A selfie win tops off a beautiful visit, writes Eleanor Barker

For a long weekend in a sad excuse for a Kiwi summer, I head to Tongatapu. It's the first Pacific Island I've visited, if we disregard the North Island and the South Island.

I'm here for the grand re-opening of the refurbished 1960s Tanoa International Dateline Hotel, in the capital Nuku'alofa. I'm also here for Stan Walker.

Herald writer Eleanor Barker with singer Stan Walker, Ben CJ and Tia Maipi in Tonga. Photo / Eleanor Barker
Herald writer Eleanor Barker with singer Stan Walker, Ben CJ and Tia Maipi in Tonga. Photo / Eleanor Barker

As per the Travel Editor's demands, my primary objective for this weekend is a selfie with the man. The poor bloke's staying at the same hotel and performing at the opening party, so opportunities abound.

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The hotel is gorgeous. The Tongan people are also gorgeous, and as keen to make friends with strangers as I am. I do the first of many Stan scans, before meeting my first Tongan pal, the glamorous Epi.

The opening party is a big event for Tonga and New Zealand. I spot NZ First politician Shane Jones across the room and shake hands with Dr Pohiva Tu'ionetoa, the Tongan Minister of Police, Tourism, Labour and Commerce.

From a respectful distance, I admire their majesties the Crown Princess Sinaitakala and Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala.

Walker was an inspired choice of musical guest; Tonga loves him, New Zealand loves him. Local radio stations have been playing his music non-stop in the build up to his visit.

Take it Easy is topping the charts four years after its release.

"Take it easy" is new Tongan slang. During speeches Stan is offered, somewhat seriously, a Tongan passport.

He doesn't disappoint anyone with his live set. When he sings Aotearoa I feel the mana, and a sense of patriotism I haven't had since The Hobbit. After the gig the pile-up of fans is out of control; I can't find it in me to join them. I consider failure in my selfie mission, then carefully lay some groundwork with Walker's dancers, Ben CJ and Tia Maipi (of Born to Dance fame). I realise Maipi may just be the most beautiful person I've ever seen and I walk away before I risk appearing as creepy as I am.

It's Saturday breakfast by the time I work up the courage to say kia ora to the man himself. I'm one of many well-wishers, but he receives everyone easily and graciously, his breakfast forgotten in front of him.

One of the first things he tells me is that he's a proud island boy; it definitely shows. He's
thrilled he got to perform for royalty and we chat about that bit of surrealism before I have a chance to make things awkward on behalf of that selfie.

Ha'amonga 'a Maui. Photo / Vilimaka Foliaki, Creative Commons License
Ha'amonga 'a Maui. Photo / Vilimaka Foliaki, Creative Commons License

In a surreal moment, Walker invites me along on a tour of the island with his dancers.

You can imagine my answer, as well as how smoothly I delivered it.

Our guide is the loveable Soni Havili.

He tells us about the kingdom of Tonga and the guys banter about Malakai Fekitoa, Tongan reggae artist Swiss and Sunni's little brother, a rising young Blues player.

There are more Tongans outside the kingdom than in. When Tonga played the All Blacks in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Stan saw an awakening. "New Zealand didn't even know how many Tongans there were until they all came out for that match."

Among the marvels we witness is the "coconutty", the only coconut "in the world" with branches. We wave at everyone, because everyone waves at everyone in Tonga. Captain Cook called it the "friendly islands". He was bang on.

At Nuku'alofa's Talamahu market I buy a strand of pink mabe (cultivated) pearls. It's a new venture for this island, and the results are lovely. The woman running the stall hands me complimentary earrings and I hand her TOP$50 (NZ$30), a steal. Later I fail her by turning down a curry stall she recommends. It's hot and I get a icecream instead.

We visit Tonga's Stonehenge, H'amonga 'a Maui (a carrying stick/burden of Maui). The immense arch was constructed at the beginning of the 13th century using rocks that cannot be found in the kingdom; three coral limestone slabs weighing approximately 30 to 40 tonnes. No one knows how they got to Tonga and the centuries have seen them sprout tropical flora. Pigs rustle nearby in the grass. It's rather magical.

The blowholes are an amazing location for some dramatic photography, and (I'm tipping) a 2018 Stan Walker music video.

Havili tells us you can see whales here in the right season and just like that, I've found another reason to return.

I'm starting to realise you could spend any amount of time in the kingdom and not run out of experiences like these. Bear in mind most tourists merely start their Tongan adventures on Tongatapu; there's even more to discover on the other islands.

Our final stop is a beach popular with the locals and as we take in the view from the clifftop, I finally get my picture. Mission accomplished.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop from Auckland to Tonga.

Accommodation: Tanoa International Dateline Hotel.