Sue Baxalle discovers Mystic Sands, mysterious stones and snorkelling pigs.

If tranquillity is what you're after in a holiday, Vava'u is the place to go. Apart from the crowing of roosters, the squabbling of flying foxes and the ringing of bells from nearby churches (starting at 4.30am on Sundays and then quarter-hourly), you can be assured of a laid-back holiday.

A one-hour flight from Tonga's main Fuamotu airport, Vava'u is the main isle of the group of islands about 240km north of Tongatapu.

We'd arrived on a Saturday to stay at Mystic Sands in Utungake Village, a short drive from the main town of Neiafu.

Owned by Norwegian Kjell Stave and run on a daily basis by the lovely Mosi, Mystic Sands has a combination of smaller units, a second floor apartment and a larger "beachfront house", which sleeps seven.


The beachfront is lined with sun loungers and a jetty at the front of the property takes you right into the sheltered bay and off to snorkel or kayak to your heart's content. We took one of the kayaks out to a small island - not so far offshore as to be an expedition, but an easy 15-or-so-minute paddle.

Mystic Sand's units are self-catering and taxi driver Maka (Mosi's husband) will take guests to the market for supplies, however we went for the option of having our meals prepared by Mosi and they were fresh and plentiful. For lunch on the Sunday (Mosi's day off - after she brings breakfast), we went along to the neighbouring Beachfront Resort, a short walk away, which boasts a restaurant and bar.

Everything in Tonga shuts down on Sundays, apart from the larger resorts catering to tourists. However, churches of all denominations are packed and singing resounds all around.

While we were free to swim or explore the area that morning, we decided that when in Tonga, we should do what the Tongans do. Utungake, while a small village, has two churches, and it was almost as if their faithful were having a battle of hymns - who could sing the loudest - the harmonious voices resounding through the village.

We went along to Mosi and Maka's church, intending to surreptitiously slip in the back of the hall. However, we were immediately ushered up to special pews at the front of the church reserved for honoured visitors.

Sue Baxalle at Ha'amonga-A-Maui (Burden of Maui), in Tonga. Photo / Sue Baxalle
Sue Baxalle at Ha'amonga-A-Maui (Burden of Maui), in Tonga. Photo / Sue Baxalle

The locals are proud of their religion and very happy to share with guests at the resorts.
A 15-minute walk from Mystic Sands leads to the Heilala Vanilla plantation, begun in 2002 as part of an aid project for the island by Kiwi John Ross and the Latu family.

Sofaia Latu showed us around the plantation and explained the process of preparing the beans for vacuum-packing and sending to the company's headquarters in Te Puna, near Tauranga.

Just as John Ross fell in love with Vava'u while on a sailing trip, so did Kjell Stave, Mystic's owner.

He tells us he arrived in 2006, on a yacht. Becoming involved in the business, in conjunction with partners, he then headed back to Norway to earn more money, before returning in 2009 with his Ecuadorean wife Adriana. He says they love the way of life in Tonga.

The Vava'u group is popular with the sailing fraternity and is a prime location to see humpback whales.

Island-hopping back to Tongatapu, it was time to take a hop around the main island. We had already seen the westernmost tip of the island when staying at Heilala Lodge (no relation to the vanilla plantation - the heilala is Tonga's national flower, so a popular name throughout the country).

But we were interested in seeing the rest of the island's features, and a four-hour tour from Nuku'alofa promised to take in the main sights.

The first stop was the blowholes at Houma. The words on the map hardly prepared us for the spectacular length of coastline where the sea was pounding the rocks with a roar, sending seaspray billowing up through the network of narrow tunnels.

From there we zigzagged across the island to the site of Captain Cook's landing in 1777, where a banyan tree once stood, and which a plaque informs us the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne visited nearly 200 years later, in 1970.

Our driver seemed particularly keen for us to see some "fishing pigs". Pigs are a common sight throughout Tonga, with most households owning them, and they roam freely (even in Nuku'alofa), but the village of Talafo'ou, we later discovered, is renowned as the "Village of the Snorkelling Pigs". Indeed, all along the beach were families of all sizes of pigs having a whale of a time in the low tide, digging for shellfish.

Around to the eastern side of Tongatapu is the Ha'amonga 'a Maui (Burden of Maui), a stone trilithon. Like a Stonehenge of the Pacific, it stands about 5m high, with three long limestone slabs in an arch. No record of how - or why - it was built exists. It was reputedly erected about 1200AD with stones from the neighbouring Wallis Island. There are a range of legends surrounding its origin - from being made by the demigod Maui to a way of determining the seasons.

Curiously, unlike the landing sites of the European explorers Cook and Tasman, there is no plaque to explain the monument.

Our last stop was the network of limestone caves at 'Anahulu, where carved steps lead down to the humid interior of the main cave, dripping with stalactites. Local guides escort visitors - luckily armed with torches; it is very dark. At the base of the cave is a large freshwater pool - rather cold from the reports of a hardy couple we met who had just braved it.

Of course, a visit to Tonga is not complete without some time in Nuku'alofa - the highlight there being Talamahu Market, with its huge expanse of stalls bearing all the fruit and vegetables imaginable, along with clothing and other household items. There was a noticeable lack of cheap tourist souvenirs as would be the case in other countries - this trend appears not to yet have hit Tonga.


Getting there

Air New Zealand

flies direct from Auckland to Nuku'alofa, with one-way Economy Class fares starting from $221.