Whales, worship and weird cabaret: The tropical island like Fiji that's Aussie-free

The dancer's skin is oiled till it gleams, and appreciative viewers rush forward to stick paper money to shining skin. 

In Tonga, legend has it that if the dancer isn't pure, the money falls off.  This particular dancer is well over six feet, aided by glittering red stilettos, fishnet stockings, a scarlet corset and a warm baritone. This is the Bounty Bar, an old-timer in the Vava'u​ bar scene. At night, with its purple spotlights, mirror balls and walls covered in a rich pastiche of kitschy flags, stickers, money and anchors, it's a chest-beating, hollering, singing-at-the-top-of-your-voice party that spills out into the warm night air. 

I can't work out why Tonga isn't bombarded with Australians. It's the next country across from Fiji and just south of Samoa. For my money, the perfect one-two is a few nights in five-star Fiji then an hour flight onward to five-star-free Tonga, so laid back it's almost comatose. 

The kingdom is made up of 177 islands in four archipelagos. This one, Vava'u, is a big yachtie hang. Earlier in the evening, I hit happy hour at the pumping Mango Cafe, where I chat to an older American couple who'd sailed across the Pacific from California in their yacht, before swapping dining notes with New Zealander Rob Hamill, who'd rowed across the Atlantic in 41 days, back in 1997. And that's just the blow-ins. 

"I wanted to live in a country that was weird," says long-time expat Doug, as we roar down Vava'u's choppy main road. "Weirder than Fiji or Samoa?" I ask as we dodge a foraging pig in the middle of the road. "Oh definitely. Escapees, losers, weirdos. And that's just the expat community," and he throws back his head with a loud laugh.  

It's an all-local cast at the Bounty. You wouldn't think it by the weekly fakaleiti​ (drag) show, but Tonga would be a far wilder place if hordes of missionaries had given it a big miss. They stamped out cannibalism, human sacrifice, promiscuity and tattoos. They also brought in a dress code that sees women sashaying the hot streets in floor-length skirts, and singlets are relegated to the beach (or bar). 

But there is one Christian custom that we should give thanks for: the preservation of the weekend. This country closes up shop midday Saturday and reopens Monday morning. While Saturday night is undoubtedly social, Sunday is a day of rest and going to church once or maybe twice for some serious worship, spectacularly tuneful, heart-felt singing and a spot of gossip in the churchyard afterwards. The airports and cruise terminals are closed: nobody works for money, except to feed we foreigners, furthering Tonga's reputation as the Friendly Islands. 

Many of the locals have grown up on tiny, single-village islands, sustained on seafood and pigs, who love to paddle around the beaches at low tide, snuffling for shellfish that they crunch down, shell and all. We skim past the fishing pigs during a day's cruise around the archipelago on the charter yacht Time Out, then pop in to visit Maria Mejias Gracia, who's been serving up tapas and paella for 26 years from another little island. "Book ahead by radio," she says. "We need to collect the seafood for the paella." 

If drag nights and church choirs haven't lured you to Vava'u, there are  the humpback whales. And you get to swim  with them. Chief whale watcher Andrew picks me up from the jetty beside my breakfast table at the easy-going Tongan Beach Resort, and, within 10 minutes,  I'm hollering "thar she blows!" 

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It takes a few minutes to realise that they're not smoky fires on the islands, but the fine spray emanating from whales pottering around the calm waters just outside the main harbour, Port of Refuge.

The first time I dip my head below the clear waters, a deep, ancient hum thrums through my blood.  The hum is low, tuneful, and coming from a dark shape that looms large beneath my finned feet. The whales, a mother and calf, are beneath me. I'm terrified, I'm happy, I'm devastated when they leave seconds later.

Benefit from my experience: whales are wild animals, and if they don't want to paddle with squeaky little people, they won't. They don't get cranky, they don't bite – they just disappear, which is really quite impressive, given the size of the animals. "Watch for their footprint," says Andrew. And sure enough, when a whale drops down into the water, there's no great rush of displaced ocean, just a strange, still pool amid the moving sea.  

From a distance, we see whales aplenty, but none stick around to swim with me. "Most people book at least two days on the boats," advises Andrew kindly. It's a lesson well learned. 

The whales call it a day after lunch, so the afternoon is spent dipping in and out of the sea caves carved by restless ocean beneath the island nation's coral atolls. 

The entrance to Mariner's Cave is two metres under water, and named for a shipwrecked ship's boy who was marooned in Tonga in 1806. One by one, we snorkel into the dark sea cave, to erupt into the warm, eerie, womb-like darkness.

It's said that, after four years, young William Mariner managed to get back to London to become a stockbroker. It seems he never went back to Tonga. With whales, worship and weird cabaret? I won't make that mistake. 

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Tonga Tourism and Tongan Beach Resort, Vava'u. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See tongaholiday.com

BEST TIME TO GO

Humpback whales visit Tonga from July to October. 

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia flies Sydney to Tongatapu direct twice weekly. See virginaustralia.com.  Fiji Airways flies Nadi (Fiji) to Vava'u, see fijiairways.com.

GETTING AROUND

The kingdom is connected by Real Tonga airlines. Flights to Vava'u cost around $195, one way. See realtonga.to

 Explore the Vava'u archipelago by yacht (sunsail-tonga.com). See tongasailing.com

STAYING THERE

Tongan Beach Resort in Vava'u has 12 beachfront rooms and a family apartment. From $275/double a night. See thetongan.com 

SEE + DO

A day swimming with (or watching) humpback whales costs $210. See whalesongtonga.com 

NEED TO KNOW

Australian tourists don't need a visa. Fill your pockets with the Tongan currency, the pa'anga​, as ATMs are rare. 

FIVE MORE PLACES TO SWIM WITH WILDLIFE

1 With sea lions at Baird Bay, SA. They often hang out with bottlenose dolphins, for a two-for-one experience, $150. See bairdbay.com  

2 With wild dolphins at Port Stephens, $289. See dolphinswimaustralia.com.au 

With humpback whales in Mooloolaba, Queensland. The season starts  July 8, $149. See sunreef.com.au

4 Spend two nights boating around SA's Neptune Islands for cage diving with great white sharks, October-March, from $1535. See rodneyfox.com.au

5 Hang with the big boys – whale sharks – in WA's Ningaloo Reef, $390. See ningaloowhalesharks.com

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