The Tongan National Cultural Centre
Make time to visit the Tongan National Cultural Centre (tel. 23-022), one of the South Pacific's best cultural expositions. On Fanga'uta Lagoon about 1.5km (1 mile) south of Nuku'alofa on Taufa'ahau Road, the center's turtle-roof, Tongan fale-style buildings house displays of the kingdom's history, geology, and handicrafts. In fact, artisans work daily on their crafts and sell their wares to visitors. In other words, you can see how Tonga's remarkable handicrafts are made, which should help as you later scour the local shops for good buys. The center is open Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm. Admission is T$3 (US$1.50/75p) for adults, T$1 (US50¢/25p) for children. Special displays feature demonstrations of carving, weaving, tapa making, food preparation, a kava ceremony, and dancing. The dinners and dance shows on Tuesday and Thursday nights are not to be missed.
A Stroll Through Nuku'alofa
Before starting out to see Nuku'alofa, drop by the Tonga Visitors Bureau office on Vuna Road and pick up a copy of the brochure "Walking Tour of Central Nuku'alofa." A morning's stroll around this interesting town will be time well spent, for in many respects it's a throwback to times gone by in the South Pacific.
Although there are no street signs, the visitors bureau has put up signs that give general directions to the main sights. In addition, Nuku'alofa is more or less laid out on a grid, so you shouldn't have trouble finding your way around. It's also flat, with no hills to climb.
Start at the Tonga Visitors Bureau and walk west along Vuna Road toward the heart of town. The park with a playground on the left as you leave the Visitors Bureau is known as Fa'onelua Gardens, at the rear of which is a convention hall. Before Railway Road, the modern three-story building houses many government ministries.
Turn left on Railway Road. The colonial-era wooden structure on the left in the first block serves as both the Court House and parliament when it meets from June to September. Both court and parliament sessions are open to the public. Now return to Vuna Road and turn left.
Vuna Wharf, at the foot of Taufa'ahau Road, Nuku'alofa's main street, was built in 1906, and for some 60 years most visitors to Tonga debarked from ships that tied up here. A railroad once ran through town along Railway Road to transport copra and other crops to Vuna Wharf.
Directly across Vuna Road from the wharf is the low Treasury Building. Constructed in 1928, it's a fine example of South Pacific colonial architecture. Early in its life it housed the Tongan Customs service and the post office as well as the Treasury Department.
The field to the west of the wharf is the Pangai, where royal feasts, kava ceremonies, and parades are held.
Overlooking the Pangai and surrounded by towering Norfolk pines is the Royal Palace. The king lives in a sprawling mansion out on Taufa'ahau Road these days, but his mother still lives in this white Victorian building with gingerbread fretwork and gables under a red roof, and he conducts business and entertains dignitaries here. The palace was prefabricated in New Zealand, shipped to Tonga, and erected in 1867. The second-story veranda was added in 1882.
Now walk up Taufa'ahau Road past Raintree Square, appropriately shaded by the huge rain tree in front of the modern Westpac Bank of Tonga. The park benches at the base of the tree are a local gathering place. Across the street stands the colonial-style Prime Minister's Office with its quaint tower.
Turn right at the post office on Salote Road. The Nuku'alofa Club on the left, about halfway down the block, is another holdover from the old South Pacific: It's a private club where Tonga's elite males gather to relax over a game of snooker and a few Australian beers.
The next block of Salote Road runs behind the Royal Palace. Turn right on Vaha'akolo Road and walk along the west side of the palace toward the sea. The highest point on Tongatapu, Chapel Hill (or Zion Hill) to the left, part of the Royal Estate, was a Tongan fort during the 18th century and the site of a missionary school opened in 1830 and a large Wesleyan church built in 1865. The school, Sia'atoutai Theological College, is now located 6.5km (4 miles) west of Nuku'alofa. The church has long since been torn down.
When you get to the water, look back and take your photos of the palace framed by the Norfolk pines.
Picturesque Vuna Road runs west from the palace, with the sea and reef on one side and stately old colonial homes on the other. Now used for Tongan government functions, the former British High Commissioner's residence, in the second block, sports a flagpole surrounded by four cannons from the Port au Prince, the ship captured and burned by the Tongans at Ha'apai in 1806 after they had clubbed to death all its crew except Will Mariner. King George I had two wives -- not concurrently -- and both are buried in casuarina-ringed Mala'e'aloa Cemetery, whose name means "tragic field." The clapboard house at the end of the next block is known as Ovalau because it was built in the 1800s at Levuka, the old capital of Fiji on the island of Ovalau, and was shipped to Tonga in the 1950s.
Turn inland at the corner, walk 2 blocks on 'Alipate Road, take a left on Wellington Road, and walk 2 blocks east to Centenary Church. Just before the church, the large wooden building with a widow's walk atop it was reputed to have been built about 1871 by the Rev. Shirley W. Baker, a missionary who had much influence over King George I. Members of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga constructed Centenary Church between 1949 and 1952. While construction was going on, the town was divided into sections that fed the workers three meals a day on a rotating basis. The amount of money spent on the building was about T$80,000 (US$40,000/£20,000); the actual value of the materials and labor was many times that amount. The church seats about 2,000 persons, including the king and queen, who worship here on Sunday mornings.
Turn right past the church and proceed inland on Vaha'akolo Road. Past the church is Queen Salote College, a girls' school named for a wife of King George I and not for his great-great-granddaughter, the famous Queen Salote.
Turn left at the first street, known as Laifone Road, and walk along a large open space to your right. Since 1893, this area has been known as the Royal Tombs. King George I, King George II, Queen Salote, King Taufa'hau Tupou IV and most of their various wives and husbands are buried at the center of the field. At the corner of Tu'i Road stands the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. Built of coral block in 1888, it is a magnificent example of early Tongan church architecture.
On Taufa'ahau Road, behind this open expanse stands the modern Queen Salote Memorial Hall, the country's national auditorium.
On the other side of the road, opposite the Royal Tombs, rises the tent-shaped Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, the first basilica in the South Pacific islands.
Now follow Taufa'ahau Road toward the waterfront. On this main street, you'll pass a few vacant lots (the result of the Nov 2006 riot) and shop after shop, some of them carrying handicrafts and clothing. Between Wellington and Salote roads, an old house now provides the setting for the Langafonua Women's Association Handicraft Center. The clapboard house was built by William Cocker, a local merchant, for his five daughters, who lived in New Zealand but spent each winter in Nuku'alofa.
Turn right on the next street -- Salote Road -- and walk past the police station on the left to Maketi Talamahu in the second block, the lively produce market where vendors sell a great variety of fresh produce, ranging from huge taro roots and watermelons to string beans and bananas. Tongatapu's climate is cool enough during the winter months that both European and tropical fruits and vegetables grow in great bounty. Upstairs, several stalls carry handicraft items, such as tapa cloth and straw baskets and mats. End your tour here by looking around the market and perhaps munching on a banana or sipping a fresh young coconut.
How to Survive Sunday in Tonga
A clause in Tonga's constitution declares, "The Sabbath Day shall be sacred in Tonga forever and it shall not be lawful to work, artifice, or play games, or trade on the Sabbath." The penalty for breaking this stricture is 3 months in jail at hard labor. Although hotels can cater to their guests on the Sabbath, almost everything else comes to a screeching halt. Stores are closed, airplanes don't fly, most taxis don't operate, and most restaurants other than those in the hotels don't open. Tongans by the thousands go to church and then enjoy family feasts and a day of lounging around in true Polynesian style.
So how do the rest of us survive without "artificing" on Sunday? You can start by worshiping with the royal family at 10am in the Centenary Church on Wellington Road. Tongan men wear neckties, but tourists get by without if they're neatly dressed. Women should wear dresses that cover the shoulders and knees.
Even before church, many of us visitors -- and many a Westernized Tongan, too -- head for one of the offshore resorts, where we can get a meal, some libation, and a legal swim. You will find me having a few cold ones out at Pangaimotu Island Resort, where King George V was known to while away a Sunday after when he was still crown prince.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.