Tonga specialist Latu Takapu // © 2015 Latu Takapu
Feature image (above): When clients visit Tonga, Takapu recommends they swim with humpback whales under the guidance of a local tour operator. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Travel agent Latu Takapu was born in Tonga and lived in the South Pacific island nation until the age of 14, eventually working as the U.S.-based representative for the Polynesian Kingdom’s Ministry of Tourism. Four years ago, she decided to put her vast knowledge of her native country to use as a travel advisor and now books trips for clients at Beach Travel in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
She spoke with TravelAge West about the destination’s singular appeal and the country’s famous activity — swimming with humpback whales.
What makes Tonga stand out as a destination?
Tonga is the only remaining Kingdom of Polynesia, and the people are always friendly. There’s warm weather all year-round and beautiful beaches, and the culture is very unique. There are actually 156 islands in Tonga, but only 56 are inhabited. Some of the islands are volcanic, and just a month ago, another little island formed that I wasn’t even aware of until I heard about it on the news.
In the past, I have seen photos of people snorkeling with humpback whales in Tonga. Is that something tourists can still do?
You can still swim with the humpback whales, but you have to be accompanied by a tour operator for safety. You go out on their boat, and the operators take you to a location where they know they’ll find humpbacks.
Then, they tell you exactly when to get into the water and where to go. Typically, it takes place off one of the smaller islands, such as Vavau, but no one is allowed to touch the whales.
How close do you get?
The last time I went out, I would say people were 8 yards away from the whales. Personally, I have never swum with the whales. I go on the boat and watch the others get out, but I just don’t have the stomach for it.
People love it, though. They always want to do it again. Most people tell me it’s a challenge, but definitely a dream come true. They often compare it, actually, to going skydiving. Many of the boats also have glass bottoms, so you can sometimes see the whales close up that way.
Is there one company you like to recommend to clients who want to swim with humpbacks?
I really like Deep Blue Diving, which is run by Sam Tatafu. He’s the owner, and he’s been doing the tours for about 10 years. He also served in the U.S. Navy, but he’s Tongan.
Deep Blue Diving is headquartered on the main island of Tongatapu, and his company has been growing because everybody feels so safe with him.
What type of traveler is a good fit for Tonga?
The type of travelers I send are a little on the high-end, at times, but most are medium-range spenders. If you compare it to Fiji, it’s much cheaper to go to Tonga, and it’s only 1.5 hours away from Fiji.
Families are a great fit for Tonga. It’s very safe, and there are a lot of outdoor activities, such as swimming and snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing.
A lot of honeymooners also find their way to Tonga, and every time I run into them, they just love it. They really seem to enjoy unplugging and disconnecting on some of Tonga’s more secluded islands. There are so many resorts they can pick from, and it’s very romantic.
What types of activities in Tonga do you recommend to clients?
There are a lot of outdoor activities, such as snorkeling, diving and surfing. Some of the islands have great hiking and, of course, there’s cultural entertainment. There are many places to surf in Tonga, and the water is so clean, so scuba diving and snorkeling is great.
Many people love to go Vavau for those activities, and there are also a lot of small islands where people can dive that are just a short trip away. Fafa is another place with good scuba diving and snorkeling options.
There are so many locations in Tonga that are really secluded and quiet, which people who dive really like. They’re just not crowded at all.
What are some of your favorite resort or hotel properties?
I like the The Black Pearl Suites because it’s not right in the capital. It’s on the outskirts of Nukualofa, on the main island of Tongatapu, and only about a 10-minute drive from town. The rooms are very comfortable with great beds. I always joke with everyone that it’s like a mini five-star property in Tonga. It’s not a big hotel; the property consists of 18 rooms with air conditioning and a large presidential suite. It’s not located right on the beach, but it has ocean views.
For the bungalow-style option, I would say Likualofa Resort. It’s so beautiful and right on the beach on the western side of the main island of Tongatapu. You really get to escape there. You can also watch whales right from the beach during the [July to October] humpback season. They also have snorkeling, diving and surfing gear to rent. It’s a good place to surf, and they do cultural entertainment shows on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights.
As previously mentioned, there’s also the island of Vavau, which is very popular among visitors. With all the yachts, it reminds me of Monte Carlo. There are many different bungalow resorts there, but the main one is called Puataukanave International Hotel, which is located on the water. That one is my favorite — it’s located right in the capital, Neiafu; it’s very close to everything; and the property offers water taxis to other small islands.
Is there an island where people who really want to escape and disconnect should go?
I would say Fafa because you can be away from everything, but it’s not too far out. It’s about 35 minutes by water taxi from the main island, and I love Fafa Island Resort, which has individual villas right on the beach.
Can you tell me about Tongan traditional food?
Tongan traditional food is very close to Hawaiian food. We use taro leaves and often prepare dishes with coconut milk and any meat that we can find, such as fish or pork. We eat a lot of yams and potatoes. Most of our deserts are made from cassava, mixed with coconut milk and some sugar. Or, we’ll use breadfruit that gets smashed up.
For people looking to try traditional food, I’d recommend they go to the Oholei Beach Resort [on the main island]. What’s great about that place is they don’t serve food on plates; they serve it on the traditional banana palm and show people how they make the food. It’s a very good place to eat and learn about our food.
Oholei also offers guests a chance to try our traditional raw fish dish, prepared with coconut milk and taro leaves. We call it “otaika.” It’s raw fish mixed with vegetables and coconut milk. You really can’t go wrong at Oholei. They also have a traditional performance Wednesday and Saturday nights, so you can enjoy dinner and a show, right by the water.