Brass notes hit us before the heat, rushing loudly through the opened airplane door.
“Who called out the band?” I asked my boyfriend. Polished tubas and trumpet bells glinted under the airport floodlights. Above the instruments, locals cheered and waved frantically from a second-story deck.
Smiling graciously, I felt like a celebrity, not a tourist.
The authenticity of this gesture was distinctly Tongan. It didn’t matter that, three weeks later, we discovered the ceremony was not a personal welcome; instead, the crowd had gathered to receive King Topou VI, who had flown first class on our flight from New Zealand.
Here, hospitality is extreme. Big meals and good music are genuine acts of appreciation. Rugby matches and church services are community celebrations. Though the airport’s Tourist Information kiosk is empty and the capital of Nuku’alofa feels like a ghost town, a guidebook is unnecessary in this under-developed nation. In Tonga, it is the simplest opportunities that bring the greatest pleasure.
To become a part of this South Pacific kingdom, these are the moments you must experience:
1. Spot a green streak at sunset.
Strung along the International Dateline, Tonga claims to be the first country to witness each new sunrise. While waking up at dawn gives you a rare feeling of survival, watching a sunset is equally special. You are the first person to say goodbye to the moment, staring fixedly across the ocean’s flat horizon. With the national beer, Mata Maka, in one hand and a camera in the other, watch carefully for that illusive green streak, the stuff of sailors’ tales, as the sun disappears over the Pacific.
2. Swim with humpback whales.
The Dominican Republic is the only other country that allows and encourages visitors to enter the water with these giant sea creatures. From July to October, they migrate through Tonga’s rich coastal waters to give birth and raise their young. Most professional operations are run by expats and can cost a bit of pa’anga, the national currency. A cheaper alternative is simply to barter a trip with one of the local fisherman. Tongans tend to know the ocean like a brother, and many seem wary of the international outfits that are luring tourists to their shores. Do your research before you hop into the waves; and remember, sightings are just as common from shore. As one shopkeeper explained, “If you can see the ocean, you can see the whales.”
3. Befriend a spider.
It’s impossible to imagine that these bulbous, bright yellow arachnids are harmless. Waiting ominously in webs strung between electricity wires and low tree branches, their opulent bodies and nimble legs seem to imply something dark and dastardly. But they are, locals assured us, non-venomous. And if one should deign to creep down upon your shoulder? Well, that’s just plain good luck.
4. Drink the coffee.
What began as a 1900s government demand for all landholders to grow coffee plants is now a privatized industry with some of the smallest – but most flavorful – bean harvests in the world. Just as good in a French press or an espresso shot, the distinctive taste is said to come from the nearby salt water of the Pacific Ocean. This coffee is so good, rumor has it that when the King visits other foreign dignitaries, the only gift he shares is a bag of roasted beans.
5. Listen to a church choir.
No hymn books, no instruments, no visible choir director; only one softly played pitch, and the sudden eruption of an entire congregation into eight-part heavenly accord. Decades of Christian missionary influence have created a strongly religious population. Many families attend two or three mass services on Sundays, and refrain from drinking or swimming. If you express an interest in the music, most will be pleased to seat you in a front row pew for a church choir performance.
6. Go snorkeling.
Perhaps a safer alternative to swimming with whales, snorkeling off any of Tonga’s islands is like diving into The Little Mermaid. The country has yet to devastate a majority of its vibrant coral reefs with dynamite fishing or water pollution. So, while environmental experts wonder how increased development will affect its natural underwater kingdoms, there are still pristine coral gardens to explore.
Ticked off all these opportunities on your To-Do Tonga list? Check out even more Must-Experience Moments in Part 2. View all of my posts on We Said Go Travel here.