A tranquil lodge on a beach with spectacular sunsets makes for the perfect island getaway, writes Sue Baxalle.
Thursday, 5.50pm. The scene was set, the spectators seated and the main character already well into its daily role, tonight unhindered by clouds.
Sunset, as seen from Heilala Holiday Lodge, nestled between Ha'atafu and Kanokupolu beaches, promised to be glorious. It's obvious why they call it Tonga's "sunset coast".
Yet just before the flaming orb completed its journey over the horizon, the performance was interrupted by a call from the audience: "Whales!"
Tonga is renowned for its whale-watching but, being late June, it was a tad early for the season to be in full swing and we had resigned ourselves to missing out on a sighting during our stay. This Thursday evening, however - our last in the kingdom - glimpsing a small pod of humpbacks, though fleeting and fairly far off, was the icing on the cake for our holiday.
Heilala - its name comes from the Tongan national flower - is near the westernmost tip of the main island, Tongatapu, and has been run by German expat Sven Quick, his Tongan wife Kalolina and his mother for the past 23 years, although just the past six in the current location.
Kalolina told us us the site in Kanokupolu village was wild when they began the work in January, 2010 to move their lodge to the new site.
There had been no direct access from the main road and they had to seek permission from the king - who owns all the land in Tonga - for that and to fell the coconut palms and other trees necessary for access to the beach.
Within six months the mammoth task was complete and they had relocated the main reception and restaurant building from the previous site, along with three fales.
There is now a mini-village of 10 traditional-style fales and a block of "standard accommodation" units with communal bathrooms and kitchen attached.
Two sorts of fale are available, the "Tongan" - a comfortably large room with king-size bed, table and chairs, hanging shelves, a hammock for use on the balcony, and an en suite bathroom.
The "superior" fale, we later discovered, was basically the same except with an extra single bed, a fridge and tea/coffee making facilities.
As new arrivals to the lodge, we received colourful locally made flower necklaces - just one lovely touch we would soon discover was a theme throughout our stay - but as it was well past sunset, a good look at the "village" that would be our home for the next few days had to wait.
The setting turned out to be almost a botanic garden, with signs instructively identifying many of the plants and trees - ironwood, pineapple, betel and pandanus, to name a few - and well-kept paths leading to the public beach.
Breakfast, in the main building, was a perfect start to the day - a plate of tropical fruits, bread (toasters were available on the cabinet next to the tea and coffee), butter and a little clam shell containing delicious pawpaw and vanilla jam.
Although there are a few other resorts in the area offering restaurant facilities, we decided to stay at Heilala for all our meals - which you order early in the day. Lunch was a choice of chicken, fish or vegetarian wraps or salads. Both the chicken and fish wraps were excellent.
The dinner menu changed daily - we enjoyed a "Tongan platter" of fresh local produce, including spinach in a coconut cream sauce served in a little banana leaf pouch, a whole parrotfish; and an "island-style" curry with mahimahi (snapper, swordfish, tuna, pork, lamb or chicken were other options) and rice.
We'd known little about Tonga before heading off to this South Pacific kingdom only a 2h 50min flight away, let alone that it shared historic names important to New Zealand.
On the tourist map we picked up on arrival, the names Abel Tasman Landing Site and James Cook Landing Site jumped out - albeit at almost opposite ends of Tongatapu.
A roughly 2.5km leisurely walk from Heilala is like a voyage into history. At the end of the main road a path leads to the monument commemorating Tasman's landing in January 1643 - he and his shipmates were the first Europeans to visit Tonga.
And on the way, is the Christianity Landing Site - a monument erected to mark the arrival of missionaries John Thomas and John Hutchinson in 1826.
Back at Heilala, the beach is perfect for swimming, kayaking or snorkelling with the aquarium of tropical fish waiting right off the beach in the calm waters protected by a ridge of reef 200m-300m out - and that's where the fun begins for the surfers. Heilala is popular with Kiwis and Australians who either bring their own boards or hire them from Sven.
We preferred to stick to the search for Nemo and friends and to lounge on the white sand. Even walking to the neighbouring resort seems too much of an effort in holiday mode.
Ofa atu, Heilala. Cheers.
If getting away from it all in Heilala sounds perfect, imagine doing it all year round. Due to family tragedy, Sven Quick has had to put his lodge up for sale. For details, contact email@example.com.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Tonga from Auckland, with six return flights weekly.
Accommodation: Heilala Holiday Lodge offers two types of fale.
Further information: See tongaholiday.com.