Brianna Randall gets a taste for the adventurous life on Tonga

As I stepped off the little boat, I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer. Mostly because my family would be staying in a treehouse. But also because the island looked like something out of a storybook.

The jungle-covered knoll crested gently out of the sea, a small dot punctuating the lagoon between larger islands. A hammock swung between two coconut trees on a sliver of beach, the white sand stark against the green-blue water. The open-air restaurant blended neatly into the landscape, its artistic curves mimicking nature's swoops and spirals.

I guessed that it would take 20 minutes, tops, to swim around the whole island.


"Welcome to paradise," said Ben Newton, owner of Mandala Island Resort. He nodded toward two black dogs wagging their tails. "Meet the gatekeepers, Higgs and Boson."

We'd only recently been welcomed on to Vava'u. At the tiny airport, we loaded into a taxi with a friendly local woman (and her high-pitched giggle).

She gave us the "grand tour" of Neiafu, the capital of Vava'u, using animated facial expressions more often than words to describe landmarks. (I later learned that Tongans are renowned for their ability to convey meaning through intricate eyebrow movements, and would watch entire conversations take place in silence.)

With 6000 residents, Neiafu is Tonga's second-largest city — although calling its few paved roads and colourful one-story buildings a "city" was a stretch. An outdoor market beckoned near the wharf, coconuts and pineapples heaped on folding tables. Bells tolled from a white church, and a coffee shop promised ice, laundry services and pay-by-the-hour computers. Behind a mint-green wall, the small grocery store sold scoops of vanilla or strawberry ice cream. An ATM on the corner shelled out pa'angas, at a rate of about NZ65c for one. Stucco arches framed the patio of an Italian restaurant, one of only a handful in town, our driver said, "since most tourists eat at the resorts on the outer islands".

The open-air beachside restaurant at the resort blends into the natural environment. Photo / Rob Roberts
The open-air beachside restaurant at the resort blends into the natural environment. Photo / Rob Roberts

The kingdom's 169 islands are home to 108,000 people — its sparse population and minimal tourist traffic make it a gem for those seeking up-close contact with underwater wonders and immersion in traditional Polynesian culture. We were here for both.

Saying goodbye to our taxi-driver tour guide, we walked down a wooden dock to meet Ben. As we loaded our luggage into his boat, I asked him about the pigs wandering sedately along the road.

"Pigs have right of way in Tonga," Ben said and smiled. The free-range animals were a favourite food and a form of currency, he said. The more pigs you have for guests to eat at your funeral or wedding, the more esteemed your status.

On the 10-minute ride to the resort, Ben pointed out highlights. There were fruit bats as long as my arm and as wide as my torso hanging upside-down from thick tree limbs on Mafana island. The fringing reef, with waves breaking over it in the distance, was where sharks, dolphins and hypercoloured fish frolicked in coral caverns. In the village of Ofu, cows mooed next to fishing nets on the beach.

A sunset walk along Ofu island beach. Photo / Brianna Randall, The Washington Post.
A sunset walk along Ofu island beach. Photo / Brianna Randall, The Washington Post.

Since we had arrived on a Sunday, Ofu was deserted, save for the livestock. In the kingdom of Tonga, religion demands as much respect as royalty does. The country shuts down on Sundays, when it's illegal to swim, play loud music or conduct business. Ben promised to take us to a traditional kava circle in the village the next evening, where the men sang in three-part harmony while drinking cupfuls of a muddy, mildly intoxicating liquid made from the local kava root.

At Mandala, we hopped off the boat and followed Ben along the flower-lined path to our treehouse. The dogs scampered with us up homemade sand flagstones. Our home away from home was breathtaking: Bamboo-trimmed walls curved around a gnarled trunk and the outdoor shower was supported by leafy limbs. I put our bags on a big bed surrounded by gauzy mosquito nets while our son clambered up to claim the window seat, which also served as a daybed. The deck overlooking the ocean was ringed by a banister of driftwood and rope.

As my husband and son geared up for a swim, I opted for a ride on thetree swing, which launched me out over the coral-studded shallows. Then I took to a hammock with a map, to get my bearings.

Vava'u is composed of about 60 islands, most of them small and uninhabited. During much of the summer offseason, Ben and his wife, Lisa, are the only residents on their two-acre island, aside from Higgs, Boson, and their cat, Penzini. But from June through to November, the resort's six seaside treehouses (fales) are booked with visitors.

In 2002, the American couple sold their home and businesses in northern California to sail across the Pacific. Ben and Lisa knew next to nothing about Tonga before dropping anchor in Vava'u in 2004. But as they explored its vibrant waters and found friends among the cheerful locals, they felt that they'd found a new home. They opened a restaurant and other tourism-based businesses in Neiafu, and began dreaming about building their own eco-resort. Mandala Island Resort officially opened in 2013.

During our February visit, we planned to scuba dive through caves, spearfish on the reef and sail around Vava'u's yacht-friendly lagoon. Most visitors avoid the South Pacific during cyclone season, but we didn't mind the warm rain.

Plus, since we were the only ones at the resort, we had our pick of the many toys. Now I'd seen the treehouse, though, I penciled in more time to simply sit on the deck, soaking in Vava'u's vivid hues.

The next morning, I enjoyed a frittata and tropical fruit smoothie in the restaurant while my husband slept in. We planned to ask Ben to shuttle us to Neiafu for a dinner or two at a local restaurant, but it was relaxing to eat most of our meals barefoot, just a few steps from the treehouse.

Resort guests visit the nearby cay, which appears at low tide. Photo / Magenta Hyde.
Resort guests visit the nearby cay, which appears at low tide. Photo / Magenta Hyde.

I took my coffee to the beach, watching herons stalk among the exposed rocks while a school of bait made dark swirls in the clear water. My son clapped in glee when they jumped out in silvery bursts to escape the barracudas and jacks in search of breakfast. I could hardly wait for my chance to get an up-close look at the underwater action.
By 9am, I'd hunted down Ben to ask advice on where to snorkel. Donning a skinsuit as protection from the tropical sun, I listened to Ben explain how to use his "new favourite gadget" — a Sea Scooter that looked like a torpedo-shaped fan with handlebars. You simply hold down a trigger and it propels you along at 8km/h.

"This will turn you into a dolphin," Ben said.

He was right. I spent over an hour in the ocean doing barrel rolls, peeking under coral bommies, swirling in circles through a river of bait fish, and diving down to study moray eels and clown fish.

The following evening we kayaked to a nearby sand cay that appeared only at low tide. It gleamed bright on the wide-open horizon, a white pyramid lapped by small waves. Two baby sharks cruised by to say hello during our picnic dinner.

On the paddle home, as the sunset streaked pink across the sky, I decided that Tonga had Tom Sawyer's island beat, hands down.

— Washington Post