet access is also offered by Coconet Cafe and Aquarium Cafe.
Tonga 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. Flights do not operate on Sundays and tourist services may not be available. Try taking the time to attend a church service. The singing can be beautiful.
Men should avoid going around topless other than on the beach. You could be arrested. Although Tongans are used to tourists, skirts above the knee, while not illegal, are still not appreciated.
To really get away from it all head to Niuatoputapu and Niuafo’ou, which are the northernmost islands of the Tonga group. They are reachable by weekly flights from Vava’u.
- Niuatoputapu is 240km north of Vava’u and has 18 sq. km with a population of around 1400. Tradition is still important here with conservative ways of dressing and behaviour. It has beautiful white beaches, particularly on the north-west side of the island.
Niuafo'ou Island from space
- Palm Tree Island Resort, ([email protected]), . Four bungalows on the small island just of Hungana just off the main island of Niuatoputapu T$180-240 double.
- Niuafo’ou is the northernmost island of Tonga. Other names for the island are Good Hope island and Tin Can island. The latter originated from the fact that in earlier times mail was delivered and picked up by strong swimmers who would retrieve packages sealed up in a biscuit tin and thrown overboard from passing ships. Stamps from that time have become a collector’s item. It is the tip of an underwater volcano created by sub-oceanic eruptions. The last eruption was in 1946, after which the whole island was evacuated for ten years. Fields of lava are still evident. The island ring encloses two lakes.
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