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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out of Time in Tonga

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga -- Work a little, rest a lot. Don't worry about your weight. Swim with your clothes on and forget about being punctual.

This is the way things are in the Kingdom of Tonga, a place as topsy-turvy as a book by Dr. Seuss.

A tiny island nation with few tourists (mostly New Zealanders) and served by only one major international airline, it is way, way off the beaten path. It's an archipelago in the South Pacific, about 2,000 kilometers northeast of New Zealand, composed of 171 islands and islets, most uninhabited. From the window of a Royal Tongan Airlines prop plane - which, aside from a few slow ferries, is the only way to hop from island to island once you get there - Tonga speckles the South Seas like a constellation in the night sky.

There are three main island groups - Tongatapu, Ha'apai and Vava'u - but the center of things is the capital, Nuku'alofa, on Tongatapu island, site of the international airport and the king's palace. The country is so isolated that at one time one of its far-flung islands received mail by air drops and swimming postmen. A few of the islands have villages and small resorts, but there are no high-rise hotels, shopping malls or fast-food outlets.

Visitors to Tonga must be willing to accept the most basic sort of tourist services.

Along with teeming coral reefs and pristine beaches, there are also bugs, muddy roads, warm beer and nonfunctioning ceiling fans. But for people who fancy the life of a Gilligan's Island castaway, Tonga is ripe with the possibility of adventure - and I had lots of it.

I flew to Tonga in March, at the tail end of the rainy season (prime time for visits is May to November).

My itinerary seemed airtight: three nights at Sandy Beach Resort; two days at the Popao Village Eco Resort, a rustic retreat in the Vava'u island group; and the last two days in a Nuku'alofa motel.

But those plans quickly were shot. The Royal Tongan flight was delayed due to "little mechanical problems" and five hours later the airline finally canceled the flight, promising to put us up in Nuku'alofa and fly out the next morning.

I learned that it's best to stay loose when traveling in Tonga, where a benign disrespect for timetables prevails. And on Sundays, time stands still altogether. Tonga has been devoutly Christian since Methodist missionaries arrived from Australia in 1826, and the whole country observes the Sabbath. Shops and restaurants close, and planes don't fly.

Even on weekdays, the options are limited in Nuku'alofa, where one-third of the country's 105,600 people live. Strung out along a wide bay on the north side of flat, featureless Tongatapu, it is a town of rusted World War II Quonset huts (U.S.troops were stationed here), sun-blistered Victorian cottages and unfinished-looking office buildings. Pigs and dogs forage for garbage in the streets and later become main courses at traditional Tongan feasts.

During my unscheduled stop in the capital and a return visit several days later, I got to like Nuku'alofa and its handsome, large-framed people, who dress mostly in modest Western clothes with traditional "ta'ovala" mats tied around their waists. The men are dignified, the women strait-laced (which is why they swim fully dressed), the kids winning and happy to pose for pictures and practice their English - "hi," "good-bye," "french fry," one tyke cried to me.

Seeing Nuku'alofa requires little more than half a day, on foot or by inexpensive taxis, beginning at the morning market downtown, where tropical produce is sold in pretty, hand-woven baskets. The royal graveyard and the Wesleyan church attended by the king are just west of downtown, and 2 kilometers south there's the Tongan National Center, with a museum containing vintage photos of bare-breasted maidens - the missionaries were quick to get them fully covered.

Tongans are deeply devoted to their monarchs. The current one, King Tupou IV, 81, lives in a waterfront, red-roofed Victorian mansion that looks more like a bed-and-breakfast than a palace. Visitors aren't allowed inside, but from the gate you can see the king's flock of geese and his TV satellite dish. According to a Tonga resort owner who knows the king - in this small country, lots of people do - the palace got hot water and television only in the last decade.

This underscores the anomalous nature of the Tongans, who are well fed, educated and, by all appearances, content, although their country is considered Third World and many go abroad to look for work. Those who stay seem to pick and choose what they want from the developed world - canned meat and cigarettes, but no X-rated movies or guns.

In Nuku'alofa there is only one coffee shop (Friends, on Taufa'ahau Street, the main drag), a few good seafood restaurants (the Seaview and Cafe Waterfront are two), a handful of craft shops selling mostly baskets and tapa cloth, and one decent Western-style hotel, the International Dateline, which overlooks the bay. That's where I checked in on the first day.

I started out hating the hotel, with its shabby, mismatched furniture, dirty windows, ancient, rumbling air-conditioning units and narrow beds. It had a restaurant that served mediocre breakfasts (but extraordinary dinner appetizers of raw fish coated in coconut milk, a Tongan specialty), and a pool where dead bugs floated. But like Nuku'alofa, and Tonga in general, the International Dateline grew on me - particularly when I compared it with the Friendly Islander Motel, where on my return visit to the capital I spotted a spider the size of a fried egg in the bathroom.

When we eventually arrived on Ha'apai, the Sandy Beach Resort's van was waiting at the airport. The resort owner, a native German named Jurgen Stavenow, drove us across the causeway that connects the Ha'apai group's main island, Lifuka, with Foa, an 11-kilometer-long islet to the north, passing a handful of villages on the way.

When we arrived, Jurgen's wife, Sigi, gave me a gin and tonic, fitted me with snorkeling gear and pointed out the reefs about 10 meters offshore. Then Jurgen took me to one of the 12 bungalows, called fales, that sit in a prim line facing one of the prettiest, most swimmable beaches I've ever seen.

I took note of the attractive king bed, ceiling fan, refrigerator, porch and private bath with shower. But then I hurried to the ocean, where you can float on your back forever.

I ate well at the Sandy Beach Resort (multicourse dinners featured New Zealand steak and Tongan lobster), slept tight in my bungalow, went bike-riding back over the causeway to Lifuka and met fascinating people. But just as I was starting to settle in, it was time to fly on to Vava'u (renowned among the yachting crowd for its deep, protected harbor), another 45-minute trip on a 12-seat RTA plane.

My arranged transfer wasn't on hand at the airport in Vava'u. So I took a bus to the port town of Neiafu, where the owners of the Popao Eco Village resort were to meet me in a launch. They weren't there either. I discovered that the resort had been closed for three weeks, since the last hurricane.

Moreover, all the other lodgings listed in my guidebook were full, including the idyllic-sounding Mounu Island Resort, with just three fales on an island about an hour's boat ride away.

But by chance the resort's owner, a New Zealander named Allan Bowe, was in the Bounty Bar next door (which he also owns). I begged him for a place to stay. He called his wife, Lyn, who agreed to put me up in a grass beach shack.

Bowe took me to Mo'unu Island, a flyspeck of a place, in a catamaran he uses for humpback whale-watching trips from June to November. The sun was setting, and a black dog swam out to greet us as we neared the lodge, where Lyn, the other guests and a lobster-tail dinner were waiting.

Unlike the resort's beautiful two-story fales, my grass shack had no bathroom and no furniture except a mattress covered in mosquito netting. But it was right on the beach, near a big cage holding a parrot named George.

The resort's main lodge has a dome and a wide porch, solar-heated water, shelves of books and a companionable little bar with a radio, playing the BBC World News when I arrived. My shack was a five-minute walk away, but I deemedmyself lucky to have it and slept seamlessly there to the sound of lapping waves.

The next morning I ran into the warm, dreamy surf, where I could see thickets of coral, fat sea cucumbers and bright blue starfish. Lyn, who came to Tonga with Allan about 10 years ago, fed me breakfast and told me stories about people who'd stayed at the resort, including a Spanish princess, an Indian swami and the current queen of Tonga.

Then I explored Mounu's simple but comfortable fales and followed a tangle of jungle paths that dead-end at the shore. I swam around the island one way and kayaked around it the other (with the Bowes' dog perched on the bow), took a little snorkeling trip in Allan's boat, read, lazed in the sun and drank planter's punch.

I guess I should be better able to say how I passed the time. But it's all run together in my mind, as things tend to do in paradise.

Where to Stay

In Nuku'alofa, the International Dateline Hotel is the best hotel in town; tel. 676-23-411, fax 676-23-410, e-mail Doubles are $60 to $100.

In the Ha'apai island group, the Sandy Beach Resort, tel./fax 676-60-600, e-mail, has 12 bungalows. Rate: $112 per room per night; with breakfast and dinner included, add $30 more per person per day.

In the Vava'u island group, the Mounu Island Resort, tel. 676-70-747, fax 676-70-493, e-mail, has only three rooms (booked for July and August). Rate: $100 per room; breakfast, lunch and dinner cost $40 per person extra daily, excluding alcohol.

For Information

Tonga Consulate General, Tourist Information, 360 Post St., Suite 604, San Francisco, California 94108; tel. (415) 781-0365, fax (415) 781-3964, Internet http:// (which also has links to information on hotels and activities). Or try the visitors bureau in Tonga, P.O. Box 37, Vuna Road, Nuku'alofa, Tonga; tel. 676-25-334, fax 676-23-507.