My name is Lauren Juliff and I’m a travel blogger who has been exploring the world for just over a decade. Over that time, I have visited 90-odd countries across five different continents – from Tonga to Thailand to Tanzania! I have also lived in Portugal, the UK and currently New Zealand.
I grew up in a souless town in the UK and that provided me with the drive to get out there and explore the world. With little to keep me entertained, I found myself thriving whenever I left the country to explore much more interesting places. It was exciting to experience new countries and cultures, and I felt driven to see as much of the world as humanly possible.
Journey with my Blog – Never Ending Footsteps
I spent much of my early twenties saving as much money as possible to take what I intended to be a one year trip around the world. I had no idea that I would still be exploring the planet ten years later! In the initial stages of my travel planning, I decided to start a blog – Never Ending Footsteps – because I wanted to keep friends and family updated on my adventures.
It was hard to know how I would have kept in touch with everyone while I was away. So I decided that a blog would be one of the best ways to share what I was up to. The blog launched in 2010 and was one of the first travel blogs out there! I can’t believe how much this community has evolved since. Within several months of leaving, I was making enough money from to sustain my travels in Asia and my income only grew from there.
With my blog, I attempt to show people that building a life of exploration and adventure is possible. I have suffered from anxiety for many years and because of this I always believed that travel wasn’t something I would be able to do. I’m now living proof that it’s possible and I’m determined to show people they don’t have to let their mental health hold them back.
Two Weeks Island Hopping in Tonga
I spent two weeks island hopping in Tonga and absolutely loved my time there! I kicked off my travels with a couple of days on the main island, Tongatapu. Most visitors to the island nation arrive here first and it’s totally worth spending a day exploring the main highlights of the island.
Next, I traveled to ‘Eua and spent four days soaking up the vibes. Despite being just an 11 minute flight from Tongatapu, few travelers opt to head to this island which is a shame as it’s beautiful! While there, I hiked with wild horses, swam in the sea and took part in a traditional Tongan feast.
I spent a week in Ha’apai next. This island chain is where you will find my favourite place in the world: Matafonua Lodge on Foa island! It’s paradise with ample opportunity to snorkel with whales, kitesurf over turquoise waters, kayak to uninhabited islands or relax on white-sand beaches.
Finally, I rounded off my time in Vava’u. There is plenty to do on this popular island chain. But unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate with me. Alas, rather than kayaking, swimming and sailing in one of the most picturesque parts of the country – I spent most of my time hiding inside and watching the rain fall. It was all part of the Tongan travel experience though!
Why Tonga Should be on your Bucket List
Tonga is one of the smallest countries in the world, located in the middle of the South Pacific. In other words, it’s extremely remote and difficult (and expensive) to get to. To make your trip planning to Tonga even trickier, there is very little information about the country available online.
You have to make a real effort to get here. The only direct flights are from New Zealand or Fiji. But once you arrive, you will find yourself in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Just picture a tropical island paradise – that is exactly what many of the Tongan islands look like, all 170+ of them!
And the best thing about these islands? You will find no one there. Thanks to Tonga’s isolation, this is one of the few places on earth that hasn’t been overrun by Instagrammers. Many times, you will have an entire stretch of sand all to yourself and wonder why you are the only person there! This is what I loved most about Tonga. That you can find yourself in a scene that almost looks too perfect to be real. And you can have it all to yourself!
The Very Definition of Paradise: Matafonua Lodge on Foa Island
There is one place that immediately comes to mind when I think of a Tongan paradise and it’s the place I mentioned above: Matafonua Lodge on Foa Island, which is part of the Ha’apai island chain. Quite simply, it’s a guesthouse in one of the most spectacular surroundings I have ever seen.
Located on a small spit of sand and surrounded by turquoise waters, this is a place where you can swim with humpback whales and leopard sharks, learn to kitesurf or paddleboard, spend the day on an uninhabited paradise island or simply sunbathe in the powder-soft white sand.
It’s the type of resort that attracts the best travelers. While it’s labeled as a “resort”, it tends to attract backpackers, mid-range travelers and luxury explorers in equal measure. One of my highlights was the communal dinners where visitors would gather to chat about their day, learn about each other and eat the best food in the country. It was paradise!
Best Things To Do in Tonga
If I had to recommend just one experience in Tonga, it would be to stay at Matafonua Lodge! As discussed above, staying at the lodge took my trip to the next level. But there is so much more to Tonga than just this little slice of paradise on Foa Island. Below you can find seven more epic experiences.
1. Swim with Humpback Whales in Tonga
One of the most amazing experiences in Tonga is swimming with humpback whales. Every year, between July and October, humpback whales leave their homes in Antarctica and make their way to Tonga to give birth. There are only a couple of other countries in the world where this happens, so it’s definitely worth experiencing while you are in the country.
2. Find a Paradisiacal Beach all for Yourself
In a country that is not yet overrun by tourism, it’s easy to find your own stretch of paradise at the beach. Simply pull up a map, pick an inhabited island and figure out a way to get there. Odds are, you will rock up to a pristine white-sand beach and find you have it almost entirely to yourself.
3. Go Island Hopping in the Vava’u Island Chain
Vava’u is the most popular island chain in Tonga and it’s especially attractive to sailors. One of the best ways to explore its many islands is via the water. Jump on a sailing tour – you will find ones lasting from one day to seven – and marvel at how untouched the scenery is around here.
4. Take an Awesome Hiking Adventure in ‘Eua
‘Eua is definitely the best place in Tonga to hike as it’s one of the few islands with cliffs, rainforests, caves and natural rock formations. Head to one of the many hiking trails on the island and start exploring! On my trek, I even stumbled across a group of wild horses roaming through the grass.
5. Discover the Famous Snorkeling Pigs of Tonga
Something that is unique to Tonga is the famous snorkeling pigs! They are found in Tongatapu and while they don’t actually snorkel, they do swim. It’s cool to see them splashing in and out of the beautiful turquoise waters. I hired a driver to help me explore the main sights of Tongatapu, but you could easily rent your own car to see the snorkeling pigs instead.
6. Experience a Tongan Kava Ceremony
Like much of the South Pacific, kava is a way of life. It’s a depressant and a beverage, made from the root of the native piper methysticum plant. Be warned: it’s definitely an acquired taste! During a ceremony, you will get to sample some kava and learn more about Tongan culture and traditions.
7. Join the Tongan Locals at Church
Tonga is a highly religious country and the church plays a central role in the lives of locals – so much so that it’s even illegal to exercise on Sundays! I recommend finding out where the closest church is to where you are staying and seeing if you can join in for a ceremony. You will find Tongan locals in their very best dress and plenty of passionate singing going on!
My Favorite Memory from Tonga
While I was in Tonga, I landed myself with a nasty bout of food poisoning. Yep, this is my favourite memory from my time in the country. But wait for it: things are about to get fun. So, there I was with food poisoning and it just so happened to hit mere hours from my flight off the island of ‘Eua. I had left my first aid kit in New Zealand and so I didn’t have any Imodium.
Things were looking disastrous. When I explained my predicament to my guesthouse owner, she immediately took me under her wing and offered to help. First, she drove me to the airport. Now, ‘Eua is a tiny island with a population of around 5000 people and its airport is not much of an airport.
Consisting of a small runway for the six-seater plane that provides the only flight option for getting there, the terminal is an open air building with a single check-in desk. Most of the time, the airport is closed as there are only a handful of flights each day. My guesthouse owner spoke to the woman at the check-in desk and explained the problem I was suffering from.
“It’s okay,” she said to me. “She’s going to hold the plane for you while we go to see the island doctor.” I blinked. I couldn’t comprehend the fact that they were going to hold the plane for me while I went to buy Imodium. When does that ever happen?! Next, my guesthouse owner drove me to the medical centre and we discovered the doctor was on her break.
Not to worry: on ‘Eua everybody knows everybody. So we went to the doctor’s house to ask for the medication. The doctor was kind and happily wrote me a prescription. “No charge,” my guesthouse owner told me. “We are pretending it’s for me and locals don’t have to pay for medication.”
When we arrived back at the airport, the pilot was happily waiting for me and led me out to the plane. I couldn’t believe the kindness that everybody had shown me. It made for such an unforgettable travel experience. The patience and generosity shown by everyone was remarkable!
Accommodation Options in Tonga
There is a whole mix of accommodation up for grabs in Tonga – from inexpensive hostels to private island resorts. One thing to keep in mind is that not many of the accommodation providers list their places online, so you may have to book via email. Here are some of my favourite places:
Backpackers Townhouse, Tongatapu: In Tongatapu, I stayed at Backpackers Townhouse which is a hostel and the cheapest place on the island. During your stay, you will receive a free breakfast and invitations to join the family who own the place for meals and events. It’s located right in the middle of town, so it’s perfect for exploring the capital on foot.
The Hideaway, ‘Eua: If you want to avoid the very small number of tourists in Tonga, I suggest heading to ‘Eua! And when you arrive, there is nowhere better than the Hideaway. I stayed in a bungalow overlooking the beach (in high season you can watch whales swim by your room) and loved the free breakfast. This place makes it easy to explore ‘Eua as they have a range of tours, from kava ceremonies to tapestry weaving, to 4WD tours.
Matafonua Lodge, Ha’apai: I have been singing the praises of Matafonua Lodge throughout this piece, so you are undoubtedly already aware that it’s one of my favourite places on the planet. The staff are wonderful, the food delicious and the beach is one of the best I have ever stepped foot on. In high season, you can swim with whales as they migrate to the waters near Matafonua. In addition, there is kiteboarding and diving available.
Mystic Sands, Vava’u: Mystic Sands is one of the top-rated options in Vava’u and for good reason. The staff are so kind and sweet, the internet is speedy (when it works), there is an infinity pool overlooking the ocean, and there are even free kayaks and snorkels to use. Every Sunday, the staff cook up a free feast for all of the guests which I thoroughly enjoyed! Any downsides? It’s not in the main part of town, so it can feel a bit isolated.
Need to Know Before you Go
Prepare to battle with the airline: Real Tonga is the country’s main airline and dealing with them can be frustrating at times. Sometimes they forget to send you your boarding pass, sometimes flights are delayed for days when a pilot falls unwell and they have nobody else to fly the plane. It can all feel a bit confusing and stressful to deal with. Remember to take a deep breath, expect for things to go wrong and celebrate when they don’t!
Choose one island chain in Tonga and stick to it. If you are short on time, I highly recommend choosing either Ha’apai or Vava’u and exploring the various islands within that chain. With 51 islands in Ha’apai and 55 islands in Vava’u, you will have plenty of island destinations to choose from.
Traveling in Tonga can take a long time. For example, for me to get from Ha’apai to Vava’u I needed to fly back to Tongatapu – meaning it was a full day of travel to traverse a short distance. All of this travel will only eat into your vacation time. Choose one group of islands and explore it in depth.
Don’t wear black: you should only wear black in Tonga while mourning. Instead, pack lots of colorful clothes. You will fit in with the locals that way. Also, plan your trip around Sundays. This day is a day of rest in Tonga and it’s taken to the extreme. Even exercise is forbidden! So too are business transactions. Everything is closed on Sundays, so you won’t be able to shop at stores. Instead, head to church for a marvelous cultural experience.