This is it. OUR LAST STOP. Technically it’s not actually our LAST stop, as there is one more country after this: AMERICA. We head to the States next to travel around with our families in December and January. We still have Disney World and Hawaii to visit before putting away our suitcases and heading back to NY in February. Our year continues. But Tonga is our last stop out HERE, in the WORLD, in international waters, where everything is foreign and Americans are rare and hand sanitizer is something in the distant future. For the past 10 months we’ve been traveling, Tonga has been this far off place we’ve known nothing about other than it’s a chain of islands in the South Pacific somewhere between Australia and the US. I learned along the way that it’s also the last island nation that is also a kingdom, it has never been occupied by another country and it’s one of three places in the world you can swim with whales. In the open water. For hours. Other than that, there wasn’t a ton of info out there about the place. It’s just not a tourist hotspot, which is why we wanted to go in the first place. All the usual suspects – Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, random travel blogs – failed us in our search for what to do and where to go once we touched down. And because this was our last stop, the stakes were high – it couldn’t suck. We couldn’t end our amazing journey on a half-assed island with two goats that maybe was filled with litter and old TVs. But as we were too tired from all of our travels (first world problems) to dig any further for info, we relied on our tried and true method – we did nothing. We planned to stay two nights on the main island of Tongatapu to get our bearings and then get the hell out of Dodge, because the island, like many main islands, is not attractive or enticing at all. We arrived on a Saturday night and the next day was Sunday, and that meant everything was shut down. Restaurants close, there are no flights in or out of the country, no sports; it’s even socially unacceptable to go running. People go to church and eat all day, so we did the same. The king and queen were at our church service (Methodist) and go to this same one every week. Who knew. I like going to services in other countries for a glimpse into where we really are — how do the people dress, are they solemn, do they sing, what do they look like. Here, men and women go formal, meaning both wear thick straw mats as skirts, cinched at the waist with a belt or rope, and the women tie their hair back. They sing their hearts out and even though the whole thing was in Tongan, we understood that they were happy to be there. After church we discovered fishing pigs, which are literally pigs that go into the ocean to hunt for fish (we heard they taste amazing; the pigs, not the fish), then took a boat to a nearby island for the afternoon. We got invited to dinner that night by Paul, a Tongan guy we met at the beach, and at dinner we met some other tourists who told us about an island called Foa in Tonga’s Ha’apei group. We were able to book flights and a hotel last-minute and the next AM, we took the world’s smallest commercial plane one hour to our next stop. The plane had 23 seats, including the pilot’s and co-pilot’s, who doubled as the flight attendant. Our boarding passes were hand-written and the arrivals/departures were scribbled on a dry erase board. There was no security — NO ID CHECK, NO METAL DETECTORS, NO CHECKING BAGS FOR LIQUIDS OR WEAPONS. Just everyone get on and let’s hope you’re all here for the views. The flight was gorgeous. Clear aqua water, atolls and slivers of islands dotting the way. Then we arrived and found paradise. For 5 days we felt like the only people in the ocean. Our place, Matafonua Resort, was at the end of the island, and all we could see for miles were little uninhabited islands and coral. The reef circled our lagoon, and as a result we had nothing but crystal blue water, gentle waves and amazing snorkeling and paddleboarding and kayaking right in front of our place. You could paddle out to the reef which created a wall, and when you hit that wall it truly felt like maybe the world wasn’t round after all and you had just found the edge of the earth. Low tide created a little island in the middle of the lagoon that I named Denise Island because I spent so much time just sitting there and is now on my list of Happy Places. We just missed whale season which may have been a good thing because it left us with very little to do. We would paddle in the morning, rest and escape from the sun in the afternoon, play cards on the beach at sunset and watch the stars (I’ve never seen so many shooting stars) before bed. There is nothing else to do, no bars to hit or shops to check out or even other places to eat. Nothing but the water and sand and us. Sometimes the power went out, and no one batted an eye. It was truly paradise. Our last two nights we moved to Fafa Island, a 30-minute boat ride from the main island. This was an upscale resort with each of the 25 fales, or beach huts, hidden individually in the jungle, a few feet back from the beach. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been on an island that was completely and utterly dark at night. Not a single light from a main house (completely closed after dinner) or dock (nonexistent) or other fales (they’re all hidden in the trees). Nada. It felt like we were castaways. And as you never see another person at night — it’s the only place on the island, there is nowhere to go except for your own fale, and everyone has their own beach — the silence was absolute, except for the sounds of insects and lizards. It was a perfect way to end the trip. Tonga could have gone either way. Thank God it went the way it did.
(Now that I think about it, that statement actually applies to the whole trip.)