The ancient Kingdom of Tonga, oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy, is the only Pacific nation never brought under foreign rule. Though sprinkled over 700,000 square km of ocean from Niuafo'ou between Fiji and Samoa, to the Minerva Reef 290 km southwest of Ata, the total land area of the kingdom is only 691 square km.
Tonga is divided into four main parts: the Tongatapu Group in the south, with the capital, Nuku'alofa; the Ha'apai Group, a far-flung archipelago of low coral islands and soaring volcanoes in the center; the Vava'u Group, with its immense landlocked harbor; and in the north, the isolated, volcanic Niuas.
|TONGA AT A GLANCE|
* Niuafo'ou, Niuatoputapu, Tafahi
** inhabited islands only
The four groups are pleasingly diverse, each with interesting aspects to enjoy: no other Pacific country is made up of components as scenically varied as these.
More than 100 km of open sea separate Tongatapu and Ha'apai, then it's another 100 km between Ha'apai and Vava'u, then another 300 km north to remote Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu. In all, Tonga comprises 170 islands, 42 of them inhabited. Even though they're some of the most densely populated in the Pacific, the Tongan islands are set quite apart from the 21st century.
Due to the position just west of the international date line, the Tonga Visitors Bureau uses the marketing slogan "where time begins," but they could just as well use "where time stands still."
Tonga lies between Samoa and New Zealand when viewed north to south or between Cook Islands and Fiji looking east to west.
Just west of the international date line, Tonga shares its day with Fiji, Samoa, and New Zealand, but is one day ahead of American Samoa, Niue, and Hawaii. The hour is the same as in Samoa (GMT plus 13 hours).
Tongatapu is a repository of Polynesian culture and tradition, Ha'apai is for beach lovers, and Vava'u is for the active visitor looking to dive, paddle, peddle, fish, or sail.
Tongatapu is accessible from Auckland, New Zealand, on Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue, and from Fiji on Air Pacific.
The vast majority of the 100,000 people are pure Polynesian. In recent years Tonga has received several thousand immigrants from China.
Lapaha Archaeological Area, Tongatapu:
unexcavated pyramids over royal tombs
Li'angahuo 'a Maui, 'Eua:
natural stone bridge, sea cliffs
Royal Palace, Nuku'alofa:
Victoria structure symbolic of Tonga
Uoleva Island, Ha'apai:
long deserted beach, semi-uninhabited island
humpbacks here from May-October