Vava’u is a group of more than 50 islands in Tonga, about 250 km (150 miles) north of Tongatapu. They are either raised coral limestone or coral atolls. The beautiful harbour opposite the main town of Neiafu (known as the Port of Refuge Harbour) is a common destination for yachties sailing the South Pacific. The waters of the islands are known for their clarity, it being said that you can see the bottom at 40 metres. The area attracts many humpback whales between June and November and there are lots of companies organising tours to see them. There are numerous places to stay, to suit most budgets.
- Cafe Tropicana, Fatafehi Rd (next to Adventure Backpackers in the centre of Neiafu). 7.30am till late. Espresso coffee, tropical fruit smoothies, all day breakfasts, and light meals. Alcohol licence. Famous for its Vava'u Brownies and Vanilla Coffee. Internet café and Wi-Fi. Book Swap, postcards, arts and crafts.
Findings of Lapita pottery suggest that early Polynesians were on these islands close to 3000 years ago. These days there are around 20,000 people living in the Group. Neiafu and surrounding villages are home to about a third of the Group’s overall population of around 20,000, with the majority of the population living in small villages on the other islands. Neiafu is the official port of entry for yachts coming to Vava'u, which attracts over 500 yachts every winter sailing season between June and October. A string of islands and reefs along the eastern edge of the Group shelters the area from strong winds and ocean swells, and humpback whales come to these protected waters to give birth. This is the high season for tourism; between December and April few people visit and many tour companies and restaurants close down. Neiafu town is the centre of activity. It is on the southern point of the main island of 'Utu Vava'u and has an attractive setting on one of the world's most beautiful harbours. Neiafu offers all the usual amenities including banks, schools, tour companies, restaurants, cafes and bars, supermarkets, a market and a hospital. It doesn't have a beach, but boats to one of the nearby coral atolls with superb sandy beaches are easily available.
Vava'u has a tropical climate with average temperatures up to 29ºC in January and down to 24ºC in June. It is sunny throughout the year. Between November and April, it is more humid and thunderstorms and cyclones do occur. From May to September there are southeast trade winds but during the summer months the winds are from the northeast.
The main islands are:
- 'Utu Vava'u. This is the largest island, where Neiafu is found. It is a limestone island with heights up to 213 m in the west. The island provides a home to eleven indigenous bird species and contains Mt. Talau national park, with some of the limited remaining native vegetation. Tropical vegetation includes the pandanus or screw pine, the casuarina, and the mulberry tree, the bark of which is used to make tapa cloth.
- Pangaimotu. This is the second largest island in the Group. It can be seen across the water from Neiafu and is connected by land bridge at the most southern point of ‘Utu Vava’u. There are some good beaches and plenty of secluded cove beaches and protected bays with good snorkelling. Avai'o'vuna Swamp is a small coastal wetland on the island.
- Hunga Island. This is 35 minutes from Neiafu Harbour and provides the main concentration of humpback whales. The island lies in deep water and has sheltered waters and bays which provide a resting place for humpbacks with calves.
Vava'u airport is international and therefore private aircraft and charter are welcome to avail themselves of the custom and immigration services. Scheduled international services to Vava'u from Fiji are available twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday from Nadi.
The new ferry MV 'Otuanga'afa is running fairly regularly now. Information about cost and schedule can be found at the ferry company's web page. The MV Olovaha is no longer in service.
Bicycles, mountain bikes, motorbikes and boats can be rented from several hotels and agencies. Taxis are available. Neiafu is small enough where you can easily get around on foot. Boat trips are organised by several companies.
- Vanilla. Vava'u is a major production area for high quality vanilla and wandering around the countryside on the main island will give you a chance to see how the vanilla bean grows. The plant, a member of the orchid family, has a small cream or yellow flower which must be hand pollinated. The bean then takes nine months to grow, after which it is dried and cured, which develops the flavour and turns the pod dark brown or black. It is said to be the most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world. The value of individual beans means that farmers go to great lengths to protect them from theft, including pricking their individual code numbers on each bean with a pin.
- Mt Talau National Park. This was established in 1995 to preserve one of the few remaining areas of relatively undisturbed native forest. It is located on the main island. The Park has several tree species that are endangered in Tonga. Most of the birds and reptiles native to Tonga can be found here. Mt. Talau is also important as a source of Tongan legends. The entrance is approximately 2 km from the centre of Neiafu and the trail is approximately 1 km.
- ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden., Tu’anekivale village (on the east coast of the main island.). The garden aims to promote the survival of native and exotic species and also to provide a sanctuary for bird life. Conservation successes include tree ferns, sandalwood species, bamboos and breadfruit species. You can leave a permanent memory by planting your own tree. There is also a Visitors’ Centre where you can see tapa and other artefacts being made and sample the traditional drink of kava. Lunch is provided (if booked in advance) on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On Thursday evening there is a Tonga Feast.
- Walks. There are several good walks from Neiafu including the climb up 131 m high Mt Talau (see above) which has excellent views over the harbour. Toafa Church on the west point of Vava'u has good views of the cliffs of Hunga island and other islands. Past Holonga in the North, you can walk up to the 'Utula'ania Point/Lookout or hike down to "Secret Beach".
- Boat tours. Day trips around the islands are available from several companies for about $50 per person. These tours visit Mariners Cave (which is accessible through an underwater tunnel), Swallows Cave (excellent for snorkelling) and one or two of the many secluded beaches around the Group. Vava'u Island Express offers day tours and snorkelling trips
- Diving. Visibility is excellent and the diving is great. Lots of dive sites, offering hard and soft corals, sea fan grottos, wall diving and magnificent caves. Equipment can be rented and diving tours arranged. There are several PADI qualified dive instructors. Companies include Beluga Diving, Dive Vava’u, Tongan Expeditions, and Dolphin Pacific Diving,
- Sailing. Vava'u is one of the most popular yacht cruising areas of the South Pacific. You can charter boats without provisioning or fully provisioned with a skipper and a cook. Short or long duration charters can be arranged. Companies offering charters include Sailing Safaris, Melinda Sea Adventures, Orion Charters (day charters only), Sail Tonga, and Moorings International (email@example.com).
- Whale Watching. From June to early November humpback whales calve and mate in the calm waters. It is not only the sight that is fascinating: the male whales sing. Whale songs vary according to location: each year the song at each location changes. The effect of their singing on humans swimming with them is magical with the sound vibrating through your entire body. Whale watching excursions are available from Sailing Safaris, Endangered Encounters,Melinda Sea Adventures (which offers whale tours under sail), Whale Watch Vava'u and Vava'u Adventures.
- Snorkelling. There are some great beaches throughout Vava'u. Snorkelling and reef viewing opportunities abound. Vava'u Island Express offers snorkelling trips
- Kayaking. Guided tours of six and eight days to remote islands are available between May and December from the Friendly Islands Kayak Company You may run into turtles, porpoises, whales, flying foxes and many sea birds.
- Kite surfing. This is offered by Kite Vava'u.
- Fishing.Vava’u offers Blue Marlin, Black Marlin, Striped Marlin, Sailfish and Short-billed spearfish, as well as pelagic species such as Yellow Fin Tuna, Dog Tooth Tuna, Mahimahi, Wahoo and Giant Trevally. Fishing trips are organized by Target One and Ika Puna Game Fishing and Kiwi Magic. Specialized GT fishing charters are available with Poppin' Tonga
- Kava (for men only) located across from Saint Joseph's Cathedral, the Nazareth House Nasaleti is good for cultural immersion for only T$3 it's all you can drink. Another option is just asking any local man to steer you in the right direction.
- Jump Off The Pier, join the local youth in jumping off the pier across from Coconet. It's completely acceptable to jump off (the left side) fully clothed. Be careful, the lowest tier of the pier can be very slippery.
- 1 Poppin' Tonga (Lucky's Beach Houses), Talihau Village, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 6am – 6pm. Poppin' Tonga is the source for Giant Trevally Fishing Charters in the Vava'u Islang group of Tonga. Try your luck with one of the strongest fish on the reef.
- Tapa. Items made of tapa make an original souvenir. For details of Tapa making techniques see Tonga.
- Baskets. Perhaps a bit big as a souvenir, unless you are on a large yacht, but the women of Vava'u make some excellent baskets, woven from coconut fronds and pandanus leaves.
- Woven Goods. Woven pandanus mats (fala) are traditionally status symbols, but at the market you can find some as small as key chain souvenirs or table place mats. This can be a potentially expensive buy, but goes to support traditional local handicrafts. Another way to purchase pandanus weaving is as a fan, this is recommended if you plan on attending a church service.
Most restaurants have ship-to-shore VHF radio so passing yachties can order food or book a table.
- Aquarium Cafe, ☏ , ✉ Aquarium.Cafe@yahoo.com. 08.00-late. Good food plus internet and Wi-Fi. Runs a book-swapping service. VHF Ch16.
- Café Tropicana (next to Adventure Backpackers in the centre of Neiafu). espresso coffee, tropical fruit smoothies, all day breakfasts, and light meals. Alcohol licence. Famous for its Vava'u Brownies and Vanilla Coffee. Internet café and Wi-Fi. Book Swap, postcards, arts and crafts.
- Dancing Rooster (Next to the Catholic Church in Neiafu.), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Swiss owner and chef.Has the best burgers on the island. Movie nights on Sunday. $-$$.
- ☏ . 11:00-23:00. Aims to be 100% fresh, natural and local. VHF Ch16 “Giggling Whale”.
- Mala Island (At Mala Island Resort (see below).). 20.00-late. Pig roast on the beach on Sundays.
- Mango Cafe (In front of Moorings Yacht Charters. Has a mango coloured roof.), ☏ . A modern waterfront restaurant with a large deck over the water. Claims the best selection of wine in Vava’u. Modern very up-to-date food. As good as anywhere in the world for a waterside cafe.
- Mounu Resort (On the beachfront of Mounu island.), ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Good restaurant and “Moby Dick’s“ bar. VHF Ch77 Anchorage No. 41.
- La Paella, Anchorage 11, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Spanish restaurant on Tapana Island, a ten minute boat trip from ‘Utu Vava’u. VHF 11 “Tapana”. T$70 for set menu of tapas, paella and dessert..
- Basque Tavern, located next to Saint Joseph's Cathedral this restaurant/bar has both mouth-watering tapas and delicious main meals. The food can be bit on the pricy side, but is usually worth it (quality occasionally varies).
- Panda, in the small marina between Dancing Rooster and Coconet. Lovingly referred to as "Cheap Chinese" by volunteers and missionaries, it's the best bang for your buck if you don't want to spend a lot of money. The quality is iffy, some days are better than others, but it is usually pretty good. You get more food if you order to stay (eat a bit and box the rest up for later).
- Bella Vista, above Dancing Rooster across from the BSP ATM. Owned by a relocated Italian, Bella Vista boasts some of the best Italian food on the island and a stellar view. That being said, it's pricey especially for what you get.
- Aquarium cafe, past the cathedral, it's got ambiance and where many expats, cruisers, and yachties go to get a taste of home. Has specialty mixed drinks that are pricey but very boozy.
- Mango Cafe, next to Aquarium, has a good happy hour 4-5pm $4 beer & 5-6pm $5 beer.
- Bounty Bar, in the centre of Neiafu, overlooking the harbour. A variety of drinks and shots, though the rum punch is not to be missed. Dancing after 8. During the on-season there is a free Fakaleiti Show on Wednesday nights and Pub Quizes on Thursdays.
- Basque Tavern, has happy hour from 4-6PM with $5 cans of Carlsberg and $8 sangria (which is the best). Has a pool table with no charge to play and karaoke on Fri/Sat nights.
- Moteli, by the old harbor, is the only dedicated "night club" in Vava'u populated mostly by locals. Usually has a $5 cover charge.
- Vava’u Guest House, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Four fales close to Neiafu. Single $15/$30, twin $40.
- Mala Island Resort (15 minutes from Neiafu), ✉ email@example.com. Right on the beach of a 20-acre island. Dormitory T$25;Double T$60-125..
- Port Wine Guest House (Neiafu). Offers views of Neiafu and Neiafu harbor. Great for families and individuals looking for group or budget travels. Backpackers welcome. T$15-50.
- Tapana Island Resort. Two fales on the beach. For contacts see La Paella restaurant, above. Double T$60-80..
- Basque Tavern, three separate rooms above the bar, one ensuite and two bedrooms that share a bathroom. Check in at the bar. Has hot water and a washing machine. Kept clean. T$80 a night.
- Lucky's Beach Houses, Talihau, ☏ , , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 1PM, check-out: 11AM. Great beachfront property with snorkeling, kayaking, GT Fishing and a private beach. Special rates during the summer months. Range from a Fale room at T$90 to a fully self-contained cottage at T$185.
- email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. 36 rooms catering to most budgets. On the edge of the harbor. six “backpacker” rooms (T$50 double) up to deluxe rooms at T$270. , ☏ , , , ✉
- Hilltop Hotel (This is on the highest point of Neiafu.). There are eight rooms, four of which overlook the harbour. T$130-150 for a double.
- Twin View Motel, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. On a hill overlooking the harbour. US$55-90 for a double.
- Vava’u Villa (A few minutes outside Neiafu.), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Newly opened bed and breakfast. Boats available for hire. T$150-180 double.
- Vava’u Harbourview Resort (on the shores of Port of Refuge Harbour, 2 km from Neiafu). Large tropical garden. Private jetty, for swimming and boat landing for whale watching, etc. Tennis court. Bicycle/scooter hire can be arranged. T$180 for a double.
- Blue Lagoon Resort, Foiata Island, ☏ , , ✉ email@example.com. Eight fales on the beach. Eco-friendly accommodation. From T$360 to T460 per night.
- Tongan Beach Resort (on 'Utungake island), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Twelve fales on the beach. Free Wifi. T$250 per fale per night.
- Mystic Sands Beach (on 'Utungake), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Wifi. T$250+ per fale per night.
In Tonga, Wi-Fi hotspots are the typical way of getting online.
There are a couple of Internet cafés on the Vava’u islands. Places where you can get connected include Aquarium Cafe (T$6 1 hour/T$8 2 hours), Cafe Tropicana (T$6 an hour), Mango Cafe (free as long as you're eating/drinking but slow internet), Basque (free as long as you're eating/drinking) and Bella Vista (first 30 minutes free). Accommodations advertise Wi-Fi Internet availability. However, connection is slow and if there's more than a few people online don't expect to download anything large.
Tonga is a very conservative Christian country: Sunday is strongly revered, the vast majority of the population will attend religious services, very few shops will be open and there is very little to do. Flights do not operate on Sundays and tourist services may not be available. Try taking the time to attend a church service (6AM or 9:30/10AM). The singing can be beautiful.
Men should avoid going around topless other than on the beach, or you could be arrested. Dressing conservatively is always best, keeping from your shoulders to knees covered (for both genders) is a good rule of thumb. While Tongans are adopting westernized clothing styles, skirts above the knee are still frowned upon. If you insist on shorts/skirts above the knee wrap a lavalava (Tongan sarong) around your waist to cover yourself in public spaces.
To really get away from it all head to Niuatoputapu and Niuafo’ou, which are the northernmost islands of the Tonga group. They are reachable by weekly flights from Vava’u.
- Niuatoputapu is 240 km north of Vava’u and has 18 km² with a population of around 1,400. Tradition is still important here with conservative ways of dressing and behaviour. It has beautiful white beaches, particularly on the north-west side of the island. Niuatoputapu was severely damaged by the September 2009 tsunami that also devastated southern Upolu in Samoa.
- Niuafo’ou is the northernmost island of Tonga. Other names for the island are Good Hope island and Tin Can island. The latter originated from the fact that in earlier times mail was delivered and picked up by strong swimmers who would retrieve packages sealed up in a biscuit tin and thrown overboard from passing ships. Stamps from that time have become a collector’s item. It is the tip of an underwater volcano created by sub-oceanic eruptions. The last eruption was in 1946, after which the whole island was evacuated for ten years. Fields of lava are still evident. The island ring encloses two lakes.