The kingdom of Tonga is perched just east of the international date line: when it’s a fun-packed Saturday at the beach in Samoa, it’s already time for Sunday prayers in Tonga. Thus it’s said, most often by the island’s tourism industry, that Tonga is 'the place where time begins’. Others, perhaps observing the pace of local life, call it the place where time stands still. Both statements are true in a way, as Tonga is an eclectic country where ancient traditions sit alongside the latest offerings of modern life. Tongans avidly devour DVDs and download the latest hip-hop or international news and opinion from the Internet, but they also still resolve difficult issues the traditional way, around a bowl of kava, and many still weave, and wear, traditional mats.
For the traveller, Tonga offers a different experience to Samoa. The snorkelling and diving are far superior for one thing. And some travellers plan their entire trip around Tonga’s marvellous whale-watching. There’s laid-back resort life if you want it, though without quite the same infrastructure that surrounds resorts in Samoa. There are many opportunities to get right off the beaten track in Tonga’s 170-odd islands, with tiny forested islets calling your name left and right. The Ha'apai Group offers deserted white beaches, vibrant reefs and only a smattering of other tourists. For all the fun in the water that you could reasonably be expected to handle, the Vava'u Group and Eua are the activity holiday destinations of Tonga, with sea Kayaking, fishing surfing and diving available.
For those seeking a genuine cultural experience, society in the Pacific’s only remaining kingdom has remained more impervious to outside influences than Samoa (and it’s certainly more traditional than American Samoa). You may find you have to work a little to get into the locals’ confidence - Tongans are not as extroverted as Samoans - but it’s worth the effort.
Travel Alert: On the 29th of September, Tonga, Samoa and American Samoa were struck by a tsunami, following an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale, centred south of Samoa and north of Tonga. The only island in Tonga affected was the tiny northern island of Niuatoputapu, where nine people were killed. The rest of Tonga was unaffected, and there is no reason to defer travel to Tonga. An update by our Pacific editor outlines what areas were affected and provides some good resources for those who want to know more.