How I Conquered my Last Two Polynesian Nations: Tonga and Samoa

Before I take you back to the trip where I discovered the last two nations left in Polynesia for me to conquer, let me start you off with a small geography lesson. In case you don’t already know this, Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, made up of more than 1,000 islands that scatter over the central and southern Pacific Ocean.

The year before, around the same time, I had visited most of the islands in French Polynesia and Micronesia. During that tour, I visited Guam, Chuuk, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tuvalu, among others. – If you want to read about that adventure, click here.- During that trip, I left out Tonga and Samoa because I had to fly to the U.S. for business in Washington, D.C.

Interestingly enough, my plans to cross off Tonga and Samoa ended up happening a year later, almost to the date!

This trip began right after a seminar I attended in Singapore, and the Citizen Circle conference in Langkawi, Malaysia. From Malaysia, I flew back to Singapore and had a full day to do some exploring. Looking back now, this time seems like a lifetime ago, back when the corona craze was just beginning, and there was full freedom of movement in Singapore.

I decided to spend my day at the River Safari, a river-themed zoo and aquarium located in Singapore. It’s built over 12 hectares and nestled between its two counterparts, the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari. It is the first of its kind in Asia, it features freshwater exhibits, pandas, and a riverboat ride as its main highlights. The visit took all day, and it was quite an enjoyable experience.

The zoo itself has very natural surroundings, meaning no cages and a lot of space for the animals to roam free. They also have a wonderful selection of animals from different parts of the world.

Found this little kitten roaming around the ‘jungle’ 😉

Fun Fact: Sloths are a my favorite animal!

…and these are my second favorite!

The riverboat ride teaches you about different river systems from around the globe and the ecosystems that live inside them. The zoo also showcases some land mammals, most notably the Chinese panda bears, which live in a very nice (not caged) habitat.

Look at this cool and happy dude.

After the zoo, I went to the airport and arrived early to check out the Jewel center. It is A nature-themed entertainment and retail complex on the landside of Changi Airport. Its centerpiece is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the Rain Vortex, which is surrounded by a terraced forest setting. This nature dome is the big new attraction at SIN. It was pretty cool, check it out:

The Rain Vortex inside the Jewel Center at Changi Airport.

Another view of the main attraction at the Jewel.

After walking around the waterfall, I went to check out the different stores around the shopping center. To my most pleasant surprise, there was a Pokémon shop with lots of merchandise. If you don’t know this already, I am a self-proclaimed Pokémon nerd. To my delight, at this store, you can purchase stuffed replicas of ANY Pokémon… Which I did :D. Sorry, not sorry.

A place to let my inner Pokémon nerd flourish.

I bought Shuckle, a turtle Pokémon that is quite famous despite being one of the Pokémon with the lowest speed and attack scores. But it has one of the highest defense scores EVER… so, of course, I had to buy this little stuffed toy to join me on my travels. 😀

Fun Fact: Every single year, since 1996 (on the first GameBoy) up until now (with emulator) I have finished every game of Pokémon. You may think of it as a foolish hobby, but taught me from very early some very important lessons about life. Most notably:

– Optimize yourself to become IMBA (look it up)
– Hacking the game is the way to have more fun
– Collect things for the sake of collecting (i.e. countries 😉
– Never judge a book by it’s cover
– Focus on what’s important

As you can see, Pokémon is a very pedagogical game which should become mandatory play for every child – Thank you from the bottom of my heart Satoshi 😉

Welcome, my new travel buddy – the most IMBA Pokémon Nintendo ever created.

So that’s how I spent my 14-hour layover in Singapore, all in all, it was a really nice little visit.

Out of Singapore, I flew business class to Fiji on the direct, overnight flight with Fiji Airlines. If you haven’t flown with them, they are quite an excellent airline. I had the pleasure of flying with them the year before on a flight from Fiji to Los Angeles. This time, however, I flew from Singapore to Nadi, a city on Fiji’s main island, and a main transportation hub.

Shuckle’s first flight is in Fiji Airways Business Class over Nadi to Vava’u.

There is not much to say about this flight, other than it was very pleasant and I was able to get a good night’s sleep.

Hello Fiji, seeing land again after a 9 hour flight!

I arrived in Fiji well-rested the next day, early in the morning. This time I only had one day and one night in Fiji until my connection to Tonga. I decided to lodge at Fiji Marriott Resort in Momi Bay, which is located about an hour away from the airport. The Momi resort is quite a new property with over-water-villas in a lagoon, a beautiful sight, but nothing special, basically just sand and clear waters.

Aerial view of the Fiji Marriott Resort at Momi Bay

At the resort, there’s not really too much to see or do, no snorkeling for instance. However, credit where credit’s do, the scenery was quite stunning. I spent the afternoon at the resort, I had a lovely (not over-the-water) bungalow. It was more like a nice beach house, so I went with the vibes hung out at the beach.

Not the worst place to work from

After, I had a nice lunch and went for a massage, a local Fijian massage. Then I walked a little bit around the property, did some work, and not much else to tell, other than it was a nice place to spend the day and catch a beautiful sunset.

Fiji sunset

The next day I was brought to the airport to catch my flight to Vava’u. Vavaʻu is an island group made up of one large island and 40 smaller ones in Tonga. Initially, I wasn’t supposed to visit the capital, I was only supposed to go to Vava’u, but more about how plans change later…

On the flight to Vava’u, I met a nice German Family; husband, wife, and three children. There were not many other tourists on the plane, so it was easy to spot fellow countrymen right off the bat. Interestingly enough, the woman was seated at the end of the plane, and she recognized me! She said she knew me from my blog, she read Staatenlos! It was a small aircraft, and the flight took about 1.5 hours, so I talked with her and her family for most of it. It was interesting to see a homeschooling family en route to a remote Pacific island. They were headed to Vava’u to spend a couple of weeks there. Actually, come to think about it; they were probably still there after Tonga and Samoa closed their borders.

It is unlikely that you share your flight to a small Pacific Island with a German homeschooling family with 3 kids. It is less of a surprise than the mum being a big fan of my blog and recognised me 😀

You should know that Vava’u is considered one of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific. For this visit, I had only three days there, well, more like two full days. I had accommodations in a tiny resort on the island and had a driver pick me up from the airport. On the way to my hotel – which was on the other side of the island – I asked my driver to show me around and he took me to discover the island. We went to a few beaches with large cliffs and I took some photos of the beautiful surroundings. We also went to the highest hill in Vava’u. Despite what one may think, the island is not flat; in fact, it has a lot of cliffs and even a little mountain.

First sights of Vava’u, Tonga

At this hill, I climbed about 150 m up the stairs to find beautiful panoramic views of Vava’u. From this point, you can see some fascinating mountain forests, cliffs, and beautiful blue Azul water. I really enjoyed this part of the tour.

After, we went to some other places, basically all the streets in Vava’u, some freshwater caves, and some more beaches. I didn’t do much at the beach, other than taking pictures… I couldn’t help myself, every beach was stunning. On the tour, we also went to another viewing point, one from which you can see all the little islands around Vava’u. This was our last stop before arriving at my resort.

The pictures don’t do it justice… Truly a stunning island.

Actually, just the weekend before a big storm hit the island, a significant cyclone, so you could actually see a lot of destruction everywhere. Even the place I was staying at – The Mystic Sands Resort – was in the process of fixing the damage and renovating when I arrived.

View from my room at the Mystic Sands Resort

The property itself is very quaint, it only has 6 or 7 bungalows. My apartment was nice but pretty basic. After checking in, I rested a little, had a short sleep and woke up just before sunset. To go for my scheduled sunset tour of the bay in a kayak. So, I went around the bay for almost a kilometer, over to a tiny little island in the middle of the water. I went all the way around the little island, saw lots of fish and went back to the property just in time to enjoy the sunset from the water.

Sunset view from my kayak. After the last one rests in peace on the seafloor near Tofo, Mozambique – I finally bought a new GoPro – this time unsinkable. 🙂

The next day we had a big boat trip planned to go to the islands of Vava’u and to visit the big lagoon in the area, all magnificent sights.

Did you know that Vava’u is actually famous for being one of the only few places in the world where you can swim and snorkel with some big Wales legally? Humpback whales migrate up from Antarctica through to Tonga to mate and give birth. Without any significant predators around, the calfs have a chance to grow before making the long swim back to Antarctica.

The whales usually start to show up in late July to early August (“winter” in this part of the world) and they stay until mid-October. Unfortunately, my visit was during summer, and the whales hadn’t arrived yet. So, that’s something I will have to come back to Tonga to experience in the future. Even without whales, the boat trip was all still amazing; we had practically a private boat and navigated around all these beautiful little islands. Check out some of my favorite beaches from the excursion:

Island pigs taste quite yummy 😉

Nuku beach Vava’u

During the boat ride, we stopped at some beautiful beaches and some sweet snorkel spots. We just walked along the shores, and during snorkeling, we saw some really lovely coral life with large ecosystems and cool fishes. But we didn’t see anything special like big sharks or whales, however, we did get to see a turtle… at least.

Vava’u is mostly known as one of the few destinations in the world where you are permitted swimming with humpback whales. Unfortunately, it was not the season for me to catch them here. Still the island offers beautiful views

All in all, Vava’u is a beautiful place, but it may get boring after a while. I mean, it was completely deserted, and it remains pretty much completely unexplored. To paint a better picture, we were the only boat out that day, and there was basically no other people around the entire time – an utterly untouched paradise. Moreover, at the time of my visit, there were maybe 5 or 6 other tourists on the ENTIRE island… and this was during summertime. Either way, you should explore a place like this, at least once in your lifetime.

The south pacific as you imagine it. Did you know that Vava’u is one of the few sheltered natural harbors in the South Pacific? In cyclone season it is full of sailing yachts

We got back from the boat ride in the afternoon and I was pretty tired. I was very much looking forward to relaxing for the night and going to sleep early in anticipation of my flight to Samoa early the next morning. I was scheduled to take a direct flight from Vava’u and skip having to fly through Fiji or the main island in Tonga. However, remember I told you sometimes plans change? Well, that evening I got a message that my flight the next day was canceled. #remix

I was not impressed. The airline waited until the very last minute to inform me of this change – about 10 hours from my scheduled departure. This was unacceptable, after all, they knew about the change for a while since they actually stopped flying this route sometime before. The ordeal left me to scramble to find an alternate flight, which wasn’t the most straightforward task. Keep in mind I was in a remote paradise during the off-season. So the next flight back to Fiji I could find was five days later, and I didn’t really want to spend five more days on this small island with mediocre internet.

So I had to get creative; thankfully, the next morning there was a flight to Tongatapu, the largest island in Tonga, on which the capital city of Nukuʻalofa is located. Being one of my only options, I booked the flight and got on it the next morning.

In the end, I was able to leave Tonga the next day!

Tonga Airlines, where the stewardess turns missionary and asks you to read a Christian pamphlet inflight. Tonga Airlines = Jesus Airlines 😉

My new itinerary had me spending a full day in Tongatapu before catching my next flight to Fiji and finally, from Fiji to my original destination: Samoa. Needless to say, it was quite the detour. Even Though in my opinion it’s not really worth it to spend an extended amount of time on the main island of Tonga, I still made the most out of my time there and explored the capital for the day.

Personally, I think Vava’u is way more interesting. For starters, the main island of Tonga is entirely flat, it is where most of the population of the nation resides, and it doesn’t have many interesting sights. Either way, I hired the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport to also give me a tour of the island. He took me to check out Captain Cook’s Landing Site, a modest cairn above a mangrove inlet near Holonga village. It marks the spot where Captain Cook came ashore in 1777 (on his third trip to Tonga) and where Queen Elizabeth II popped by to commemorate it in 1970.

Mapu’a Vaea – Blowholes – Not may interesting things on the main Island. These blowholes are the biggest tourist attraction

After, we visited an old graveyard – did you know that there are twenty-two to twenty-eight ‘Langi’ (royal tombs) in or near Lapaha, in the east of Tongatapu? – The earliest tombs in the island have been tentatively dated back to the mid-thirteenth century. There are also several other langi in other parts of the country, most notably in Vavaʻu and Haʻapai.

Haʻamonga ʻa Maui Sundial 1200 AD

Monarchs of the current dynasty, the House of Tupou, are buried at Malaʻekula (“Red Ground”), in a park in the center of Nukuʻalofa, the current capital. Malaʻekula became a burial ground following the death of King George Tupou I, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Tonga, in 1893. It is not a langi, but an elaborate “modern” burial monument made entirely out of coral stone… very interesting to see.

Tongatapu is really boring. But it seems to have the most amount of graveyards I ever saw in one country. These are the tombs of the kings

Aside from these highlights, we visited many churches, Tongans are very Christian and very faithful people. We also got to see flying foxes (aka fruit-bats, or peka), there are many of them hanging in the trees around tonga. Pretty much the only mammals they have on the island.

We also went to a beach and walked around a little bit. After the little tour of the capital, visiting the king’s palace, and the downtown area, I just went to my hotel for the night. The hotel I was staying at had a nice Italian restaurant which served delicious food. So, I enjoyed a wonderful dinner that night and a great brunch the next morning before taking my next flight to Fiji and then finally over to Samoa.

Initially, I had planned to spend three full days in Samoa to discover the island and the sister islands of Levu, which are just separated by a small channel. Sadly, because of the flight cancelation, I lost two days in Samoa (the day I explored Tongatapu and the day I spent in transit between Tongatapu and Fiji on my way to Samoa).

In the end, I was left with only one full day in Samoa since the day after arriving I was already scheduled to catch an evening flight to Australia.

Side note, Samoa was the first country where I actually got the impression that the coronavirus may actually end up being a bit more hassle than I had originally expected. Getting through immigration after landing was a process. For starters, they took every arriving passenger’s temperature, checking for a fever. Moreover, everyone had to wear a facemask and cover their mouths at the airport. Lastly, every passenger had to have a five-minute interview with a doctor.

Out of the Pacific nations I had visited, Samoa was one of the first to take COVID-19 very seriously, and actually, up until today, they don’t have any cases. So yeah, maybe they had the right approach from the very start. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think too highly of the current prevention methods imposed by most nations, but on the small islands, they seem to have worked well.

I was happy my timing was perfect, I was still able to enter Samoa without much trouble, in spite of the rigorous arrival procedures. Especially considering that the week after, they started rolling out full restrictions: no more flights out and no entrance to Samoa without a valid health certificate stating that you were corona-free.

Thankfully upon arrival, I was one of the first passengers to get off the plane, so it didn’t really take me too long to get through immigration. I landed at night, so I just took a taxi straight to my hotel, the Sheraton Samoa Beach Resort. The place was quite nice, however, there was a small mixup. When I got there, I was informed they no longer had my reservation since I was supposed to arrive two days earlier, and I didn’t tell them I wouldn’t make it on time. However, with some sweet-talk, I manage to convince them to give me a room. After all, I had already paid for three nights and now only needed a place for one night. Eventually, they gave me my key, and I was able to get some rest for a few hours.

Sheraton Samoa Beach Resort – view of Savaii sister island.

I had ordered a rental car to be delivered to the hotel at 7 am the next morning, so I could have 8 hours (from 8-4) to explore the island. I was on a time crunch since my flight to Australia was at 6 pm that same afternoon. So, I woke up early – even after very little sleep – to find that the rental car guy (who should have delivered my car at 7) didn’t come. So, I went back to sleep until he finally showed up at 9 (I guess they run on island time). Thankfully, it was still enough time to explore the island.

When he got there, I just signed the papers, checked out, got my luggage in the car and drove off to discover what the island had to offer. I drove counterclockwise, going to the west first and all around the circumference of the island. My hotel was near the airport so I could drive along the coast and eventually arrive at the airport, almost at the starting point. During my drive, I stopped at some tourist sights and saw quite a lot of people going to church – it was Sunday. It was interesting to see faithful people going to church all dressed to impress.

First noteworthy stop during my cruise through Samoa.

The drive around Samoa was really lovely, even though it was more like a cruise since the speed limit on the island is 30 km/h. On the journey, I stopped to see some nice houses along the lagoon and some magnificent coral formations. The first noteworthy stop I made was at the Togitogiga waterfalls. A small hike leads you to a natural water pool with a view of some really stunning waterfalls – Not very big ones, but very picturesque nonetheless.

Togitogiga waterfalls – tiny but mighty!

Then I continued my drive and discovered a spot I had no idea existed, the To-Sua Ocean Trench. This spot was very, very cool. It’s basically two sinkholes connected by a cave, located very near the ocean. The hole fills with saltwater through an underground connection to the sea. The swimming hole is located roughly about 50-100 meters away from the ocean and inside, the water levels rise and fall with the tides.

To-Sua Ocean Trench… really enjoyed swimming here!

It is a scenic clear-water swimming hole with a diving board and a small and narrow staircase, which leads down about 20 meters until you can jump into the water. I’m not gonna lie, at first I was a bit scared to go on that ladder, it was a pretty steep drop and then climb to get back out. But yeah, I did it anyway and actually ended up having quite a bit of fun in the natural swimming pool, surrounded by beautiful crystal clear blue water. It was a cool experience to see the water drop from above and best of all, there weren’t many other people around, there were just a few people swimming while I was there.

One more of the To-Sua Ocean Trench – so beautiful…

From this point, there are also some cliffs you can walk to and see the coral formations and the beach nearby. After this spot, I was actually running a bit tight on time. I only had about three more hours before I had to be at the airport, so I debated whether I should take the main road through the capital towards the airport, or if I should finish covering the rest of the island as I had planned. After little consideration, I threw caution to the wind and chose the latter… Spoiler alert: it all worked out!

Fuipisia Waterfalls. I just had 8h to explore beautiful Samoa, rented a car and drove around the whole island (150km). A pity it is not a German colony any more 😀

So, I continued through the gravel roads that go all around the island and ended up going to the highlands in the mountains. There, I found another waterfall, the Fuipisia Waterfalls. This one was also quite nice and much larger than the ones before, dropping probably 60-80 m below. The cool thing here is that you can just walk right up to the edge of the waterfall, no barriers or anything. Just walk to the edge and look down – that was a pretty exhilarating experience.

Close to the edge.

pretty exhilarating experience standing at the edge and looking down

From there, I still had time to make a quick round through Apia, the capital of Samoa. From the car I took some pictures of the parliament building and some other sights of interest. I had a quick lunch at McDonald’s, (yeah they have McD’s in Samoa!) before continuing on.

My final moments in Samoa

Finally, after touring almost 150 km around the island, I arrived at the airport. Making it just in time to catch my flight to Australia. But that’s the beginning of another story. 😉