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Tongatapu Cruises

About Tongatapu, Tonga

The highest elevation of Tongatapu, the largest of the 169 Tonga Islands, is 213 feet, setting it apart from many of the often-visited South Pacific islands. Yet its flat, tropical landscapes hold a tranquil beauty all their own. The island is composed of coral limestone and blanketed with fertile soil and ash that landed here after the eruption of nearby volcanoes. Many of its richly diverse mangroves and lagoons are protected by the government.

Tongatapu, the main island of the nation of Tonga, boasts one of the highest concentrations of archaeological sites in the South Pacific, pointing to the Lapita culture of around 1000 BC. It was the Dutchman Abel Tasman who first put the island on the map after he came upon it in 1643. Captain James Cook landed here in the 1770s and left cattle on its shores for breeding. Just 12 years later, William Bligh famously lost control of his ship HMS Bounty near the Cook Islands when his crew staged a mutiny. The nation of Tonga never gave up its sovereignty to another country, but enjoyed British protection between 1900 and 1970. Today, it is an independent state.

Tongatapu Lifestyle and Culture

The people of today’s Tongatapu descend from a 3,000-year-old culture. Yet the island has been influenced both by its Oceania neighbors and by the arrival of Europeans. Kava, a fermented drink made from a local plant, plays a central part in local culture. In the traditional kava ceremony, or faikava, participants play out their gender roles during a courtship ritual. The tau’olunga dance, similar to the Hawaiian hula, also plays a role in bringing couples together, particularly on their wedding day. An entirely different dance, the kailao, emulates the fighting of warriors with skillful, disciplined moves. Song and dance in Tonga also typically accompany the traditional umu feast of suckling pig cooked in a covered fire-roasting pit.

On Tongatapu, the crafts of islanders have long expressed the people’s close relationship with nature. Wood carving, mat weaving, tapa cloth painting, canoe building and traditional architecture of wood and rope have been elevated to their own intricate art forms.

Tongatapu Sights and Landmarks

As Tonga’s cultural and political capital, the port city of Nuku’alofa on the island of Tongatapu hosts many landmarks of the nation’s heritage. The traditional Royal Palace is a Victorian-style gem surrounded by wide lawns and casuarina trees. Nearby, the private residences of the king and the princess are a sight to behold. Mala’ekula, the Royal Tombs opposite the grand basilica, have interred monarchs since 1893. To view the nation’s richest collection of archaeological treasures, head to Mu’a, the islands’ former capital. More than two dozen stone tombs, or langi, were constructed here using huge limestone slabs. Then visit the Stonehenge-like Ha’amonga ‘a Maui trilithon, a mysterious trio of 40-ton stones arranged into a gate.

The island is also home to several natural landmarks. Along the coast, the Hufangalupe Archway hangs like a canopy over the sea. The Mapu’a ‘a Vaea Blowholes, hundreds of them over a three-mile stretch, spurt ocean waters skyward when the surf is especially strong. Another geological wonder, the ‘Anahulu Cave, reveals a magnificent chamber of stalactites and stalagmites.

Tongatapu Entertainment and Activities

For a glimpse of local culture, visit the Tongan National Cultural Center. Here, traditional buildings host exhibits that chronicle the Kingdom of Tonga’s rich history and artisans carve and weave island handicrafts. If you wish to tee up on Tongatapu, head to the 9-hole Royal Tongan Golf Club, the nation’s only golf course. And you’ll find endless entertainment watching the fishing boats bob on the bay and striking up a conversation over a drink at Ngutulei Bar & Restaurant, a local favorite.

Tongatapu is also home to many churches worth exploring. St. Mary’s Cathedral boasts a picturesque rose garden, lovely stained glass and a vaulted ceiling. The island’s beloved Centenary Chapel, a towering white treasure, is where the royal family goes for Sunday services. And perhaps the nation’s most distinctive and commanding structure is the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua. Its stunning interior is adorned with stained glass, wood beams and handmade furnishings.

Tongatapu Restaurants and Shopping

Root vegetables, bananas, coconuts, breadfruit and fish were long the staples of the Tongan diet. These local ingredients still play a part in local cuisine, which has evolved to incorporate more Western and Asian ingredients.

The Cottage Breeze Restaurant has earned a fine reputation for its grilled seafood, friendly service and sea views. At the Waterfront Café, enjoy a colorful South Seas atmosphere as you dine on Italian pastas and other international favorites. The top Chinese restaurant is Emerald, inside the namesake hotel.

Nuku’alofa also offers many opportunities to absorb the colors and culture of Tonga as you shop. The Talamahu Market offers all manner of farm produce such as yams, kumara and taro, and some of the finest local handicrafts. At the Langafonua Handicrafts Center, admire intricate Tongan jewelry, carvings and weavings while supporting a nonprofit artists’ co-op.