Abby Gillies soaks up the vibe in a tropical kingdom of idyllic beauty where time has been forgotten.
1: Test your Survivor skills
As it's known by the locals, a "Robinson Crusoe experience" is a part mental, part physical challenge. Those willing are dropped off on an uninhabited island and left with only food, water - and, in the case of fellow traveller Wendy, from the United States, a cellphone. Soon after I arrive in Ha'apai I join a group on a yacht heading out to the island of Luahoko, where the intrepid Wendy has spent the past three days. It's an idyllic spot - green bush surrounded by picture-postcard white sand and bright aqua water. She's in good spirits having spent the time relaxing, thinking, swimming, spotting birdlife - and doing battle with hermit crabs intent on getting to her leftover food. Even stashing it in a tree didn't deter them, she says. And the experience? She loved it all. "It was so beautiful at night. The stars were beautiful."
2: Try the best of the local fare
Sample Ota ika, a popular entree of raw fish marinated in fresh lime and coconut cream, combined with tomatoes, capsicum, green onions, dill and cucumber. My first taste is eaten barefoot, and by candlelight. Divine. Nibble on shavings of toasted fresh coconut and banana chips while watching the sun go down over the water.
For the sweet-lovers there's mango meringue pie - a delicious twist on the traditional lemon - made with love by Mounu Island's chef. To quench your thirst sip on fresh coconut milk, pre-chilled in the fridge and drunk straight from the fruit.
3: Find your favourite fale
In Tongan, this simply means house. In Ha'apai I'm in "the honeymoon suite", owner Jugen tells me with a mischievous wink - a roomy one-bedroom fale with front veranda furnished with deck chairs and only a few paces from the beach. In Mounu Island my fale is one of only four, evenly spaced around the circumference of the island, allowing a maximum of only eight guests. Each is solar-powered, rainwater runs from the taps, and basins of water are placed at the entrance for guests to wash the sand off their feet before going inside. Private decks overlook a secluded stretch of beach. On Fafa Island, fales allow guests to get intimate with nature, with open-air bedrooms and outdoor showers among private tropical gardens.
4: Meet the locals, and the travellers
Keen to show their hospitality, Tongans welcome guests warmly. Our hosts are quick to laugh and are warm and friendly. Family are central to Tongan life and extended families help each other in every way from sharing food to babysitting, my host Sandra tells me. Over a feast complete with whole roasted pig, Nuku'alofa local Lu'isa explains the meaning of the different woven mat skirts worn to show respect for the death of a loved one. The kingdom also seems to attract those who are adventurous and open, making it an ideal place to meet fellow travellers. In small resorts, it's common to eat together in the evenings.
5: Go to church
Sunday is most definitely God's day in Tonga and the mainly Christian kingdom closes down as families dress in their Sunday best and head to worship. A group of fellow travellers and I don our closest thing to Sunday best and join the congregation. We're warmly welcomed by the locals as we take our place among the rows of colour, and women using woven fans to keep themselves cool. Everyone seems to be blessed with perfect pitch, and much of the sermon is filled with the choir's joyous song. Breaking into English briefly, the priest nods to our group: "Thank you for coming. We hope you enjoy our island and our service today."
6: Enjoy the quirks
Check for chickens on airport runways, wild pigs running through villages with their litters trailing behind them, and for dinner pick up some moa, chicken. Stop at street stalls to buy tomatoes - more than you can eat for less than $3. You'll see children run beside the road waving shyly at passing cars and residents sitting outside their houses doing nothing in particular. Early on my second day I'm introduced to an airline system with a difference. When checking in for a domestic flight I'm asked by staff to step on the scale with my carry-on luggage so they can record the combined weight. It's unlikely to take off in New Zealand but here the locals take it in good humour, teasing each other about the number on the scale and about "eating too much taro".
7: Go off season
Out of whale season there's still plenty to do. Snorkel in pristine waters, take advantage of the ideal kite-surfing conditions, go game fishing, hit the markets, laze on beaches in an enviable climate where the temperature rarely rises above 30C or drops below 18C from summer to winter. Get out to the islands and explore the natural beauty. As one host sums it up, Tonga really is the authentic and forgotten Pacific paradise. "The beauty of this place is, Abby, there's no one here."
Turn off the laptop, put down the cellphone, take off your watch and get into the rhythm of island time. Patience is a virtue in Tonga when it comes to the somewhat relaxed attitude to time. But you quickly learn to embrace it and forget about the need to schedule, plan and rush. Settle into the slowed pace and while away the moments lying in hammocks, soaking up the sun and living the tropical dream of every office worker stuck in the daily grind.
Abby flew courtesy of Air New Zealand and was hosted by Tonga's Ministry of Tourism.By Abby Gillies Email Abby