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Tonga

Getting there & around

All travel through Tonga's islands requires a degree of faith and fluidity, and comes with a dose of uncertainty and unreliability, dependent on tides, strong winds, holidays, church events, weddings, funerals, or a late-night kava drinking session.

The physical isolation of the Samoan islands and Tonga means you need to give careful consideration to the best way of getting out there. Flying direct to/from each island grouping, for instance, probably won't represent the greatest value for money. It might make more sense to engage in some careful route planning that may enable further exploration of the South Pacific or even Australasia.

Local transport

Taxi

Taxis throughout Tonga can be recognised by a 'T' at the beginning of the vehicle's licence plate (if it has a licence plate). There are plenty of taxis on Tongatapu, Vava'u and Lifuka (Ha'apai), and one on 'Eua. Though the taxis are not metered, government maximum rates are vaguely followed. Always agree on the fare before you climb in. The Tonga Visitors Bureau representative at Fua'amotu International Airport can give you an indication of current taxi prices. Taxis in Ha'apai have a printed rate card priced by destination.

Some taxis charge according to the destination, and allow you to make a couple of stops and do some shopping without additional waiting fees.

Taxi drivers will often claim to be out of change, so either have a fistful of dollars or be prepared to change larger notes at your destination.

If your airport taxi driver insists that your selected hotel is closed, fully booked or no good, don't take it too seriously. Chances are you've chosen an establishment that doesn't pay commission to taxi drivers.

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Bus & tram

Bus

Culture vultures hear this: travelling on a local bus on Tongatapu is a must - at least once. As passengers squeeze into painted mini-buses and catch the breeze while dangling out of the open doorway, you'll marvel at how much volume the driver can get out of such tiny speakers. Tongatapu's fairly decent bus network covers the island. Elsewhere, transport is limited to Lifuka and Foa in Ha'apai, and Vava'u Island, with services running infrequently or only if enough passengers accumulate for a trip; some buses in outlying districts exist only to ferry students and villagers to and from town in the morning and afternoon. Don't rely on catching a bus after about 3pm.

In the urban areas of Tongatapu, the bus stops are marked with a sign reading 'Pasi'. Elsewhere, flag down buses by waving your outstretched arm.

Costs

Fares range from 50 seniti to T$2 depending upon the island and the distance travelled. Pay the fare on exiting the bus.

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Air

While the Samoan islands and Tonga aren't exactly as remote or obscure a destination as Tuvalu or Kiribati, they are not as popular as Fiji or Tahiti either (not yet anyway), and airfares often reflect this. Access to either island group is fairly straightforward from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Hawai'i or Los Angeles. From anywhere else, however, travelling there will almost always entail reaching one of these connecting points first. Auckland and Nadi/Suva are the most convenient and best-served runs, and there are often some good discount fares on these routes. Tonga and the Samoas are also popular as a stopover or cheap 'optional extra' on some tickets and round-the-world fares between Europe or North America and New Zealand.

Visitors to Samoa will arrive near Apia on 'Upolu, those visiting American Samoa will arrive near Pago Pago on Tutuila, and the majority of those visiting Tonga will arrive at Nuku'alofa.

Air

Flights can be delayed or cancelled in extreme weather; this is more common in the cyclone season. There are good lead warnings for cyclones and severe storm activity; your best bet is to be aware of the possibility and stay informed.

Reconfirm your flight 72 hours before departure (leaving a contact phone number) and then reconfirm again 24 hours before flying. If you have an international connection you must catch, return to Tongatapu two days beforehand, to be safe.

Airlines in tonga

There are no flights in Tonga on Sunday. Flights are valid for 12 months from the date of issue and demand no restrictions on changes, though a T$20 fee is charged for reimbursement. Children under two are charged 10% of the full fare; children aged two to 11 pay 50%.

Bookings are confirmed only upon full payment (cash, Visa, Mastercard or Amex). Check-in time at the terminal is 1¼ hours prior to departure.

Airlines Tonga Air Fiji(Airlines Tonga; 23690; www.airlinestonga.com; Teta Tours, cnr Railway & Wellington Rds, Nuku'alofa) flies between Tongatapu, Ha'apai and Vava'u daily, between Tongatapu and 'Eua twice daily, and from Tongatapu to the Niuas via Vava'u twice weekly. The baggage allowance is 10kg, with a per kilo excess charge of T$0.70 to 'Eua, T$1.35/2.20 to Ha'apai/Vava'u, and up to T$6.45 per kilo to the Niuas.

Peau Vava'u(www.peauvavau.to) flights from Tongatapu follow a circular route via Vava'u and Ha'apai, alternating in order of first stops. Normal fares have a baggage allowance of 20kg, while a slightly discounted resident's fare (often granted on request where possible and if the staff decide they like you) allows 10kg. Excess baggage is theoretically charged at T$6 for the first kilogram and then T$3 for every extra kilogram.

Airlines

Airlines that service the region include the following (note all phone numbers mentioned here are for dialling from within Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga) :

Air New Zealand (airline code NZ; Apia20825, Nuku'alofa 23192; www.airnz.com; hub Auckland International Airport)

Air Pacific (airline code FJ; Apia22738, Nuku'alofa 23422; www.airpacific.com; hub Nadi International Airport)

Hawaiian Airlines (airline code HA; www.hawaiianairlines.com; hub Honolulu International Airport, Hawai'i)

Inter-Island Airways (Pago Pago699 7100; www.interislandair.com; hub Tafuna International Airport, Tutuila)

Pacific Blue (airline code DJ; www.flypacificblue.com; hub Brisbane International Airport)

Polynesian Airlines (airline code PH; Apia22737, Pago Pago 699 9126, Nuku'alofa 24566, Neiafu 70644; www.polynesianairlines.com; hub Faleolo Airport, 'Upolu)

Polynesian Blue (airline code DJ; www.polynesianblue.com; hub Brisbane International Airport)

Qantas (airline code QF; Apia21261; www.qantas.com.au; hub Kingsford-Smith Airport, Sydney)

Royal Tongan Airlines (airline code WR; Nuku'alofa23414; www.tongatapu.net.to/tonga/islands/royalt/default.htm; hub Fua'amotu International Airport, Tongatapu)

Asia

Air Pacific has direct flights from Tokyo to Nadi, which connect with flights to Samoa (Apia) and Tonga (Nuku'alofa). Air New Zealand has a number of flights from Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka to Auckland, where there are many onward flights to the Samoas. Most flights from other parts of Asia are also routed through Auckland and Nadi.

Qantas flights from countries in the Asian region touch down in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne before flying towards South Pacific islands via Nadi. The exception is the direct flight to Apia from Sydney.

Excellent bargains are often available in Hong Kong. Recommended local agents in Southeast Asia:

Phoenix Services Hong Kong (852-2722 7378)

STA Travel Bangkok (02-236 0262; www.statravel.co.th); Singapore (65-6737 7188; www.statravel.com.sg); Tokyo (03-5391 2922; www.statravel.co.jp)

Australia

From Australia, flights to Samoa and Tonga are available from Sydney with new carrier Polynesian Blue and with Qantas. Pacific Blue also flies to both Samoa and Tonga from Brisbane as well as Sydney. Flights are often routed through Nadi or Auckland.

Polynesian Blue fares to Apia from Sydney start at around A$450, though keep in mind that this was an introductory fare at the time of writing and prices may rise (probably not by much though) if the route proves popular. The average fare from Sydney to Nuku'alofa is around A$650, although we did come across promotional fares as low as A$300.

There are no direct flights to Pago Pago in American Samoa from Australia. You need to get to Apia (Samoa) first to hook up with a regional route.

Bear in mind that the Australian Christmas holiday season (December to January) is the busiest and most expensive time to fly. Standard fares increase by up to 25%, though 'holiday specials' are occasionally offered. Travellers should also be aware that ever- increasing code-share agreements mean that it should be easy to arrange a through-ticket from destinations across Australia.

STA Travel (1300 360 960; www.statravel.com.au) and Flight Centre (133 133; www.flightcentre.com.au) have offices throughout Australia. Hideaway Holidays (02-8799 2500; www.hideawayholidays.com.au) is a South Pacific specialist offering a range of flight/accommodation deals to the Samoan islands. Packages start at approximately A$1300 (for five nights) and, once your five nights are up, there's nothing to stop you moving somewhere else and staying on a bit longer.

New zealand

From New Zealand there are a number of flight options to Samoa and Tonga with Air New Zealand, Qantas, Royal Tongan Airlines, Polynesian Blue and Pacific Blue. One-way fares from Auckland to Apia start at NZ$570; one-way fares for the 2½- to three-hour flight from Auckland to Nuku'alofa start around NZ$450.

Flight/accommodation packages from New Zealand can be excellent value; such packages can sometimes work out cheaper than the flight alone. Air New Zealand is a good starting point for such deals.

For reasonably priced fares, try one of the numerous branches of STA Travel (0508 782 872; www.statravel.co.nz). Another good option is House of Travel (www.houseoftravel.co.nz); see its website for contact telephone numbers for its dozens of New Zealand offices.

South pacific

While island-hopping around the Pacific isn't difficult, some flights operate only once or twice per week from the Samoan islands and Tonga and you might face more than a few scheduling problems on some routes. There are direct flights from both of the island groups to Fiji and Hawai'i, but if you are travelling on to other Pacific islands you'll probably need to either fly back to New Zealand to make connections, or travel via Fiji. Check out one of the regional air passes if you want to see a host of other Pacific islands.

Air Pacific and Royal Tongan Airlines both fly between Nuku'alofa (Tonga) and Nadi (Fiji) three times a week. Air Pacific also flies between Nadi and Apia (Samoa), as does Polynesian Airlines. One-way fares from Fiji to Apia usually start at F$300, while fares to Nuku'alofa cost from F$220.

Royal Tongan Airlines also puts on a weekly Tongatapu to Niue flight via Vava'u (a two-hour trip). Royal Tongan is the only international airline serving Niue.

Uk & continental europe

An Air New Zealand flight from London to Apia (Samoa), via Los Angeles, is the most straightforward option for travel from Europe to the Samoan islands. High-season return fares from London start at UK£1500. There are also a number of flights from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, where passengers can connect with onward flights to the Samoas or other South Pacific countries. Other cheap fares from Europe generally go via Sydney, Australia.

The best fares from Europe to Nuku'alofa (Tonga) are generally with Air New Zealand from London via Los Angeles, then Auckland or Nadi. However, various code-sharing agreements mean that other stopovers and routings through the South Pacific are possible. Air New Zealand's return fares from London to Tonga, via Los Angeles and Auckland, start from UK£1100. You are usually allowed one free stopover in each direction. Air New Zealand's flights via Fiji are often at least 10% more expensive.

Popular agencies in the UK include the ubiquitous STA Travel (0870-1630 026; www.statravel.co.uk), Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.co.uk) and Flight Centre (0870-499 0040; www.flightcentre.co.uk).

A good option in the Dutch travel industry is Holland International (0900-8858; www.hollandinternational.nl). From Amsterdam, return fares start at around €1500. Another recommended agency in the Netherlands is NBBS Reizen (0900-102 0300; www.nbbs.nl). Recommended German agencies include the Berlin branch of STA Travel (069-743 032 92; www.statravel.de).

In France (more specifically, Paris), try Odysia (01 43 29 69 50; www.odysia.fr) or OTU Voyages (01 40 29 12 22; www.otu.fr) - both are student/youth specialists and have offices in many French cities. Other recommendations include Voyageurs du Monde (01 40 15 11 15; www.vdm.com/vdm) and Nouvelles Frontiéres (08 25 00 08 25; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr/nf); the details given are for offices in Paris, but again both companies have branches elsewhere.

Usa & canada

Los Angeles and Honolulu are the two main gateway cities for travel between North America and the South Pacific. Although a huge amount of Pacific traffic passes through Los Angeles, there are also direct flights to Honolulu from nearly every major city in the USA. In Honolulu you can connect with Air New Zealand flights going direct to Samoa and Tonga.

Air New Zealand operates direct Los Angeles-Apia flights (about US$620 one way) and direct Los Angeles-Nuku'alofa flights (around US$650 one way). Return flights to Pago Pago start from about US$580 from Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines.

Discount travel agents in the USA are known as consolidators (though you won't see a sign on the door saying 'Consolidator'). San Francisco is the ticket consolidator capital of America, although some good deals can be found in Los Angeles, New York and other big cities.

STA Travel (800-781 4040; www.statravel.com) has offices all over the USA.

Canadians will find the best South Pacific deals are via Honolulu. Like travellers from the USA, you'll probably fly with at least two different code-sharing carriers. From Canada, flights to the Samoas are through Los Angeles/San Francisco and Honolulu. Return fares from Vancouver to Apia are around C$2220, while return flights from Vancouver to Nuku'alofa are about C$2500.

The airfares sold by Canadian discount air ticket sellers (consolidators) tend to be about 10% higher than those sold in the USA. Travel Cuts (866-246 9762; www.travelcuts.com) is Canada's national student travel agency and has offices in all major cities.

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Car & motorcycle

Hire

There are lots of firms based in the capitals or at airports where you can hire vehicles.

When hiring a vehicle, check for any damage or scratches before you get into the car and note everything on the rental agreement, lest you be held liable for damage when the car is returned. Furthermore, fend off requests to leave your passport or a cash deposit against possible damages.

Note that you can take hire cars from 'Upolu over to Savai'i and back, but cars hired on Savai'i cannot be taken over to 'Upolu.

Car

In Tonga, traffic moves on the left. Tonga is a harsh environment for cars, with little protection from the salt-laden elements and scant preventative servicing. Some vehicles are only held together by the sheer will of the occupants, though the ubiquitous 'Western Union' stickers seem to help.

On Tongatapu, if you see a motorcade flanked by police motorcyclists and containing a large blue Dodge van with blacked-out windows, pull off the road and wait for it to pass. It's the king. Smaller motorcades containing the queen, the princess or one of the princes occasionally crawl through town and demand similar respect.

Hire

Hire cars - ranging from the zippy with remnants of suspension to the completely 'Tonganified' and probably unroadworthy - are available on both Tongatapu and Vava'u, and can be arranged with private owners on other islands (this author hired the taxi, while the taxi driver happily slept the day away in the cab rank). Alternately, negotiate hiring a taxi with its driver for the day. Those choosing to drive will need to buy a Tongan driving licence.

Insurance

Insurance is only available in Nuku'alofa.

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Hitching

Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don't recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.

However, hitching is fairly common in Tonga, especially where public transport is rare. Flag down vehicles by waving palm down rather than sticking out your thumb. Only occasionally will you be asked to pay.

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Boat

Inter-island ferry

Islands near Tongatapu can be reached by small boats which generally depart from Queen Salote Domestic Wharf. A couple of passenger ferries operate services between the main island groups, in addition to church-run boats.

Ferry rides in Tonga range from almost pleasurable cruising with sightseeing and whale-watching (in season), to barfing hell-rides kept afloat with midnight prayers. In either event, taking one is a major cultural experience, particularly while witnessing a ferry hovering mid-sea off an outer island as a flotilla of boats descends on it to load myriad cargo, including livestock and fish.

Most passengers travel deck class as indoor spaces are stuffy, cramped and claustrophobic, while outdoor spaces can be wet and/or cold and difficult to find sleeping space. There's no denying the toilets are truly awful - overflowing and sloshing around - and vomiting fellow passengers don't enhance the experience either. Though a seafaring people, Tongans tend to get seasick as soon as the boat leaves the harbour if the sea is rough. Also, the boats are always running late.

Northern island groups

Both inter-island ferries depart from Queen Salote Wharf in Nuku'alofa. Their schedules are very prone to delay and change, so must be checked prior to intended travel. It's possible to arrange a cabin (sometimes the captain's quarters) though most people travel deck class.

MV 'Olovaha is a squat, German-built flat-bottomed boat (which tends to bob like a cork in rough seas). It's operated by the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia(Nuku'alofa; 23853; scp@tonfon.to; Queen Salote Wharf; Vava'u; 70128; Ha'apai; 60699) and runs weekly between Tongatapu (Nuku'alofa), Ha'apai (Ha'afeva and Lifuka Islands) and Vava'u (Neiafu).

MV 'Olovaha currently services the Niuas every two months (or so) - as it relies on government subsidies for the trip, it may run more or less frequently to these remote islands. From Vava'u to Niuatoputapu it takes about 24 hours, then 12 to 15 hours to Niuafo'ou. Occasionally rough conditions make it impossible to unload or load cargo (and passengers) at Niuafo'ou.

MV Pulupaki, operated by Uata Shipping Line (Walter Line; 23855; uataline@kalianet.to; Queen Salote Wharf), does the inter-island run between Tongatapu and Vava'u. It was the preferred ferry at the time of writing and has a keel, which some travellers maintain gives a smoother journey.

'eua

The trip across to 'Eua is generally a simple crossing, though usually choppy when the ferries pass out into the open sea. The journey takes two to three hours. The return leg from 'Eua to Nuku'alofa is usually a little quicker and smoother as the boat travels with the prevailing swell, not against it. Locals travelling to/from 'Eua are generally more used to sea travel, so there's less seasickness. Ferrying to 'Eua can be quicker than flying (when this is actually an option) when you add on taking a taxi to the airport, check in, delays etc. The one-way fare is T$20; tickets are sold on board the ferries.

Uata Shipping Line (Walter Line; 23855; uataline@kalianet.to; Queen Salote Wharf, Nuku'alofa) operates the MV Ikale, the quickest ferry between Tongatapu and 'Eua. The ferry leaves Nuku'alofa at 12.30pm, returning from 'Eua's Nafanua Wharf about 5am the next morning. There's one service every day except Sunday.

MV 'Otu Tonga, run by Tofa Shipping (21326), also does the Nuku'alofa to 'Eua run, departing around noon on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It is sometimes replaced by MV 'Alaimoana.

Yacht

October and November are the best months for yacht hitchhiking around Tonga, though once yachties have arrived here they're usually content to cruise around the islands leisurely and don't need extra crew. Yacht and sailing charters are available in Tongatapu and Vava'u.

Minerva Reef, which is awash most of the time, is at Tonga's southernmost extreme, 350km (about two days' sailing) southwest of Tongatapu. With breaking waves in the vast ocean at high tide and two feet of reef at low tide, Minerva Reef serves as a rest point for yachts waiting for clearer conditions on the five-day (or so) crossing to New Zealand.

Other vessels

Most island resorts offer boat transfers to their overnight guests and day visitors. The most economical way to get around is on local boats, but you'll be at the mercy of a very fluid schedule which requires time and flexibility. If you've got the cash, skippered boats can be organised on just about any island, while aluminium boats can be hired in Neiafu. Bear in mind the high fuel costs when quoted a price.

The Church of Tonga's boat, MV Siu Pele (contact Tiukala 25555; one-way fare T$42) departs from Nuku'alofa's Domestic Wharf at 9pm Monday for Pangai (in the Ha'apai Group) via Nomuka, Ha'afeva and 'Uiha, returning from 'Uiha some time on Thursday.

You could try your luck hitchhiking on fishing boats, freighters and launches. Ask around port and landing areas and contact the shipping companies.

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Sea

Cargo ships

As a transport option, cargo ships are not opportunities for stowaways or free berths, but involve paid tickets to ride aboard willing supply vessels. If you're interested in this unusual option, check out the website of California-based Freighterworld (800-531 7774; www.freighterworld.com), which has lots of relatively up-to-date information on container ships that offer berths on trips through the South Pacific. Prices obviously vary considerably according to the itinerary, but US$2000 for two weeks of travel is not uncommon.

Three cargo ships sail between Apia in Samoa and the remote Tokelau Islands. Bookings for the 20-hour trip can be made in Apia at the Tokelau Apia Liaison Office (20822; Fugalei St; 8am-5pm Mon-Fri). You must obtain a permit to visit Tokelau before booking. Sailings are usually fortnightly but occasionally more frequent. Return deck fares are NZ$290/145 per adult/child; return cabin fares are NZ$530/270.

Cruise ships

A number of cruise ships make their way (very slowly) into the ports at Apia (Samoa), Pago Pago (American Samoa) and Nuku'alofa (Tonga), disgorging passengers keen to have a fully catered and organised South Pacific experience. Itineraries vary from two weeks to a month, and the routes are limited only by the imaginations of the tour providers. While Tahiti is the favoured main destination for such cruises, the Samoan islands and Tonga tend to be included in many such leisurely South Pacific voyages.

A good place to start your research into what sort of cruise suits you is the website of Travel Wizard (www.travelwizard.com), which provides oodles of information on international cruise lines and options. Also have a look at the website of the Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org) - it focuses on North American-based lines, but this is where most Pacific cruises will be coming from.

Fares vary widely depending on the length of the trip, the luxuriousness of the boat and its facilities, the number of stopovers, and the embarkation/disembarkation points. A typical itinerary for a one-month voyage starting from Los Angeles takes in Hawai'i, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand. Fares for such a voyage often hover around US$3500 per person (double occupancy).

Yachts

Yacht charters are practically impossible to track down in the Samoan islands, whereas the myriad scattered islands and enigmatic sailing passages of Tonga seem to have been custom-designed for those wanting to undertake a lengthy island-hop.

Between May and October (outside the cyclone season) the harbours of the South Pacific swarm with cruising yachts from around the world, many following the favourable winds west from the Americas, while others come north from New Zealand.

The yachting community is quite friendly, especially towards those who display an interest in yachts and other things nautical. Sometimes they are looking for crew, and for those who'd like a bit of low-key adventure, this can be the way to go. Most of the time, crew members will only be asked to take a turn on watch - that is, scan the horizon for cargo ships, hazardous objects and the odd reef - and possibly to cook or clean. In port, crew may be required to dive and scrape the bottom, paint or make repairs. Sailing experience is usually not necessary; 'green' crew members learn as they go. Most yachties charge crew upwards of US$15 per day for food and supplies.

All that aside, bear in mind that the conditions of a long ocean voyage greatly magnify rivalries and petty concerns. Only set out on a long passage with someone with whom you feel relatively compatible and remember that, on board, skipper's rule is law.

Information

Private yacht owners who intend to visit Samoa's islands aer required to apply for clearance from the Prime Minister's Department (21339; 5th fl, Government Office Bldg, Beach Rd) in Apia - bear left as you exit the elevator and take the unmarked door straight through the archway. The captain will need to present crew passports and the boat's registration papers.

On Tongatapu in Tonga, the boarding officers are in the One Stop Shop (23967; Queen Salote Wharf; 8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-4.30pm Mon-Fri) in Nuku'alofa. Check-in is possible on weekends but will incur a fee. There's a charge for anchoring anywhere in Tongan waters, payable upon departure at the Ports Authority (23168; marports@kalianet.to; Queen Salote Wharf; 8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-4.30pm Mon-Fri) in Nuku'alofa, or whichever port you're using. Anchoring fees/charges in Tongatapu are calculated by multiplying T$1.80 by gross tonnage of the yacht. Pay the harbour dues and then take the receipt to Customs.

In Vava'u, pull up at the southern end of Neiafu Wharf and contact the boarding officers (70053; 8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-4.30pm Mon-Fri).

To summon the harbour master and for emergencies in Tonga use VHF channel 16. However, there's only a slight chance that any Tongan government or navy vessel will come to your assistance (they rarely have fuel); your best bet is the local sailing and fishing community. If you're in VHF range of Vava'u, contact the charter yacht company The Moorings (VHF channel 72) which can coordinate rescue efforts. Any response to a triggered EPERB (an emergency beacon that sends SOS messages via satellite) will come from, or be coordinated by, the New Zealand navy. It may take days before help arrives.

Books

If you're travelling by yacht in Tonga or elsewhere in the Pacific, Landfalls of Paradise: Cruising Guide to the Pacific Islands by Earl R Hinz is highly recommended. The experienced Pacific yachtie author provides all the nitty-gritty on anchorages, navigation, marinas, fees and officialdom throughout the South and central Pacific region. Sailingbird's Guide to the Kingdom of Tonga, by Charles Paul and Katherine Pham-Paul, is a staple cruising guide that doubles as a coffee table book and also includes plenty of land sights. Cruising Guide for the Kingdom of Tonga by Ken Hellewell, is a comprehensive, spiral-bound guide covering the entire kingdom, including charts, over 90 anchorages, GPS waypoints and port practicalities. If you're planning to charter a yacht in Vava'u and cruise around its islands, A Cruising Guide to the Kingdom of Tonga, produced by charter company The Moorings, is probably ample.

Charter vessels

To charter a vessel for a leisurely exploration of South Pacific waterways can roughly cost anywhere between US$280 and US$450 per person per night for two people; between US$250 and US$300 per person per night for three people; and around US$240 per person per night for four people. One such option is Impetuous (www.sailingtonga.com), a fully crewed charter yacht operating mostly around Vava'u (Tonga), but which may be willing to pick up/drop off guests in Ha'apai, Nuku'alofa, Fiji or even Samoa. Another option worth checking out is chartering a yacht called Melinda (www.sailtonga.com).

Tongan ports

Ports of entry for cruising yachts in Tonga are Nuku'alofa (Tongatapu), Pangai on Lifuka (Ha'apai), Neiafu (Vava'u), Falehau (Niuatoputapu) and Futu (Niuafo'ou).

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Travel documents

Tickets

Automated online ticket sales work well if you're doing a simple one-way or return trip on specified dates, but are no substitute for a travel agent with the lowdown on special deals, strategies for avoiding stopovers and other useful advice.

Paying by credit card offers some protection if you unwittingly end up dealing with a rogue fly-by-night agency, as most card issuers provide refunds if you can prove you didn't get what you paid for. Alternatively, buy a ticket from a bonded agent, such as one covered by the Air Travel Organiser's Licence (ATOL; www.atol.org.uk) scheme in the UK. If you have doubts about the service provider, at the very least call the airline and confirm that your booking has been made.

Circle pacific tickets

A Circle Pacific ticket is similar to a RTW ticket but covers a more limited region, using a combination of airlines to connect Australia, New Zealand, North America and Asia, with stopover options in the Pacific Islands. As with RTW tickets, there are restrictions and limits as to how many stopovers you can take.

Online ticket sites

For online ticket bookings, including RTW fares, start with the following websites:

Air Brokers (www.airbrokers.com) This US company specialises in cheap tickets.

Cheap Flights (www.cheapflight.com) Informative site with specials, airline information and flight searches from the USA, the UK and other regions.

Flight Centre International (www.flightcentre.com) Respected operator handling direct flights.

Flights.com (www.tiss.com) International site for flight tickets; offers cheap fares and an easy-to-search database.

Roundtheworld.com (www.roundtheworldflights.com) This excellent site allows you to build your own trips from the UK with up to six stops.

STA (www.statravel.com) Prominent in international student travel but you don't have to be a student; site linked to worldwide STA sites.

Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) US site that allows you to search fares (in US$) from/to practically anywhere.

Travel Online (www.travelonline.co.nz) Good place to check worldwide flights from New Zealand.

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Tours

Organised tours can give a good introduction to an island and offer an easy way to visit major sights. Commercial tour operators circle Tongatapu and its sights in little over half a day while minibus tours cover a selection of land sights in Vava'u. Small-group 4WD tours with a combination of walking, exploring, caving and sightseeing can be arranged on 'Eua, while boat tours to outer islands can be negotiated in Ha'apai, Vava'u and the Niuas. Whale-watching and fishing tours operate from each island group, while organised diving excursions are possible in all groups bar the Niuas. Vava'u also boasts guided 'surfaris', where surfers are dropped on breaks by boat.

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Bicycle

Cycling is a great way to get around the kingdom. Distances aren't great, the islands are reasonably flat (though Vava'u and 'Eua are hilly in places) and a bike allows you to see the islands at island pace.

Transporting your own bike into Tonga should be no problem (check carriage details with the airline before purchasing your ticket). You can transport your bike on inter-island ferries, or internal flights, though you'll need to deflate the tyres.

A few notes of caution: before you leave home, go over your bike with a fine-tooth comb and fill your repair kit with every imaginable spare as they may be difficult to find in Tonga. Care should be taken around towns (Nuku'alofa especially) where vehicle numbers are high and driving skills poor. And watch out for crazed canines and wandering pigs.

Bicycle

Touring 'Upolu and Savai'i by bicycle is a scenic, mostly relaxed option for fit, experienced cyclists - we say 'mostly' because aggressive dogs are a prevalent problem around the islands. The roads are generally in good condition and traffic is minimal. The major roads encircling the islands are all sealed, but you'd need a sturdy mountain bike to tackle most of the trails to beaches and other coastal attractions. The longest stretch between accommodation options would be about 45km on Savai'i. You can transport a bike between Samoa's two main islands on the ferry that crosses Apolima Strait.

Tutuila in American Samoa is much less suitable for cycling than the main islands of Samoa. Though smaller than 'Upolu and Savai'i, Tutuila is more mountainous, traffic is heavier and a complete circuit of the island is impossible since there are no roads across the rugged north coast. Dogs can be a major hassle here as well. You could conceivably take a bike over to the Manu'a Islands by boat, but the minimalist road networks of these islands would make this a rather dubious plan.

One of the biggest challenges for cyclists in the Samoas is the heat. Even during the coolest months (July, August and September), afternoon temperatures will still reach the high twenties. Plan your expedition carefully to avoid cycling long stretches in the heat of the day. Also bear in mind that buses are unlikely to be able to accommodate bicycles should you run out of leg power.

Bikes are a common form of local transport in the Samoan islands, so it shouldn't be hard to track down a bike repairer if you really need one. But it is obviously best to bring your own comprehensive bike repair kit, not to mention a decent lock and heavy-duty panniers. And don't expect high-quality parts to be available. Some accommodation providers rent bikes, but these are for day touring, not long-distance rides.

Hire

Bicycles are available for hire on all major islands (T$8 to T$15 per day), mostly of the foot-brake variety as there's a lot less that can go wrong with them.

Purchase

A couple of department/variety stores near Talamahu Market in Nuku'alofa sell bicycles of Chinese descent, and of varying quality and price - you're unlikely to find them boasting 'Shimano' anything.

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