The absolute best thing to do in Vava'u is to take a boat tour out on the fabulous fjords for a day of swimming, snorkeling, and exploring of the caves and uninhabited islands.
The typical tour follows Port of Refuge to Swallows Cave on Kapa Island and then to Mariner's Cave (named for Will Mariner, the young Englishman captured with the Port au Prince in 1806) on Nuapapu Island. Both of these have been carved out of cliffs by erosion. Boats can go right into Swallows Cave for a look at the swallows flying in and out of a hole in the cave's top. Swimmers with snorkeling gear and a guide can dive into Mariner's Cave. Both caves face west and are best visited in the afternoon, when the maximum amount of natural light gets into them. Most trips also include a stop at one of the small islands for some time at a sparkling beach and a swim over the reefs in crystal-clear water.
Every hotel and guesthouse here will organize boat tours, or you can drop by Vava'u Adventures (tel. 71-493; www.vavauadventures.com) or Sailing Safaris (tel. 70-650; www.sailingsafaris.com), which will arrange all-day snorkeling trips to the caves and islets for about T$50 (US$25/£13) per person. You can rent a sailboat or powerboat (with skipper) and go where you please. Boats cost about T$400 (US$200/£100) a day.
The waterfront at the base of the hill in Neiafu is home to more than 30 charter yachts that you can rent for as many days as you can afford. Most Americans who visit Tonga, in fact, come here to explore Vava'u in a chartered yacht. You can spend your time sailing from one tiny islet to another in these calm waters. There are dozens of gorgeous beaches off which to anchor, and there are several restaurants to visit at night.
The Moorings (tel. 800/534-7289 or 70-016; www.moorings.com), the Florida-based pioneer of chartering sailboats in the Caribbean, has one of its two South Pacific bases here. It requires that you be qualified to handle sailboats of the size it charters, and the staff will check out your skills before turning you loose. If you don't qualify, you can hire a skipper or guide at extra cost. Boats range in length from 10m to 15m (33 ft.-49 ft.) and in price from about US$400 to US$990 (£200-£495) a night per boat for bareboat charters (that is, you hire the "bare" boat and provide your own skipper and crew). Prices are more expensive during the May to October high season, but that's far and away the best time to be here. A skipper will cost another NZ$200 (US$160/£80) per day. The Moorings will do your shopping and have the boat provisioned with food and drink when you arrive.
You can rent small sailing dinghies for T$25 (US$13/£6.25) per hour or T$125 (US$63/£31) for all day from Vava'u Adventures (tel. 70-493), on the waterfront in the Moorings complex. These little boats were once used as dinghies by The Moorings' yachts. Vava'u Adventures (www.vavauadventures.com) is operated by Ben and Lisa Newton, a young American couple who sailed their own yacht to Vava'u and stayed. They also offer jet-boat tours, water-skiing, and other watersports activities, and they have an Internet cafe on premises.
Crewed charter yachts based here include Melinda Sea Adventures (tel. 70-975; www.sailtonga.com), a 44-foot ketch which can accommodate up to four passengers on overnight and longer cruises. It charges US$350 (£175) per person per night when only two go, US$225 (£113) per person when four are on board.
In addition, American Vern Kirk provides cruises on his 38-foot trimaran sailboat Orion (tel. 12-673; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Humpback whales breed in the waters off Vava'u from June to October, and going out to see them -- and listen to them through hydrophones -- is a highlight of a visit. Other whale-watching destinations such as Hawaii won't allow you to snorkel or scuba dive with the whales, but you can here, albeit under very tightly controlled conditions. Local operators say there's a 50% to 60% chance you'll get to swim among the whales and a 90% chance of seeing them during the season.
Almost everyone here with a boat goes out to see the whales, including the scuba diving operators and fishing charter craft mentioned below. The most experienced operator is Allan Bowe's Whale Watch Vava'u (tel. 70-747; www.whalewatchvavau.com). Allan practically launched whale-watching in Vava'u. He charges about T$220 (US$110/£55) per person. These are all-day voyages, and the sun can be brutal, so come prepared.
Fishing, Kayaking & Scuba Diving
As noted above, Vava'u has a busy yachting and whale-watching season from May to October. Some of the activities mentioned operate only during this period and then clear out of Tonga during the hurricane season from November to April. It's best to ask in advance whether any particular activity is available when you will be here.
Fishing -- The waters off Vava'u hold a large number of sizable blue marlin, sailfish, yellowfin and dogtooth tuna, mahimahi, and other species, and you can charter one of several boats here to go get 'em.
New Zealanders Keith and Pat McKee of Kiwi Magic (tel./fax 70-441; email@example.com) take visitors offshore for a full day of sport-fishing, and snorkelers can go along by arrangement. The McKees operate year-round, as do their fellow Kiwis, Henk and Sandra Gross of Target One (tel./fax 70-647; www.invited.to/target1) and Jeff and Janine Le Strange of the Hakula (tel. 70-872; fax 70-875; www.fishtonga.com). They all charge about US$500 (£250) per day, including bait, tackle, and lunch. At least two persons must be on board. Most of them do whale-watching trips during the season. The Stranges will put you up at their Hakula Lodge, on the edge of Neiafu.
Kayaking -- Yachties aren't the only ones who can enjoy the multitude of protected waterways. Kayakers can, too. Friendly Islands Kayak Company (tel. 70-173; www.fikco.com), a New Zealand firm, operates the Adventure Centre south of the Paradise International Hotel. It rents sea kayaks and conducts guided tours. It has 5-, 9-, and 11-day trips through the islands, using double- and single-seat kayaks. The tours range from about US$950 to US$2,250 (£457-£1,125) per person and must be arranged in advance.
Several firms rent kayaks, including Adventure Backpackers Lodge (tel. 70-955), the Paradise International Hotel (tel. 74-744), and the two diving operators mentioned below. Expect to pay about T$30 (US$15/£7.50) a day.
Scuba Diving -- There's good diving in these clear waters, especially because you don't have to ride on a boat for several hours just to get to a spot with colorful coral and bountiful sea life. In Port of Refuge, divers can explore the wreck of the copra schooner Clan McWilliam, sunk in 1906.
Beluga Diving (tel./fax 70-327; www.belugadivingvavau.com), Dive Vava'u (tel. 70-492; www.divevavau.com), and the New Zealand-based Dolphin Pacific Diving (tel./fax 70-292; www.academydivers.co.nz) offer two-tank dives for about T$180 (US$90/£45), including tanks and weight belts.