Sprinkled across the kingdom's central waters, the Ha'apai Group is an idyllic South Pacific paradise - low coral islands, vibrant reefs and kilometres of deserted white beaches fringed with coconut palms. Traditional culture is not something you pay an entry fee to experience in Ha'apai - it's all around, unexploited and alive. You won't find the distractions of shops, nightspots (or even running water at times) but those willing to forgo the trimmings reap the rewards. Even bare-brass budgeters can walk across a reef for a slice of paradise in a fale (traditional thatched house) on a large patch of sand. And only a scattering of tourists visit each year.
Of its 62 islands, 45 are uninhabited, including pyramidal Kao and its smoking partner, Tofua - venture to the remote shores of Tofua, hike up its Jurassic Park-cum-moonscape crater and peer into the glowing caldera. Lifuka's more accessible diving sites hold their own in the diversity stakes too. Divers enter a whole new realm exploring blackened walls laden with colourful corals, while pelagics rise from the depths nearby. Whale-watching is largely an incidental experience while travelling between islands, though low visitor numbers allow you to view the mammals without the crowds. A kayaking adventure through the islands is one of the most exhilarating adventures the world offers.
The languorous pace of life in Ha'apai has led many of its residents to relocate to Tongatapu or more distant shores in search of further opportunities, keeping the population of the island group low. People here largely subsist on agriculture and fishing: 'Uiha's fish and seafood ends up on the plates of the kingdom's finest restaurants.