Big Mama’s Beach Bar has a sandy floor, feral cats, and coconut shells inscribed with signatures of visitors past and present. From the wooden deck you can see yachts and sailboats anchored in the lagoon, along with the partially submerged shipwrecks memorializing a few hurricanes that visited the Kingdom of Tonga over the years. Big Mama’s sits on Pantai-motu—a little islet full of mangroves and tide pools that you can completely circumambulate in about 20 minutes. The only other structure on this motu is Big Mama’s house. To get here our small group kayaked some choppy surf over coral reefs, but Big Mama herself greets us with grilled fresh fish and even fresher tropical fruits and fresh coconut water.
The water feels chilly from a recent rain shower. It is the end of winter and we have missed whale-watching season, when tourists can actually swim the whales that migrate through Tonga from June to October.
Nukuʻalofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, lies on the north coast of the island of Tongatapu, in the southernmost island group of Tonga. Nuku’alofa, “Abode of Love” has the sleepiness of an island harbor-side town, with the buzz and activity of a commercial center. The town center has hardware stores, the Reload bar boasting to be the best [and probably only] bar in Tonga, a royal palace, and a market. Compared to other South Pacific islands, the produce lacks in quality, quantity, and reasonable prices. Still, this place has bragging rights as the only Kingdom in Polynesia.
In addition to the amazing fragrance of gardenia that seems to hover in the air, the endless sound of drums seems to match the intense heat of the sun.
One unique aspect of Tongan culture involves the artistic mat weaving. These mats, treasured possessions in Tongan households, are traditionally presented at births, weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Some Tongans wear these mats like an apron, known as the ‘ta’ovala’, as a respectful form of dress in the Kingdom. Apparently, this custom originated in ancient times when men returning from long sea voyages at sea would cut the mast sails of their canoes and cover their naked bodies prior to appearing before their chief.
The “fabric” of these mats is made from the bark of the mulberry tree, known locally as hiapo. The bark must be beaten to soften and lengthen it into a fabric for weaving. Some of the ta’ovala’ are also made from woven coconut fiber, shells, and ribbon.
The genuine happiness and friendliness of the Tongans is contagious. There is a generosity of spirit and hospitality in their smiles and conversation that felt as warm as the sun. Tonga certainly lived up to its reputation as the “Friendly Islands.”
Neiafu, Vava'u, Tonga Islands
The island of Vava’u in Tonga reminded me of some popular sailor havens in the Caribbean. Tucked into a snug deep-water harbor, the Port of Refuge, Neiafu’s steep roads lead up to scenic vista points adorned with colorful flowers and warm, gentle breezes. As the ship entered the harbor it passed several uninhabited islands. (Only 21 of the 34 islands in the Vava’u group of Tongan islands are inhabited).
The little town of Neiafu has bars, restaurants, a church [of course], and little b &bs all within walking distance. As you head up toward Mount Talau, you are treated to a crystal-clear view of the harbor. School children in their colorful uniforms sneak cigarettes and hold hands as they sit by the water. In the harbor you can see the anchored sailboats and the buoys anchoring the pearl farms.