Tongatapu's 259 square km are just over a third of the kingdom's surface area, yet two-thirds of Tonga's population lives here. Of coral origin, Tongatapu is flat with a slight tilt—from 18.2-meter cliffs south of the airport to partly submerged islands and reefs to the north. Some 20,000 years ago Tongatapu was blanketed with volcanic ash from an explosion on Tofua Island, creating the rich soil that today supports intensive agriculture.
Tongatapu, or "Sacred Tonga," is the heartland of Tongan culture, history, and political power. Here Captain James Cook conferred with the Tu'i Tonga, and the island is still the seat of Tongan royalty. The Tonga National Center outside the capital, Nuku'alofa, showcases Tongan culture, and compelling megalith monuments and royal tombs testify to Tongatapu's historical weight. Vying for visitors' attention are noisy colonies of sacred flying foxes, an admirable bird park, breathtaking beaches, remarkable coastlines, tapping tapa mallets, and evocative archaeological remains. And unlike Samoa, no "custom fees" are collected from visitors out to see the island's sights. Cook was enthralled by Tongatapu, and you will be too.