What to do after French Polynesia?! You have sailed across the widest part of the Pacific Ocean and used up your 90-day French Polynesia visa: do you sail WNW to Suwarrow or WSW to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands?
Everyone wants to go to Aitutaki, in the central Cook Island chain, but only shallow draft catamarans can enter the lagoon. Another option is to sail WSW to the island nation of Niue. We opted to sail six days to Beveridge Reef, about 120 nautical miles SE of Niue. We anchored for eight days in 6 meters of crystal clear water in the middle of the ocean! The reef is submerged with waves crashing onto the outside of the horseshoe-shaped reef, creating a calm lagoon about 6 nm by 2 nm. Winds picked up to about 25 knots while we were at Beveridge Reef, but the holding was solid and the seas inside the reef were fine.
From Beveridge Reef it is easy to head NW to Niue or straight west to the Ha’apai Group in Tonga. Of the four island groups that make up the Kingdom of Tonga (each separated by 50 to 100 nm), the Ha’apai group is sparsely populated, less visited than other areas and is the nursery of the humpback whales. We “checked-in” at the regional government offices in Pangai, although we learned a few months later, when we cleared-out, that the clearance was regional only and we should have checked-in again either in Vava’u or the nation’s capital, Nuka’lofa.
Humpback whales are everywhere in the Ha’apai group between August and October. Humpbacks come to the warm, shallow and protected waters in Tonga to breed and give birth. At times you see the whales breaching in the distance and sometimes they come very close to the boat. You see young calves with their mothers and you see males trying to get the attention of nearby females.
We took advantage of a few days of quiet wind to anchor at the tiny island of Hakauata, which seems to be a kindergarten for humpbacks. A common sight is to watch a large female whale demonstrate spy-hopping and fin slapping as a small whale practices. The larger whales are not afraid and the young whales are curious. We had one young whale swim over to inspect the dinghy we were towing. It is also common to be woken by the gentle blows (breathing) and songs of the whales.
We criss-crossed the Ha’apai group, from Uoleva to Tofanga, Ha’afeva to Matuku, Tungua to Uno, and finally Nukupule to Foa Island. Each evening we would sit up on our bimini, enjoying sundowners, watching the whales. We also enjoyed the people of the Ha’apai group. The villagers in Ha’afeva are very welcoming and the children on Matuku Island were smiling and playful. Craig, who runs the Uoleva Yacht Club, offers delicious food and cold beer. Serenity Lodge, also on Uoleva Island, is a wonderful place for a yoga break and a candle-lit dinner.
We really enjoyed anchoring near Matafonua Resort, run by Darryl and Nina and their two children. The beach is beautiful, the burgers are delicious and the drift snorkel is delightful. The resort offers diving, whale-watching and kite-boarding. It is also located in the north of the Ha’apai group, making it a great launch point for the 50 nm sail to the Vava’u group of islands. We could have happily stayed in the Ha’apai group longer. However, we ran low of food and, probably more importantly, alcohol. There isn’t much to buy in the Ha’apia group, so we headed to the hustle and bustle of the Vava’u group.
We’ve heard that over 500 yachts visit Tonga every year. Most of them visit the Vava’u group, stopping in Neiafu, the regional capital, with various restaurants and marine services. There are over 40 anchorages in the Vava’u group, all within 10 nms of each other. One of the most interesting places in Vava’u is Swallow’s Cave, near the Port Maurelle anchorage. It is best to explore the cave in the late afternoon when the sun shines directly into it. The distance from the anchorage to the cave was a bit far for our 3.3 hp dinghy motor, but other dinghies were zipping back and forth regularly.
Above the water, the cave is probably about 40 feet high, 40 feet wide and goes back about 100 feet from the entrance. Dinghies go right in and tie up to the rocks inside the cave. The water in the cave is crystal clear, the sunlight streams in from the cave entrance and there are thousands of fish swimming in tight “fish balls” throughout the cave! It is surreal.
We also explored Mariner’s Cave, which is hard to find because the entrance is about 6 feet under the water. Getting in to Mariner’s Cave is scary the first time, but once you do it, you realize it is actually easy! It requires diving down 6 feet and swimming into the pitch black entrance of the cave mouth for about 15 feet until you surface in the large air pocket inside the high ceilinged cave. It helps to have someone with brightly coloured fins to swim ahead of you. There is enough light coming in through the water at the cave mouth to see inside the cave. While floating inside the cave, each gentle surge of water compressed the air inside the cave and created an instantaneous dense fog that dissipated as quickly as it appeared. It is possible to feel the pressure change with each surge and we had to clear our ears as though we were diving. Exiting the cave was easy because of the light coming in from the outside.
The eastern barrier reef islands of the Vava’u group are stunning. To reach them, it is necessary to navigate a narrow channel through coral, so few boats head that way. We followed the commonly shared way points anchor off Ofu Island. While exploring in the dinghy, we came across a large colony of Flying Foxes (a large, tropical fruit bat) along the north shore of Mafana Island. The trees where black with hanging bats! As we got close, the noise from the dinghy motors disturbed them and dozens of them took to the skies. Kenutu Island is one of the eastern-most islands of the Vava’u group. A path to the eastern side of the island provides stunning views of the ocean crashing on the cliff faces! Nearby rocky Lolo Island has an impressive blow-hole. Also nearby is Umunu Island, with a small cave with brackish water and overly friendly red prawns that will crawl on your legs!
In the Ha’apai group, we met local Tongans and saw only three other sailboats and four ex-patriot owned resorts. Whereas in the Vava’u group, with at least 30 boats anchored in Neiafu on any given day, we socialized almost completely with ex-patriots and cruisers, had a choice of almost a dozen restaurants, various grocery stores, and several marine services, including a sail loft, canvas repair, engine services and a full-service boatyard.
Tonga is well positioned as a place to stop for sailboats that have spent the past eight months sailing west from the Americas. Rather than chance the weather, and the wear and tear on the boat, for the passage to New Zealand, we decided to haul-out in The Boatyard in Vava’u. The yard is located in a former dry quarry with a steep cliff wall to protect from the winds and solid rock ground to bolt down the boat straps. We know various other cruisers who also left their boats safely in Vava’u and flew to New Zealand for land adventures.