Paddling through Paradise
The Pacific’s best kayaking destination is Tonga’s enchanting Vava’u group, some fifty reef-encircled, bush-clad islands separated by narrow waterways and protected within an emerald lagoon measuring about 13 by 15 miles.
Vava’u’s unsullied beauty is a prime destination for water sports and yachting, but the best way to visit the hidden marine caves, secluded coves, and turquoise waters lapping sugar-white sand beaches is by guided kayak trip. Guides will introduce you to both the local Polynesian environment and culture, visiting small outer-island villages and the traditional umu feast, where suckling pig is steamed in a covered underground pit to the accompaniment of Tongan song and dance.
Vava’u’s protected channels and coral reefs afford glorious opportunities for snorkeling and spotting dolphins and whales, which head from Antarctica to these shallow, warm waters June through November to bear their young. You won’t be the first to abandon your kayak to slip into the water and swim with them.
Uninhabited islands are the ideal spot for beachside barbecues or pitching camp under waving palms and the Southern Cross.
A Royal Birthday Party
With his Thirty-three Nobles of the Realm, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV rules the last pure Polynesian chiefdom in the Pacific, and you are invited to his birthday celebration, the Heilala Festival, held every July 4 since his elaborate coronation in 1967.
Unlike other South Pacific nations, the Kingdom of Tonga was never claimed, nor even invaded, by a Western power, and the octogenarian King Taufa’ahau can trace his lineage back more than 1,000 years. The affection the Tongan people feel for him and their pride in the cultural heritage of this tiny island kingdom is everywhere evident during the weeklong festivities, which include dance and beauty contests, military parades, float contests, concerts, yacht regattas, sporting events, and parties. The entire country turns out for the fun, and Tongans living overseas often come home to attend.
Everyone seems to be caught up in some competition – whether in nabbing the scale-tipping dogtooth tuna or in vying for the Bartender of the Year award—or at least using friendly rivalry as an excuse to hoist another Royal (the local Tongan beer) to another year of health and happiness for Polynesia’s last surviving monarch.