The Vava'u Group measures about 21 km east to west and 25 km north to south, and of the 34 elevated, thickly forested islands, 21 are inhabited. At 90 square km, the main island of Vava'u is Tonga's second largest.
Ships approach Vava'u up fjordlike Ava Pulepulekai channel, which leads 11 km to picturesque, landlocked Port of Refuge Harbor, one of the finest in the South Pacific.
The appealing main town of Neiafu, 275 km north of Nuku'alofa, looks out onto Puerto del Refugio, christened by Captain Francisco Antonio Mourelle, whose Spanish vessel chanced upon Vava'u in 1781 while en route from Manila to Mexico, making Vava'u one of the last South Pacific islands to be contacted by Europeans.
The many protected anchorages and easy navigation make Vava'u a favorite of cruising yachties. You can sail just about anywhere in Vava'u in three hours or less, usually with something interesting to see along the way.
It's also a prime place to launch an ocean kayak. Waters on the west side of the archipelago are generally deeper and better protected than those on the east. Beaches can be hard to find on the main island but there are many on the islets to the south.
There's a giant-clam breeding project at Falevai on Kapa Island and pearl-clam farming near Utulei in Port of Refuge Harbor and at three other locations. Vanilla plantations cover over 500 hectares, and Vava'u vanilla is among the best in the world. In 2002, a new high school was built at Neiafu with French aid money. Princess Pilolevu spends a fair bit of time in Vava'u; she's married to the governor, the Noble Tuita.
One of the South Pacific's two most important yacht charter operations is based here (the other is on Raiatea in French Polynesia). Places to stay abound, both in town and on the outer islands, the entertainment is varied, and watersports such as kayaking, sailing, scuba diving, and fishing are well developed.
July-October, this is the South Pacific's main whale-watching venue, and May-October is the prime time for yachting. Some hotels and activity operators raise their prices during these months and tourist facilities at Vava'u are more expensive than those elsewhere in Tonga at any time of year. On the plus side, all of the restaurants will be open, Tongan feasts will be happening, and trips will be easily arranged.
Unless you're willing to accept backpacker dormitory accommodations, it's important to make hotel reservations well in advance if you'll be there July-October. In the off-season, November-April, many tourist facilities close down and everything happens more slowly. Anytime, Vava'u is one Pacific island group you can't afford to miss.