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.
Don't ask why. This is just 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. In fact, I doubt most people could say where Tonga is, even if a million-dollar jackpot depended on it.
For the record, it's an archipelago in the South Pacific, 1,245 miles 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 because this idiosyncratic little country is a remnant of the old South Pacific. So, along with teeming coral reefs and pristine beaches, there are also bugs, muddy roads, warm beer and nonfunctioning ceiling fans. But for those who fancy the life of a Gilligan's Island castaway, Tonga is ripe with the possibility of adventure--and I had lots of it.
Air New Zealand flies from Los Angeles, but only once a week. When I flew to Tonga last month, at the tail end of the rainy season (prime time for visits is May to November), I crossed three time zones and the international date line on the way. The plane lands in Nuku'alofa at 2 a.m., but I was scheduled to visit Tonga's outlying islands first, so I had a six-hour layover before catching the RTA plane for a 45-minute flight to the beaches of Ha'apai.
During a stopover in Honolulu, I noticed a fit-looking man with a beard and a deep tan, and he showed up again the next morning in the hot, bleak Nuku'alofa airport lounge. Eavesdropping on his conversation with an Austrian couple, I realized that he had to be the owner of the Sandy Beach Resort, where I was headed.
Talking to the Austrians and Jurgen Stavenow, returning to his Tonga resort after a visit to his homeland in Germany, was a pleasant way to pass the time. And there was a lot of it to pass, because the Royal Tongan flight was delayed due to "little mechanical problems." Five hours later, the airline finally canceled the flight, promising to put us up in Nuku'alofa and fly out the next afternoon.
I'd planned the trip through a Northern California travel agency. My itinerary seemed airtight: three nights at Sandy Beach; 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.
Now those plans were shot. But I soon 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.
Frankly, even on weekdays, the options are limited in Nuku'alofa, where a 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.
In "The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific," travel writer Paul Theroux calls the capital "stricken" and "grim." But during my unscheduled stop there 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," "goodbye," "French fry," one tyke cried to me.