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Special Travel Issue | South Pacific

Sailing Tonga's Fantasy Islands

The Lush Polynesian Islands Of Vava'u, Many Uninhabited, Are Best Seen From The Deck Of A Yacht

October 13, 2002|AMANDA JONES | Amanda Jones, who lives in New Zealand, last wrote for the magazine about Samoa.

It would seem just my luck, of course, that I would end up in the most unexpectedly romantic place not with the love of my life but with my perfectly nice sister-in-law. We are great friends, Sally and I, but, hey, when you're on a 46-foot yacht in paradise, who could blame me for wanting more?

We were in Tonga on a gamble. A Samoan chief once told me that heaven could be found in Vava'u, the northernmost group of islands in Tonga. He had not been there himself, he said, but among South Pacific islanders, Vava'u is legendary for its loveliness. I'd also heard yachties say that Vava'u has some of the best cruising on the planet. Beyond this, we knew little.

On a map, Tonga is smack in the middle of the South Pacific, lying northeast of New Zealand and south of Fiji and Samoa. The Kingdom, as it's called by its proudly royalist inhabitants, is composed of 140 islands divided into four chains. They are known as the Friendly Islands.

If Tonga were more accessible, this kind of extreme tropical beauty would doubtless have been developed into a parade of Club Meds. But Vava'u, with its 16,000 easygoing people, has a purity rarely found elsewhere. Smooth ivory beaches surround fertile volcanic islands. Brilliant aquamarine waters, unpolluted and calm as millponds, lap the mostly uninhabited islands. Coral reefs teem with underwater life and trees hang heavy with exotic fruits.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 03, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 168 words Type of Material: Correction
Pacific Islands -- In "Sailing Tonga's Fantasy Islands" (Special Travel Issue, Oct. 13), it was incorrectly stated that Vava'u is Tonga's northernmost group of islands. The Niuas islands are the South Pacific nation's northernmost island group.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 17, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
In "Sailing Tonga's Fantasy Islands" (Special Travel Issue, Oct. 13), it was incorrectly stated that Vava'u is Tonga's northernmost group of islands. The Niuas islands are the South Pacific nation's northernmost island group.

But Vava'u is not a tourist destination; it is a traveler's destination. If you desire spas and cell phones, go somewhere else. If you are looking to be far, far from the madding crowd--bingo, welcome to Valhalla.

Even crabby Paul Theroux liked Vava'u. His ornery book "The Happy Isles of Oceania" attempted to disprove the perception of the South Pacific as nirvana. Nonetheless, in his chapter on paddling the islands he graciously conceded, "Everything about the Vava'u group pleased me."

Like Theroux, however, Sally and I at first regretted our choice of Tonga after spending a night in Nuku'alofa, the capital on the main island of Tongatapu. It seemed overpopulated, badly littered and filled with run-down, unappealing cinder-block architecture. But as the plane to Vava'u--Royal Tongan Airlines is the only carrier inside Tonga--skimmed over islands ringed with every conceivable blue, we were filled with fresh hope that maybe, just maybe, untrammeled Shangri-Las were still out there.

We'd arranged for our boat through Sunsail, a yacht chartering company that leases boats in 42 ports of paradise around the world. Moorings, another large international chartering company, also has a base on Vava'u. The joy of going through companies like these is that no matter how undeveloped the region, you're guaranteed a good quality boat.

At the shed-like airport in Neiafu, Vava'u's capital, we were met by Mark Managh, Sunsail's Tonga-based manager. A New Zealander, Mark has lived in Tonga for five years but has avoided "going troppo," the term for people who drop out, move to the islands and never wear shoes or look in a mirror again. Mark cut quite a dashing figure: hip sideburns, George Clooney haircut, and that charisma exhibited by those who spend 80% of their time outdoors.

Our boat, named Options, was a Beneteau Oceanis 461 yacht owned by an American couple who had made a killing in the go-go stock market and then gone troppo in their own small way--occasionally vacationing on their boat when they weren't leasing it through Sunsail. It was a slick 46-footer with three double cabins, ensuite bathrooms, a large saloon, tidy galley, spacious cockpit, teak cockpit deck and gleaming fiberglass hull. There should have been four of us, but at the last moment two were called back to work obligations, leaving Sally and me to press onward.

Given that we are nautical layabouts, a skipper was required. Although Sunsail mainly offers bareboat charters, they happened to have Limoni "Ray" Siasau on hand for cases like ours.

Ray, 29, had close-cropped hair, bulging muscles and a radiant white smile. He seemed reserved at our first meeting, likely appalled at being asked to shepherd two lone women around for a week. Tongan society is fervently Christian and conservative. Taboos between men and women mean that brothers and sisters cannot sleep in the same house or even ride in the same car. Although Ray was married with five children, he may have been concerned about his congregation's view of him spending time in the blue beyond with two bikini-clad palangi (foreigners).

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