No matter where your adventure takes you in Tonga, it will always start here in Tongatapu. If you are flying international, you will be flying into Tongatapu’s Fuaʻamotu airport. Becks and I have put our heads together and come up with all the information we wanted to know about how to travel Tongatapu on a budget so you don’t have to go digging around like we did. We’ve included information on camping, activities, how to get around, where to stay, where to eat, domestic flights as well as recent information on the government ferry.
Tongatapu is the name of the island and Nuku’alofa, it’s biggest town, is the capital city of Tonga. Nuku’alofa itself is tiny but it’s a vibrant dusty little town that we really enjoyed getting to know. It’s your chance to eat local, visit markets, see the culture and check out some of the history.
Note: If you would like to know more about the country for those independent travellers, we’ve written a whole blog post on it: How to Tonga on a budget
Planning your Trip to Tongatapu
I have no idea what you are planning for a holiday or how long you will visit for but here are our tips.
If you don’t have much time, do not waste any of it here in Tongatapu. Have your domestic flight booked (or ferry) the next day and get out to one of the other island groups. Don’t get me wrong it’s not a bad place (I’ll get into that further down) but there is so much more beauty elsewhere.
If you have time and money, a few days in Tongatapu is splendid before you catch a flight/ferry out to one of the other island groups.
If you have time and DO NOT have money (or like us want to spend all of your cash on swimming with the whales), your priorities need to be on the inter-island government ferry. Tickets are less than a third of the price of a domestic airfare but only go once a week (I’ll talk more about the ferry further down). If like us, you find yourself in Tongatapu for a while, we found plenty of cool things to do and see and white sandy beaches to swim at that will keep you occupied.
What to do in Tongatapu on a budget
Most places offer a one day island excursion, a whirlwind tour of all of Tongatapu’s highlights, from around $50TOP p/p. The more adventurous (and cheaper) option is to check out these areas yourself via the local buses, especially if you have a few days and want time to soak it all in.
Be sure to check out:
Blow holes (super impressive) – From Nuku’alofa catch the “Houma” bus to Houma village ($1.50TOP) and walk towards the sea for 500m. You can hear the waves roaring from the roadside.
Oholei Beach– From Nuku’alofa catch the “Ha’asini” bus to Lavengatonga ($2-2.50TOP) and walk towards the water following the sign to Oholei Beach Resort. The resort has a bar (but don’t expect it to be open) and a stunning sandy beach.
Ha’atafu Beach– From Nuku’alofa catch the “Hihifo” bus to Ha’atafu ($2TOP) and, as always, walk towards to ocean. This white sand beach is perfect for swimming, snorkelling and whale watching in season.
Hufangalupe Lookout– No buses reach this area so either be prepared for a long walk (2hours), cycle or hire a taxi.
Ha’amonga Trilithon– Tonga’s stonehenge. It’s pretty small and a little underwhelming but this coral doorway is a part of Tongan history. From Nuku’alofa catch the “Niutoua” bus to ‘Afa ($2.90TOP) and ask the bus driver to stop at the Trilithon.
Anahulu Cave– An underground fresh water swimming hole, who can resist. The local family charge $10TOP p/p for the lighting they provide inside the cave. From Nuku’alofa catch the “Ha’asini” bus to Lavengatonga ($2-2.50TOP) and walk 30 minutes north looking for a sign pointing to the waters edge. Soe bus drivers may even take you the whole way if you pay a little extra!
Pangaimoto Island– A sandy shored island perfect for day tripping. We met the owner at the ferry terminal and he seemed a bit of a jerk so we didn’t end up paying the $45TOP p/p return ferry ticket but we’ve heard there’s great snorkelling.
Whale swimming (between late July-October): Whale Swim Tours operate out of Tongatapu and charge $325NZD per person for a day trip.
How to get around Tongatapu on a budget
There are four ways to get around Tongatapu on a budget.
Local bus – The furthest bus link on the island will cost no more than $2.90 TOP. The main bus station is on the water front in Nuku’alofa. Bus routes are distinguished by a sign on the front of the bus indicating the furthest point of the journey or the road that the bus travels along. Locals and bus drivers are friendly and are happy to help. To get off ring the bell or just yell out.
Taxi – Taxi’s are reasonably priced compared to western prices however if you are heading to the other side of the island a $30-40TOP cab ride is not out of the question. All guesthouses have taxi numbers for you to call and if you find a cheap one, hold onto them.
Car Hire – There are plenty of car hire places in Nuku’alofa advertising rates for $50TOP per day. You will need a Tongan licence (pick up one at the transport office easily) to drive but it means you can explore the island on your own.
Hitch Hiking – It is acceptable to hitch hike in Tonga, locals are super friendly and more than happy to offer a ride. It’s quite hard right in the centre of town to get a lift but once you get out to the small villages the only problem is how many cars will actually pass by.
Where to stay in Tongatapu on a budget
Sela’s Guesthouse became a base for us. Not only is it a clean place with ,a self contained kitchen but it’s locally run by a beautiful family. It’s a 15 minute stroll to Nuku’alofa town centre and 40mins stroll to the ferry terminal. Doubles without bathroom are $60TOP. Doubles with bathroom are $80TOP. Dorm beds are also available.
Lose Lodge is closer to Nuku’alofa town. Again it is clean, has a self contained kitchen and locally run by a beautiful family. Dorm beds are $40TOP and Doubles without bathroom are $80TOP
Backpackers Townhouse is only a few minutes walk to town and is a popular choice for budget conscious travellers. Dorms start at $25TOP a night and doubles $80TOP a night.
Blue Banana is out of the way and has a minimum stay of 3 nights but it is situated upon the beautiful white sandy beach of Ha’atafu. It’s self contained cabins costs $110NZ a night. We had a wonder through because we saw it online and it’s super cute with a whale watching platform and instant beach access.
Toni’s Guest House is well known on all the blogs. It’s $30TOP for a dorm bed or $60TOP for a double. He is a little grumpy but isn’t always around which is good. The guest-house is a 1 hour walk from Nuku’alofa town centre but offers a shuttle for $2TOP per person.
Camping in Tongatapu
The rules of camping in Tongatapu are simple: Always ask and never just assume, be courteous, take your rubbish away with you and stay out of the way. We didn’t have any problems, everyone seemed excited that we were camping.
Note: As two girls we were warned not to camp on a Friday or Saturday night because Tongan’s love a drink over the weekend and are known to cause a bit of mischief when they do. Drinking haunts tend to be by the water waterfront where many boys gather, drink and play fight.
Our favourite places to camp in Tongatapu are beside the blow holes and Anahulu Cave, especially for photographers and people who love atmospheric sunrises/sunsets.
Cheap eats in Tongatapu
Sabrina’s Chicken Villovilloin Nuku’alofa town centre costs around $7TOP for a meal. This eatery is hugely popular amongst the locals and packs out for lunch. For vegetarians this place is a no go but for those wanting to try all the local Tongan fare this place is perfect.
Tiger Inn in Nuku’alofa town centre costs around $5-$7TOP for a meal. A Chinese restaurant which will whip up your classic Chinese favourites. Being vegetarian this place was awesome for us because we could find big vegetable omelettes and rice, eggplant dishes, tofu dishes and vegetable noodle dishes. Of course there is meat options available.
TOP PICK! Sam’s Curry Corner in Nuku’alofa town centre costs around $5-$7TOP for a meal. Fijian curry is incredible and Sam’s Curry corner brings the best of Fiji to Tongatapu and it quickly because our daily necessity. Fresh vegetable curry with rote is $5TOP and curry with meat is $7. Don’t miss this place.
Ferry from Tongatapu to Vava’u or Ha’apai (info updated as of August 2016)
The government ferry headed to the northern island groups is the budget option for independent travellers. Tickets to Vava’u via the ferry are $100TOP and the to Haapai is $60TOP.
The ferry route is Tongatapu—> Haapai —> Vava’u —> Haapai —>Tongatapu.
Ferry will leave Tongatapu once a week.
Hours to Ha’apai: 12hours
Hours to Vavau: 24hours
There is a ferry schedule and from people who live in Tonga, I hear it was quite reliable. It went the same day every week and everyone was happy, however a few months ago the usual government ferry required a new propeller and is awaiting its delivery. There is no estimated time limit for when this ‘reliable’ ferry is up and running again. In the mean time there is another big boat, a super old Japanese one which had engine troubles whilst we were on it and eventually turned around and gave up a few hours into our crossing to Ha’apai. Today this ferry is also officially out of service due to it’s continuing engine failure.
Now-a-days the Tongan government are using the small Eua ferry to make crossings to Ha’apai and Vava’u but there is no set schedule and the space is limited. To access a departure date and a ticket you must make frequent trips to the Friendly Island Shipping Agency (FISA) port in Tongatapu (and we wish you the best of luck).
Ferry from Tongatapu to Eua
The Eua ferry is a separate route and leaves from the Queen Salote wharf which is slightly closer to Nuku’alofa town centre than FISA wharf. It leaves daily at 12:30pm takes 2.5-3 hours and costs $25TOP per person. The ferry doesn’t sallow you to pre-book so we recommend arriving an hour earlier to secure a spot.
The two Eua ferry operators are:
IKALE (the red and white ferry) ph: (00676) 23855
ALAIMOANA (the blue and white ferry) (00676) 21326
There is a law in Tonga which prevents work on Sundays. This means there will be no shops open, no markets, no taxi’s, no buses, no flights coming or going, no sport…. absolutely nothing happens except church and feasting on Sundays so stock up on food the day before!
Prue Sinclair is a twenty-six year old Aussie who for the past five years has been exploring the furthermost reaches of Asia. Living anywhere but her homeland, she now resides somewhere in the Americas where she writes about her adventures. Her travel ideals are simple: Plans are not made, visa are not obtained and routes are not sketched out, but wherever she ends up you can be sure she’ll be writing about it.