Vava'u, The Kingdom of Tonga
18 October 2019 | Neiafu, Tonga
August -October 2019
Vava'u, Kingdom of Tonga
Latitude 18.38 S Longitude 174.01 W Southern Pacific Ocean
It's been a magical 2.5 months in this relatively unknown, very isolated and rural chain of limestone and volcanic Polynesian islands hidden away in the southern Pacific Ocean, some 1200 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand, 330 n. miles south of Western Samoa and 480 n. miles east of Fiji. It is made up 160+ islands divided into clusters of 4 main groups, the northernmost Nias, then the Vava'u group where we are now, followed by the Haapai group to the south and finally Tongatapu group at the southernmost end of this long chain stretching over 330 n miles.
Having spent 2 delightful weeks in Niuatoputapu, the northernmost group and our initial entry point into the kingdom of Tonga (see earlier blog) we next sailed overnight to the Vava'u group, a sailing paradise best known by cruisers from all over the world as a unique location to swim with large groups of migrating humpback whales on their annual northern route from Antarctica. Also, this island group is an excellent offshore fishing, diving and sailing destination with hundreds of picturesque islands and bays with well protected harbors. Of further significance to cruisers, is that Vava'u is a recognized 'hurricane hole' where boats can be stored on land, well protected, during the central Pacific hurricane season (November to May).
We arrived here on July 31 after an overnight sail from Niuatoputapu and wound our way through the clusters of small green cliff-faced islands into the inner harbor below the tiny town of Neiafu, (having only 2 main streets with a handful of small un-named storefronts) perched on a cliff high above the protected harbor, which was dotted with over 60 visiting sailboats and power yachts from all over the world. We located a free mooring ball and were quickly attached to what would become our new harbor home for the next 12-14 weeks. After clearing customs with surprising ease on the water front, we went exploring in our dinghy and soon found one of our favorite haunts, a floating bar called the Hideaway, operated by a friendly Canadian expat known as "Bear" who served amazing fish and chips and some of the best margaritas I have ever tasted (hand -made with fresh-picked local "kola' limes), pretty high praise from a Mexican-margarita loving Texan)! We soon recognized a purple boat flag hanging on the wall of the open-air dining area as being from UNO MAS, a sailing catamaran belonging to our sailing friends we had met while previously in Samoa. Bear, who speaks almost as fast and loud as the late Robin Williams (with jokes almost as raunchy) and refers on morning Vava'u Cruisers VHF radio net to his floating barge as the only floating and 360-degree revolving restaurant in Vava'u with its own floating pool ( a blowup water raft), told us that they had becomes regulars there during their prior visit. Well, that must mean that we are all almost family, and soon we were loaning him power tools from our boat to help add additional dock seating to his floating restaurant (never mind that it blew up and we wound trying to import another drill on the ferry, and ultimately brought in another from the US, but that's a story for another day).
While waiting for the other 2 sailboats we had sailed down with to arrive in the harbor, our first arrival tasks were dingy into town to pick up our Blue Sky sim cards and check out the provisions available here, having been weeks without any dairy products, fresh milk, cheese or fresh eggs or meat (or beer). We learned that while there was a lot more available here compared to Niuatoputapu, particularly when the weekly ferry arrived every Wednesday, it was still very limited and quite expensive, nevertheless, our options had expanded significantly! Not surprisingly the small corner supermarkets are all Chinese operated and by shopping at each, we were able to replenish essentials. Over time we identified our favorite few for specific needs, bread, Kiwi wines, Rum etc. For meats we relied mostly on the small Falaleu Deli owned and operated by Char (Bear's wife from the Hideaway). Imported meats, chicken, homemade patties, sausages etc. For fresh vegetables Neiafu has a daily fresh food market where many local villages and home growers display there produce and whilst some of our 'Western staples' were missing the essentials were fresh and available.
Next, we headed straight to Beluga diving to book our tickets for our much-anticipated swim with the whales, learning that they were completely booked for many days, but had 2 spots on a Saturday a few weeks later, which we immediately booked.
Our mooring was equally close to another cruiser- favorite meeting spot, Mangoes Bar & Grill, complete with dingy landing, live sports on TV and great all-day breakfasts as well as a standard menu. In addition to the Hideaway, this was our 'go to' stop over to connect with other cruisers, watch NZ rugby or simply to go ashore for a quiet beer and wine.
In Tonga, like all other island communities we visited during or adventure, Sunday AM was dedicated to going to church, with all shops either closed for the morning or all day. We, along with many other cruisers attended to both link with the local culture and to listed to the amazing church choir, magical harmonies across the assembled congregations...a spectacular and inspiring experience.
One of the best experiences related to sailing is the opportunity to meet and befriend people from many different parts of the world, as well as fellow Americans, most of whom are all very far from home. One such chance encounter led to a close friendship and connection with an American couple from California, John and Janet on their gorgeous monohull sailing yacht, Tango. Starting with a casual happy hour aboard Tango, we soon found ourselves sharing many meals, dinghy trips to town and sailing trips to surrounding islands for swimming, diving and snorkeling on overnight anchorages.
One of our favorite anchorages was Port Maurelle, a clear shallow bay about an hour sail from Neiafu harbor, where you could swim and snorkel in crystal clear water 40-60 feet deep. We spent several nights there, anchoring in the quiet peaceful bay, among the picturesque islets, with long walks on the deserted beach nearby, sharing meals on board each other's boats. During this time my dear friend Carol from Hawaii came to visit us in Vava'u and we spent happy hours diving and snorkeling with her as well as John and Janet, exploring a number of these pristine sites, including Swallow's cave, Japanese Gardens and most importantly, swimming with the humpback whales in the open ocean, just outside the Vava'u island group.
In early October, our friends from New Zealand, Mary and Graham, flew in to join us on WheytoGo in preparation for sailing back to New Zealand together and sharing "crew" duties on this our final long and potentially difficult passage to Opua, NZ. They came in early to spend time diving and exploring the region before our actual departure, targeted for mid-October. One of the most memorable outings (other than a few great dive trips with a local Kiwi dive outfit) took place at Anchorage #11, a two-hour sail from Neiafu Harbor, winding through the cluster of small islands to reach yet another gorgeous and remote anchoring site. Our friends on Tango also sailed to that anchorage, with plans for us to all meet and enjoy some snorkeling, swimming and playing in this special little bay. We heard tale of a quaint local restaurant "La Paella", located on the cliff of Tapana Island across from our secluded bay, which is run by an older couple from Spain who had sailed to Tonga many years ago, decided to stay and opened this restaurant which could only be reached by boat and open only by prior appointment. John and Janet had secured reservation for us six, but sadly, upon arriving at the anchorage they had a mechanical problem with their anchor which prevented them from safely anchoring and they had to turn back and return to Neiafu Harbor, to our great disappointment. Getting to the restaurant was a bit challenging: it required taking the dinghy across the bay to this tiny isolated islet, landing on the beach in choppy surf, climbing out of the dinghy into the wet surf and sand in our dinner dresses, tying the dinghy to a tree and climbing up some rugged rudimentary steps to the top of the hill where this decrepit, leaning and deserted-looking building with open air windows and thatched walls was located. "Could this be it?" we wondered.
Approaching a door which was accessed by steps surrounded by massive vertebral whale bones, we entered a rustic, dusty, yet charming room emanating with amazing aromas and Spanish music in the background. We were seated around an old table with a crisp white tablecloth set with old, cracked but elegant dinnerware in a Spanish motif along with ornate antique silverware. Soon we were served Spanish wine and lovely individual plates of tapas whose presentation would rival that of any 4-star restaurant. The final dish was a large platter of classic Spanish paella, laden with multiple saffron-coated morsels of fresh seafood. After dinner, Maria and Edward, the owners, moved over to a makeshift stage, where Edward sat on a stool and strummed his acoustical guitar while singing songs in gravelly Spanish, his long, kinky gray hair and beard flowing in the breeze. Another couple there, celebrating a birthday, danced on the wood floor as he sang a crusty version of "Happy Birthday to You" in broken English, stopping to swig a beer provided by his wife, Maria between sets. It was an enchanted and very unexpected evening of unique food and entertainment, which Ian, myself, Mary and Graham, smiling in amazement and frequently bemoaning the fact that John and Janet could not be with us to see this amazing spectacle. We vowed that we would bring them back here in the near future, however, it was not to be.
As recurring weather delays repeatedly postponed our planned departure, Mary and Graham eventually were forced to fly back to New Zealand and miss the passage. John and Janet were stuck in Vava'u as they awaited overseas shipment of equipment to repair their anchor issues. After much agonizing over best departure time in the face of the coming cyclone season, (our boat insurance required that we be out of the cyclone area to insure continued coverage) Ian and I set out to make the long journey to New Zealand alone, departing on Friday, October 18, a rainy, windy and depressing day with choppy seas which pounded WheytoGo against the harbor docks as we completed the slow customs and immigration process to check out of the country of Tonga. We said our goodbyes to Mary and Graham, Janet and John, and other yachties we had befriended over the prior 3 months, and headed south in the rain and wind, hoping the weather would improve in 2-3 hours as the forecasts suggested. That, also, was not to be. The next 24 hours would bring the highest winds and most seasickness I had experienced since leaving Hawaii in early May.