Vava'u Group - Kingdom of Tonga

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Click here also to read the story of Leonati Motuliki - Master Carver and Artist,

born in the Vava'u Group and an artist to kings and collectors worldwide.



Welcome to Tonga!

After an arduous passage from American Samoa, we were met at the Customs dock by friends Ingamar and Ed on SV Kuay, who caught our dock lines and gave us a quick tour of Neiafu including the Tropicana Cafe. Philip got introduced to Maka beer, one of the better beers he's had since the 'ole US of A.

Vava'u Group

We escaped from the "bustle" of sleepy Neiafu (nay AH foo) to find a more secluded anchorage in the Vava'u (Va va OO) island group and were the only boat in pristine Fangakima bay with it's 100' water visibility.

Limestone and Coral

We took a dinghy tour around Fangakima anchorage on the island of Kapa where the water clarity was amazing.

Kapa Island from Fangakima

And still more gorgeous clear turquoise water at Fangakima (also known as Port Maurelle or anchorage #7).

Boat to Boat Sales

Peter and Betiola of the Pangaimotu island stopped by Carina to sell and trade wood carvings, woven baskets and grass skirts.

A Sale is Made

This shows Betiola's wares. We bought the two carvings she is holding even though Philip was wondering where in heck we'd put them. Perhaps to get back the few nanometers of waterline, we offloaded and donated to the family a jar of Ragu sauce, a can of beef and two substantial pouches of powdered milk....

"Swallows" Cave

It should actually be called swiftlet cave as these are the little birds that flit and roost in the cave and fill the skies surrounding it. The entrance is so big it's easy to drive your dinghy right inside.


Unfortunately we weren't the first to drive our boat into Swallow's Cave and many previous visitors left graffiti as evidence of their visits.

Underwater Cathedral too

Once inside and with our eyes adjusted, we noticed the eerie blue glow of the rock and coral deep beneath us.

Luafatu Outside

Looking out from Swallows Cave - which sits at the NW end of Kapa Island, there is a lovely view of tiny Luafatu island which sits at the entrance to the Vava'u group of islands. The effect of the reflection of the shimmering blue water and sky peeking into the cave mouth is lovely.

Sea Snake

Returning to Swallow's Cave the following day with Eric of Sidetrack, we were lucky enough to spy a beautiful and highly poisonous (ten times more venomous than a king cobra), though shy, seasnake. (Photo credit Sidetrack)


These woven mats of all degrees of fineness are worn by both men and women. Certain designs are reserved for important occasions such as weddings or funerals, but they are also everyday attire while in "town". (Kuay photo)

Tonga Culture Days

When we arrived at the site of the cultural festival we walked through an exhibition of cultural art. The pandanus palm mats of the Tongan people are fine and soft and take hundreds of hours to make. This woman's crafts were the finest of the show. Also, there were baskets of naturally dyed pandanus palm, carvings of wood, whale and ox bone, coconut carvings and tapas, a fabric made from the bark of wood and decorated with intricate patterns.

Flowers of Tapa Cloth

A "new" idea presented at the crafts exhibition were flowers (8"-12" across) made of fine tapa cloth. Notice the patterns in the darker colored flowers.


The guest of honor was late, the honorable Prime Minister, Fredricka...., so to the beat of Tongan interpretations of rock or be-bop, people would suddenly break out in dance. Such is the joy of the Tongan people.

Ready to Go

Dozens of children were impatient for the festivities to begin and more than one followed the adults' lead and broke into dance. There was a reward for breaking a natural shyness: people will tuck paper money into the performer's pockets.

Singing Like Angels

We wake most mornings to the sound of singing from the churches above us on the hill; the choir at the cultural festival needed no amplification to make everyone take notice. They are dressed, formally, in wraps called ta'ovalu.

Dressed Up

Seemingly the entire population of the archipelago turned out the celebrate their culture. Most children waited patiently amongst the crowd for their turn to perform.


One of the guests of honor at the Cultural Festival was "Angela" who was a Tongan living in Hawaii. She sang a song of Tonga which befit her angelic name.

Miss Tonga Tourism

We started to lose track of who was who (and unfortunately never got a photo of the dignified young woman who was the prime minister), but this young girl, also a dignitary at the event, danced sensously and got the visiting Hawaii college rugby team's attention. The following day she showed up wearing her "Miss Tonga Tourism" sash.

Ms Tonga

Ms. Tonga Tourism got the attention of the crowd but Ms. Tonga brought the entire visiting rugby team to the field to tuck money onto her clothing during her Tongan dance. Note the fallen bills at her feet.

Rugby Team Warm Up

Ms Tonga, a beauty, could barely dance with the rugby team crowding around her, especially when a team player threw dozens of pa'anga (money) notes into the air.

Flying Pa'angas

The rugby team's joyous hurling of dozens of one and two pa'anga notes into the air, brought almost the entire crowd into the park, as children and adults alike scrambled for the notes. Most were gathered and then presented, with a bow of deference, to the prime minister, Fredricka.

Pa'angas for Performers

The tradition of "pasting" monetary notes to performers is common in the Pacific. Here a Tongan, returned as a Hawaiian rugby player, stuffs a pa'anga note into the shirt of a dancer, mid-performance.

It Takes a Village

Each village that came to perform at the cultural festival brought almost, if not all, its entire population to dance joyously for their neighbors.


The opening ceremony started two hours late so the first of the traditional dancers, those performing the kailao, or war dance, began during the heat of the day. Still these young performers were disciplined and precise.

War Dance Extraordinaire

This village's team included many young girls and was even more precise and matched in their dance to the amazing rhythm of a pair of tin drums made out of corrogated roofing.

A Family Event

Villagers from around the entire archipelago waited patiently in costume for their chance to perform. Families came together and even the youngest participated.

All Ages

This village's group sang many songs and each woman or girl was given a chance to dance for the judges.


Miss Tonga and Miss Tonga Tourism sat patiently nearby the event's judges and watched every performance.

Christmas Island Style

One Christmas morning we hiked from our anchorage on Vaka'eitu Island through the jungle to an isolated beach on the windward side. There we scavenged a mooring float which had washed up on the beach.


The isolated beach had overhanging old growth trees and soft gooshy sand. A great place to watch the wind and water. Here Leslie takes her turn sitting on the mooring float.

Birthday Party!

Ed of Kuay arrived back in Vava'u on Dec 30; the 31st was his and Philip's shared birthday. We had a feast with Caribee providing the banana nut bread birthday cake.


Lynnie & Kakau are from Vava'u; Kakao is the quarantine officeer. Charlie (of Cosmos without wife Suni) also joined the festivities.

Caribee, Too

Randy and Cheryl of Caribee also joined in the fun.

And even Tribute

Larry of Tribute rounded out our - and hungry - boisterous bunch.


We had been told to meet Ben and Fa'aki of Matamaka by friends. In Jan 2010, while anchored nearby at Vaka'eitu, Ben and Fa'aki Fifita came by our boat and invited us to their village. On Sunday, January 24, we had an expedition aboard Carina with friends Larry, Ed and Ingemar. When we arrived Ben was preparing the main course for lunch - a month old piglet - spit roasted or tunu-style.


Our first adventure at Matamaka was a trip to church. To ensure Leslie was dressed appropriately, Fa'aki lent Leslie a lovely pandanus wrap called a kiekie.

Faaki's Feast

When we returned from church we spread out the family's eating mat and dove into a true Tongan feast.

Ben and Fa'aki

The children of Ben and Fa'aki are quiet, smart and very polite. They are: Roxanne (standing with her cousin), Tomi, Koloa, Maile, Latai and baby William.

Mom's Helper

The following week, we hosted a picnic at nearby Vaka'eitu for Ben and Fa'aki and the kids. While Fa'aki helped prepare the meal, lovely Roxanne took care of her baby brother William.

Leonati Motuliki - Artist to the King

Leonati, named by his parents after the Italian master, Leonardo, showed artistic talent from a young age. He exhibits his work at the Utukalungalu Market in downtown Neiafu. This picture was taken during his last day at the market - he would be traveling to Shanghai, China as an invited artist to Expo 2010 held May 1 - October 31.

Awaiting Mary Beth

Vava'u International Airport is a modest affair. The Chathams Pacific Air flight was cancelled and then on again and cancelled and on again...we were very happy to see the plane finally coming out of the clouds.


Mary Beth and Leslie left no stall untouched while shopping at the public market. Mary Beth found an amazing tapa made by Mary, a friend from whom we bought much.

Bacio Performs Well

Little eight and a half foot Bacio was a trooper hauling us all around anchorages. (Kuay photo)

Camp Carina

After a bit of shopping at the market, we headed out to the "islands" only to be turned back to Neiafu by a tsunami!


Mary Beth took advantage of the gorgeous water at Port Maurelle (Fangakima) to try out her new snorkel gear.

Survivors Party

After cyclone Rene and Mary Beth's arrival, a few boats gathered at Fangakima for a survivor's party...BBQ pizza for all. Leslie made sauce and dough and rolled a dozen or more pizzas...PJD manned the BBQ and the rest of the revelers created original pizzas from a myriad of ingredients. (Kuay photo)

Swallow Cave

Mary Beth thought she might snorkel here only to learn snakes had been spotted on previous visits. She was content to take photos.

Ocean Passage

One day we headed out to sea so Mary Beth could get a taste of sailing with ocean swells and to (perhaps) catch a fish. We caught a skipjack, enough for supper, but Mary Beth was surprised with the "rough" seas. (Mary Beth O'Brien photo)

We Ate Well

Despite the devastation of Cyclone Rene less than two weeks previous, we were able to stock Carina with good chow for the hungry "charter" guest (and crew). (Mary Beth O'Brien photo)

Lotuma Bay

On the way back to Neiafu from the islands, we stopped briefly at Lotuma Island, a former installation for the Tongan military. Here, while snorkeling, Leslie encountered a highly poisonous Laticauda snake and both Leslie and the snake swam off in different directions when Leslie screeched into her snorkel.

Lotuma Island

The main remaining structure on Lotuma Island is the watch tower, which we decided looked too rickety to climb, though we had been assured the view from the top was fabulous. This day, just below, was a massive cruise ship called the Amadea.

Typical Village Boat

These boats travel to and from Neiafu from outlying island villages, often with far more people and supplies than they should. Many are collectively owned.


Tema is also a friend who sells at the market and Mary Beth enjoyed meeting her and helping her with supplies for her gardens. We ran into Tema in front of the ANZ Bank downtown, dressed for a meeting in her lovely dress and kiekie.


Here's a photo which gives you a better glimpse at how lovely Tema looked. (Mary Beth O'Brien photo)


These kids were chasing each other down to their family's boat at the marina and shyly asked us if we needed help. We didn't but Mary Beth asked if she could photo them in their neat school attire. They smiled broadly but shyly for this shot. (Mary Beth O'Brien photo)

What Next?

The devastating 8.8 earthquake in Chile on 26 February 2010 sent a series of tsunamis out into the Pacific. At the entrance to Neiafu harbor, where the harbor narrows to <100 yards, dangerous whirlpools formed as water rapidly rose and fell. We were safely inside the harbor in deep water at our mooring during the hour-long ebb and flow of the tsunamis. (Photo by Lisa Molloy)

Market Day

From late Friday through Saturday at noon, boats from all over the island group come to Neiafu for market day and gather under the shade of the ovava tree. Some of these boats will have coolers of fish and will call to prospective customers using a shrill whistle.

CocoNet & Tonga Bob's

A couple of the watering holes at the waterfront in Neiafu.

No 7-11 in Sight

This is one of Neiafu's humble fueling stations. They'll even custom pre-mix fuel and oil for 2 cycle engines (for the hundreds of marine outboard engines that drive the local boats)

Kitten Love

Lisa Molloy, Neiafu's one woman animal rescue society, multi-tasking - socializing kittens that she is caring for and for whom she will find loving homes all the while caring for customers at her cafe.

Kitten Perfect

This is the kitten who became known as Ratbag. He's still tiny today, but this was the day he and his sisters were discovered.


Just before leaving Neiafu, Tonga we learned of an effort to collect postcards from around the world for a small island village school. The response we received was over-whelming.