Travel: Savour Samoa's small-town tempo

By Mike Yardley

As the last vestiges of what has been a languid, lingering summer disappear from sight, perk yourself up with the promise of a winter plunge in the South Pacific. A tropical island escape is what commandeers our daydreams, bobbing over the computer screen and shimmering in the exhaust fumes of the commute home.

Tonga isn't our leading South Pacific holiday haunt, but after road-testing the kingdom for the first time recently, I'm a fan. Part of its charm is that it's not over-commercialised - it beats to a small-town vibe.

Holidaying here feels authentic, organic and integrated with the local community. So if the travel-brochure perfection of an international mega-resort is your vision of tropical heaven, Tonga probably isn't your bag. But if you want to get a taste of the local way of life while unwinding and topping up your vitamin D levels, the pristine, azure scatter of the Tongan islands delivers in spades.

You'll arrive from Auckland on to the main island of Tongatapu. New Zealand-owned company Scenic Hotels has spread its wings, and Tonga is its first international operation. The Scenic Hotel Tonga is located close to the airport, so it's a great base from which to explore the main island.

If you really want to get under the skin of a destination, I like to tap into the local way of life. The hotel will happily arrange for you to visit Fua'amotu School, a delightfully rewarding experience with the best behaved and adorably friendly kids I've ever laid eyes on. Ask the hotel to also point you in the right direction to savour the heavenly harmonies wafting out of every church come Sunday.

Tonga exudes a freeze-framed 1950s innocence. Church, community and family are central to the daily tempo.

Grab a mountain bike and take a ride on the skinny roads and you'll hear and see the village women beating the bejesus out of the bark of the mulberry tree to make tapa cloth. You can purchase an enchanting range of handicrafts from Talamahu Market, a bustling hive of traditional retail activity in the heart of Nuku'alofa.

Other essential sights include a gorgeous reserve overlooking the lagoon and commemorating where Captain Cook came ashore in 1773 to a friendly reception.

And a natural extravaganza awaits you along the rocky coastline at Houma, where the blowholes put Las Vegas' dancing fountains to shame. Water surges into a series of vents in the rocks, then gushes skyward as high as 18m. It's noisy, saturating and beguiling.

Tongatapu has fabulous coral caves, and if you want to swim underground, visit Anahulu, a stalactite cave that'll really float your boat.

Also not to be missed is the Royal Palace, the ancient stone monument Ha'amonga and the ancient burial site, the Terraced Tombs.


- Hamilton News

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