When most tourists visit Tonga, they blow through Tongatapu and make their way to Tonga’s picturesque outer islands. The capital, Nuku’alofa, itself is quiet to the point where in some parts, pigs and dogs outnumber people by a decent margin.
My friend, Hannah, and I opted to spend our entire stay in Nuku’alofa to save money so that we could spend it on swimming with humpback whales. Since we’d only be joining the whales in the water for three days, that gave us plenty of time to explore Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island with our own set of wheels.
Nuku’alofa itself is a simple, small town with a handful of restaurants and shops running along its main road. Perpendicular to the road is a stretch of seawall that runs along the harbor. Despite having over five hotels in the town and a small but steady stream of tourists coming through, locals often stop, point, and yell “palagi!” at any tourists walking by — the word applies no matter the color of your skin. If you’re foreign, they’ll let you know that they know.
If you do spend some time on Tongatapu as a bewildered palagi, these are the top things to see.
The three-headed coconut
This tree has not one, but three coconut palm heads. It’s an unverified fact that the three-headed coconut in Tonga is the only one in the entire region. Tongans love this tree so much, it has its own dedicated sign.
A natural bridge that’s stunning to see and explore. Before you reach the bridge, you’ll find a small trail down to a small beach that’s perfect for a quick cool down on a hot day. Or, simply follow one of the major trails to a lookout point. The best bet is to wander around from vantage point to vantage point — it’s all beautiful.
Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon
An old monument with mysterious origins. Nobody knows exactly when it was built or why, though there are many theories. Some say Chinese explorers built it while others cite the 11th Tu’i Tonga Empire. Some say it is for navigation while others believe it’s for weather prediction. The structure weighs 40 tons and is impressive considering what it is. You might hear Tongans call it their version of Stonehenge, though that’s a bit of a stretch.
‘Anahulu Cave is a cave system made of limestone with stalactites and stalagmites showing the cave’s old age. Bring your bathing suit — ‘Anahulu Cave also happens to be the only place you’ll find freshwater pools in Tonga.
Mapu’a ‘a Vaea Blow Holes
The blow holes are more impressive than most (if you’re weary about how exciting they might be). Explosive sprays of mist and salt happen best at mid tide, high wind, and a large swell. The whole stretch spans three miles long.
All throughout Tonga, you’ll cemeteries marked by high piles of sand with flowers, corals, bottles, and tapestries to decorate them. Many are marked with a large quilt at the base of the grave, rather than a tombstone.
The best way to explore Tongatapu is to drive wherever you feel and get out at any point that looks interesting. Since the island is so small, you can easily find your way back to your hotel or at least to a main road.