Tonga is a kingdom blessed with many warm-hearted people, finds Paul Rush.
"Getting to paradise isn't easy," says Lucy, our Ene'io Botanical Gardens guide, as we step off a vintage bus at the end of a long, winding road on the east side of the island of Vava'u.
"I'm sorry about the state of the road; the Government said they will fix it. I hope they get around to it during this century."
Lucy is a genial woman with a regal bearing. She is wearing a green patterned dress that blends in nicely with the lush tropical foliage that surrounds the assembled throng of nature lovers on a shore excursion from a cruise liner.
The large numbers on our tour reflect the growing interest in Tonga; the oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy.
Within the abundant gardens is a candlenut tree, of high oil content. The nuts are cracked open to serve as lamps in the villages and are also ground down into a paste to make shampoo. We learn that the aromatic vanilla pod is an orchid, which Tongans put in Absolut vodka to make vanilla essence, an important export crop.
The all-important staple foods - breadfruit, coconut and noni juice - are passed around for our group to sample.
A woman is weaving a basket with pandanus leaves. The leaves are carefully coiled up for drying then separated into narrow strips and woven into mats.
Lucy demonstrates how the women make tapa cloth. They strip the inner bark off the paper mulberry tree, roll it into bundles and immerse it in seawater to soften it. The cloth is then beaten with a wooden mallet and the pieces joined with an arrowroot adhesive.
Finally, it's beautifully decorated using stencils and dyes. Tapa cloth gifts are presented at births, deaths and marriages and are treasured possessions. Tongan women send their handiwork to relatives in New Zealand as gifts.
A young woman introduces us to the delights of kava, the great social and ceremonial beverage of Polynesia. She demonstrates how the pepper tree roots are pounded into powder, then mixed with water and strained through a fine mesh.
The traditional Tongan way of courting is for a young man to bring kava to a single girl's house and sit next to her while the family sing songs. Lucy points out that modern courting is more likely to be done in a bar while imbibing strong alcoholic drinks.
Our group is led down the road to picturesque Ene'io Bay where an ebbing tide reveals colourful coral heads and a shimmering white line of surf where an angry Pacific Ocean meets the fringing reef.
We sit back to watch a bright and breezy concert performance while tasting some of the island's delicious tropical fruits.
The lead dancer is a slim teenage girl whose body is richly anointed with coconut oil so that her skin glistens in the sunlight. Her hand movements are very graceful and evocative, while the boy dancers go ballistic with rapid-fire thigh-slapping and knee-knocking, grinning broadly.
The performance ends with a moving rendition of Now is the Hour and a graceful farewell from 7-year-old Una who says 'Thank you for your coming' and 6-year-old Atene who bids us, "Go safely - our love will be with you."
I greet the young entertainers and offer a heartfelt "Malo Alu a" - thank you and goodbye. This sublime island of tropical delights is somewhere I'd love to come back to.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Tonga from Auckland up to six times per week. A range of inflight product choices are available including; Seat, Seat + Bag, The Works, Works Deluxe and Business class (where available). Tonga has regular flights from Nukualofa to Vava'u.
Paul Rush travelled to Tonga with assistance from P&O Cruises.