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Fantasy Islands : It's Hard to Find an Escape More Remote Than Any of These South Pacific Outposts. With the Current Transpacific Air-Fare Bargains, There's No Better Time to Go. : Tonga: Polynesia's Last Kingdom

March 01, 1992|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Drogin is a Times foreign correspondent based in Manila

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — Flying in from Fiji, our fellow passengers included Tonga's crown prince and princess, a visiting U.S. diplomat who'd seen coups in three countries, and a bleary-eyed Chinese man who boarded the 8 a.m. flight in a starched white dinner jacket and black velvet dancing pumps.

When we landed, we were met on the runway by His Majesty the King of Tonga, the kind and corpulent King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV--Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Knight of the British Empire, etc.,etc.--and his royal Chevy van.

Walking across a hastily laid red carpet, the prince and princess embraced their regal dad. The dapper party-goer, Tonga's honorary consul in Hong Kong, followed meekly behind. The American headed out to check local coup rumors. And after a few days' work, my wife, Maggy, and I chartered a 38-foot sloop and island-hopped across one of my favorite countries in the world.

The Kingdom of Tonga, happily, is not for everyone. First, getting to Tonga isn't easy: The 170 or so mostly uninhabited coral atolls and volcanic islands are sprinkled deep in the South Pacific; Samoa is 500 miles north, Fiji is 500 miles northwest. Only a few thousand tourists make it each year, mostly visiting yachtsmen.

Second, tourist facilities and sights are minimal. The best hotel is the three-story, motel-like International Dateline. Tonga has no golf, no jet skis, no CNN (or any TV, for that matter) and no traffic lights. There are only 23 rental cars, and pigs wander down the road at will. Visitors are encouraged to go to church--nearly everything else is closed or illegal on Sundays anyway.

Other than watching the 300-plus-pound king exercise--hidden behind thick black goggles, the 73-year-old monarch peddles a fragile black bicycle around a stadium each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and rows a small wooden skiff around the harbor on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday--tourist attractions are few.

The Victorian, gingerbread-fronted Royal Palace looks like a summer cottage in Cape May, N.J. The Royal Tombs, two dozen stone-terraced burial mounds, and an ancient Stonehenge-like coral structure apparently once used for the solstice, are underwhelming. Only a surf-battered coastline lives up to its billing. Each crashing wave sends geysers spouting skyward through blowholes in the coral. When we visited during high tide last September, hundreds of roaring plumes laced the air. Misty rainbows were everywhere. Old Faithful will never look the same.

But Tonga is Polynesia's last kingdom, and the only Pacific nation never colonized or brought under foreign rule. Nor has it been invaded by Holiday Inn, tacky Kon Tiki-style restaurants, or buses of camera-toting tourists.

Tonga is the unspoiled remnant of the South Pacific of the past, with the same pristine white-sand beaches, fringed palms and friendly people that characterize other archipelagos, but without $250-per-night (and up) waterfront hotel rooms and a constant feeling that you are more a marketing target than a person.

Indeed, Tonga may be unique of the dozens of Pacific islands visited by Capt. James Cook, the intrepid 18th-Century English explorer, in keeping its traditional culture essentially intact.

Cook clearly was smitten by what he called the Friendly Islands. "None of the most civilized nations have ever exceeded these islanders in the great order and regularity maintained on every occasion, in ready and submissive compliance with the commands of their chiefs, and in the perfect harmony that subsists among all ranks," he wrote after his third and last visit in 1777.

Other accounts say local cannibals wanted to cook Cook, but no matter. A small plaque, half-hidden under an ovava tree where he supposedly rested, marks his landfall on Tongatapu, the main island. (Nothing marks the infamous mutiny on the HMS Bounty, which occurred in Tongan waters 12 years later.) A Galapagos tortoise that Cook left as a farewell gift lived until 1966, and is stuffed and on display in a tiny museum.

Hereditary kings already had ruled Tonga for nine centuries when Wesleyan Methodist missionaries arrived in 1822. They soon baptized a chief, who became King George Tupou I. He ended slavery and cannibalism, established a written constitution and successfully fended off Western colonial powers who were then carving up the Pacific. His British-born pastor and premier, the Rev. Shirley Baker, wasn't so lucky. A victim of politics, he was deported to Fiji, where a wooden fork reputedly used to eat him is displayed in a museum.

The current king rules with the help of 33 nobles--hereditary chiefs who control most of the land, economy and government. There are no political parties or unions. There is also no hunger; there is good health care and nearly universal literacy. Despite grumbling over alleged abuses of power, the king still commands considerable respect among his 105,000 subjects.

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