It's not always true that the journey is better than the destination, writes Sarah Daniell
We are trying to get to Serenity, but the universe has other plans.
It's 4.30am, and inside the small concrete bunker that is Tongatapu's domestic airport, we are about to be told of the third change in our flight to the outer islands in less than 12 hours. Operational issues. A fluorescent light flickers. About 30 people - locals and tourists - are hoping to get to Ha'apai - a 40-minute flight from the mainland.
A Real Tonga Airline representative slowly approaches the desk, solemn, as if poised to deliver a profound message from a lectern. Sorry, she says, the plane has been delayed and we should come back around 11am.
We file back outside, climb into the shuttle bus, and head for the hotel. Five hours later, we return to the airport. It's cooler to sit inside and the cafe is open, serving toasted sandwiches or eggs on toast for $5 Tongan pa'anga (about NZ$3.25). 11am goes by. Noon. The hands on the clock above the counter move so slowly it's as though time itself has heat stroke. A tall loud man tells jokes to his children. "Are we there yet?" he bellows, before collapsing in hysterics. He then takes off his shoes and moonwalks across the shiny tiled floor. The children stare at their shoes. I think: There is a very real chance that we will end up on the same isolated island.
Sometimes the distant thrum of an engine is heard and everybody looks skyward. Each time it turns out to be headed somewhere else. I am reading a book called Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. "Roars from the gate", says a critic on the cover. I wish that were true for us.
There are 62 islands in the Kingdom of Tonga. Serenity Eco Retreat is on Uoleva Island in the Ha'apai group, and was once listed by National Geographic as one of the top 10 beach destinations in the world. Lonely Planet described Ha'apai as one of the top 10 best travel destinations in 2014 and implores travellers to "get there before word gets out". Ha'apai is so remote, so seductive that when Patti Ernst sailed here at the age of 56, having left behind her life, including a husband, in upstate New York, she said, this must be the place. She'd tried Alaska and Hawaii. Then she landed here and built the resort - 25 solid, beautiful bures, a restaurant, a yoga studio, all shipped in bits from Bali, to be assembled and set unobtrusively among the forest. Her feat is remarkable, not least because, as we know by now, things don't always happen here according to anything resembling a schedule.
When I first see Patti, she is a small figure, with a punk-ish Patti Smith haircut dyed blonde and and wearing a pink tie-dyed T shirt, standing at the shore. A welcome party of one, waving rigorously. Patti, now in her late 70s, is a total force. Everyone, including her own children and especially her ex-husband, told her she was mad and couldn't do it. She proved them all wrong. You don't argue with a woman who takes up windsurfing at the age of 75. She speaks with beguiling honesty and directness about her life, her journey to the middle of nowhere. Everyone flocks here to swim with the whales between June and October, she says, but there are so many other reasons to come. Yoga, hiking, kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding. You can walk the 6km around the island and not see another soul. There are other resorts on the island, but none has the beauty of Serenity.
But we are not there yet. In the bunker, at around 1.30pm, we are told a miracle is about to occur. Our plane is to arrive and we should check in. All cynicism evaporates and we - everyone, including Superdork Dad - rush, like children in a lolly scramble, towards the desk. We walk out on the tarmac, climb the stairs to the plane and find our seats. My seatbelt buckle doesn't work, and my thighs are sweating, pressed against the torn vinyl. The twin-engine propeller plane comes rumbling to life, we start to taxi towards the runway and soon we are lifting up into the sky. It's exhilarating, partly because I'm not sure what I will hold on to in the unlikely event of an emergency. I read my book. "My father has never willingly put on a seatbelt in his entire life," Patricia Lockwood writes. "He has always found the very idea of 'safety' to be ridiculous. Why would he ever want to be safe? What was he, a little girl?"
I look at the sea below us and think of the waiting island.
Lifuka airport, in Ha'apai, has the most magnificent louvre windows. A whole wall of them. There are ceiling fans and there is a shop, which is not open. I study all of this, because half an hour has passed since we landed and the airport has emptied of tourists, all of whom are on their way, finally, to their resorts. Our driver doesn't appear to have arrived yet, so we sit outside and wait, in a state of high anticipation. Each time a car arrives and we realise it's not for us, we sink back into the shade.
Another hour goes by. My book is really good. Some local guys are fast asleep in the shade. Maybe our driver is also sleeping somewhere. It must be 27C. I haven't smoked in months, but the craving for a rollie is with a cold beer almost makes me faint.
Finally, a car pulls up, an old Mirage, or an actual mirage, and out steps a young man, barely 17, with another teenager. They tumble out of the car and apologise for leaving us stranded. I say: It's okay, no problem. Let's go! I think: Hey, you little s***, where the hell have you been? We get in the car and on the drive from the airport to the wharf, where our boat awaits, the driver points out landmarks of interest. "That is the European cemetery," he says and he and his younger companion crack up. The houses are painted in brilliant colours. The earth is dry and pale yellow. We pull up at the wharf, where our water taxi waits, with our skipper, Loca, deckhands, and another couple of New Zealand tourists. There's a bunch of kids doing bombs off the wharf, fully clothed. Modesty is close to godliness here.
Lockwood: "I submit that every man of God has two religions: one that belongs to heaven and one that belongs to the world. My father's second religion is Nudity, or Underwear, to be precise."
It's often said the journey is better than the destination. Bullshit. The arrival at Serenity is infinitely superior to the getting here. I feel like jumping overboard and swimming to the shore. I have never seen anything quite like the colour of the water. It's pale blue, then layers to shimmering gold where the sand is, metres below. We grab our duty free gin, and head through the jungle path to the east side of the island where the staff pack a couple of glasses with ice and give us bottles of cold tonic and we sit down on the sand. Lockwood: "How many shots are in those, I ask Jason. He calculates. About five apiece, he says. "Isn't that a couple of too many? "Oh no. It's the classic recipe, he insists. This is what Julia Child drank."
A week later, we drag ourselves back to Tongatapu, to prepare for the brutal relaunch back into the atmosphere of our real lives. We arrange for a taxi driver, Eddie, to pick us up from the hotel and take us to the International Airport. He drives a red car. This is significant for reasons you will discover in about three sentences. We pack our stuff at the hotel, gather ourselves and the little red car arrives. I run out, yell hi Eddie! He's on the phone which is covering his face but the boot is open, so I just start loading in luggage. I turn to grab another bag, and he takes off, with the hatch door still open, flying out on to the street. It's pissing with rain and I'm running after the car and yelling, but maybe he can't hear me or maybe he means to escape. Turns out he means to escape. The hotel manager offers to call the police. I say: It's okay, we have to get to the airport or we'll miss our check-in. I think: We don't have time for this s**t! This is crazy.
So we head to the airport, our heads spinning. A police woman urgently takes notes, then starts to cry and hugs us. It seems the guy who took our stuff was an opportunist in a little red car, similar but not the same, as Eddie's. Because Eddie is standing in front of us, wondering why we didn't wait for him at the hotel.
I say: We have our passports, it could be worse. I think: This just the worst.
So we head to the bar and order a gin and tonic in circumstances that bear no resemblance in any way at all to the first gin at Serenity, seven days earlier. Clothes, prescription sunglasses, spectacles, contact lenses, souvenir fridge magnets, my book, shoes. I say: It's just things. Who cares! I think: F***ing hell - my glasses!
An hour goes by. The call comes to board and then there is another call. To us. Would we please come to the luggage surveillance area. And the police are there, holding our bags. The red car was found abandoned, on the side of the road, and the bags left, nothing taken except a diaphanous hot pink dress and a black silk skirt.
We are so sorry, they say. This has never happened before. I say: It's okay. Me neither. No problem. Can we keep in touch? I think: I love you. We will never see each other again.
"As we set off on the road that stretches home," writes Patricia Lockwood, "my petition is forgotten, my *Please give me something.* Radiance still sits in my skin, warm colour still pulses in me and I understand that what I have is enough."