We're calling it a South Pacific 'taster' – five nights on each of three sand-fringed nations: Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. We haven't had a proper holiday together since our honeymoon, nearly three years ago. What could be nicer than the idyllic, postcard beachiness of the South Pacific?
Tonga. The name conjures up … nothing. “Ooh, Africa?” asked one work colleague. The only thing I knew about Tonga was that they played rugby and one could swim with humpback whales there, hence our visit. Sadly, when we deplaned at 2am, saw the ‘Welcome to Tonga’ sign and chorused “The holiday starts here!” we couldn't have been more wrong.
Almost nobody needs a visa to visit Tonga. Almost. Apparently, some who do are South Africans, and this small but vital detail managed to slip through our trip preparations. As a UK passport-holder I was fine, but poor Gerda's confusion was pitiful to behold. “No problem,” I said, “We'll buy one now.” Nope. Tongan visas must be bought (online) before arrival. I could scarce believe my ears when we were told she'd have to return to Sydney on the next flight.
There followed a lot of discussion, questions and rebuttals, but after an hour we had to admit defeat. The one thing in our favour was that the next flight wasn't for 14 hours and so G, sans passeport, was allowed to accompany me to our accommodation. As well as being better than spending the rest of the night at the airport, this meant we were able to move her flight to Fiji four days earlier, which satisfied Tongan immigration. It's a good job we hadn't booked all our hotels, internal flights etc. like regular warmdüschers.
I was gutted, but I offered to go with her. I blamed myself, as I was the one who'd booked the tickets and generally organised things, but my colonial confidence meant I never gave her visa a second thought. I also blamed her of course, but only a bit, and anyway she was kind enough to insist that I stayed to swim with the whales. What a gem.
And I'm glad she did. After two days straight of rain on the tiny and very basic island of 'Eua, three other backpackers and I plied the whale-favoured channel for four hours, wetsuits on, snorkels at the ready, but every time we approached a pod of the mighty beasts they dived deep. It was disheartening, and a waste of $100, but the operator persuaded us that if we got up at the crack of dawn, and he gave us a 50% discount, we'd have one more chance before our ferry returned to mainland Tongatapu.
The humpbacks were playful that morning and as soon as our boat pulled up we slid over the side and there they were, gliding past just metres away like we'd swum into a David Attenborough doco. They eyed us totally without fear. They'd swim on a little, we'd go ahead and jump in for them to swim past. Our best sighting involved four huge whales cavorting below us as we hung, suspended at the surface, the visibility thirty or forty metres of deep blue all around. They rolled, dived, surfaced and flapped around us for maybe thirty seconds before heading off. It was incredible; the photos don't do it justice at all. And when we had to go they came to the surface and waved us goodbye.
When I got to Fiji I was knackered from trying to fit in too much in too short a time, and to be honest G was lucky she escaped my packed timetable - she sorely needed a few days of relaxation. The main thing I wanted to do on Fiji was dive with the sharks at Pacific Harbour. Reef sharks, bull sharks, even the odd tiger shark has been known to turn up to their feeding sessions, but here our book-nothing strategy backfired as both dive operators were booked solid for the next week. D'oh!
Instead we toured the main island, Viti Levu, and hopped out to one of the gorgeous Mamanuca islands which are strung out from the west coast. This was a win; for the first time we really did feel like we were on holiday. A few nights of snorkelling, swimming and walking to the top of the small hill that comprised this nubbin protruding from the reef was just the ticket. We were much more optimistic as we headed out to Samoa on our third and final leg. I could live with never seeing Tonga again, although I would love to, but there were plenty of reasons to return to Fiji: more islands, the shark dive, hiking, standing on the 180th line of longitude, Fiji Bitter, enjoying a lovo, the traditionally-cooked earth oven pig that we managed to miss in all three countries. We'd definitely be back.
Rugby, again, and tattoos. That is what Samoa meant to me, and it didn't disappoint. Like Tonga, Samoa is a collection of small, family-structured and very religious villages. Outside of Apia, the capital, the only buildings of any size are the enormous churches, sized out of all proportion to the congregation of the surrounding village. Each cathedral could have housed half the island. Apart from that it's all palm trees, piglets and men in skirts holding machetes.
When booking this trip Gerda was insistent that we reserve our last three nights in a schmancy place, and after much research she did just that. As we drove around Savai'i, Samoa’s second island, we saw all the beachfront fales and began to have doubts. A fale is a traditional structure – a roofed platform with open sides – and can be very basic. We saw many with just thin mattresses and roll-down plastic sheeting for walls, and were soon worried that we had inadvertently booked such a 'room'. The closer we got to Manase, our village, the more scared we were.
It was with a huge sense of relief that we were shown to our fale – a spacious wooden bedroom with an en suite built from lava rocks, and woven pandanus leaves that drop down into walls to offer us some privacy. The sea was 10m away, the bar 20m away, and the breeze blew through the walls all night. We spent our days touring the tidy circumference road, stopping at natural wonders like blowholes and swimming caves, and our nights sleeping. It was a rocky start, but ended up quite nicely thankyouverymuch.