Travel Story Coral gardens, whales & a mini tornado: A South Pacific catamaran cruise

From quirky locals and choral harmonies to majestic singing whales, a catamaran trip around Tonga's Vava'u archipelago is an unforgettable experience.

It was 5.30pm on our hired catamaran on anchor off Tapana Island in the Vava’u archipelago in Tonga, and the ladies were glamming up for the night at La Paella, a ramshackle restaurant on a small, mostly unoccupied island across the bay.

A touch of make-up, lippy on, frangipani behind the right ear ... the anticipation was palpable. Four days in cramped quarters on a 39ft (12m) catamaran provided plenty of fun and memories that would be recalled for as long as one of the six aboard can remember.

Preparing and cooking three meals a day aboard the Vahanoa was a challenge as the six mid-60s friends from Perth cruised through some of the 61 islands, swimming and snorkelling, whale watching and sometimes just putting the brain in neutral and watching nothing in particular from the stern. Idyllic, you bet. That is until the mini-tornado hit and the paradise we found was temporarily lost. More later.

It’s not that we didn’t eat and drink like kings in the Kingdom of Tonga that Captain Cook famously called the Friendly Islands.

With a liberal quota in duty free, 4.5 litres of wine per person or 2.5 litres of spirits permitted into Tonga, it was happy daze for the old folk from Perth.

And a day before we left Port of Refuge, a natural harbour in Neiafu, a visit to the fish markets — an umbrella shading five-or-six-foam eskies sort-of fish market — at the wharf reaped two 3kg snapper and three lobster for $60 all up. With a hatch full of other provisions, we were good to go.

With skipper Ian at the helm, we steamed towards Hunga, our first mooring for the trip, and on the way got our first look at some humpback whales, part of a 1500-strong pod which mooch up from the Antarctic during June, stay for a few months to give birth and mate, before doing it all over again the following year.

Humpbacks are massive mammals and big business in these parts, with operators based along the waterfront down from the main street in the 7000-strong town, which has as many pigs crossing the road as it does potholes in it.

The night, though, was not all about the whales. No cooking, no dishes. No Joe Cocker or Jersey Boys on the iPod.

La Paella co-owner Maria dispatched a small boat, skippered by a bloke whose wife goes from yacht to yacht flogging woven baskets, jewellery and knick-knacks to help celebrate her daughter’s fifth birthday. She must be a happy kid because while we there she had three birthdays in three days.

Restaurant owners Maria and Eduardo are an odd couple. Weird is probably closer. They arrived from Spain almost 30 years ago and never returned. Maria has aged just fine. Eduardo is perfectly disguised in the dense undergrowth.

La Paella is not a vision splendid, perched halfway up a heavily vegetated hill and covered with an old tin roof, woven pandanus leaves, and held up by bush poles. But it looked like The Ritz to us.

Real estate agents would call it a renovator’s delight but that was lost on us as our group boosted the numbers to the 16-capacity as we were greeted by Maria and a Jack-of-all trades, a local called Villiami, who spent a lot of time in the open kitchen behind the bar.

The food was fine. The experience was five-star and the tour de force came after the meal when a gaudy blue curtain Gaudi could have designed was pulled back in the corner of the room to reveal two good-looking kids from a tourist’s yacht, one armed with a guitar, the other on bongo drums, and a man whose dishevelled hair and beard that hadn’t been disturbed by shampoo or a brush for some time met at an indiscernible destination on his face.

Meet Eduardo. Now, he was weird.

With constant gulps from a king brown beer bottle at his feet, Eduardo let fly with a mix of upbeat Cuban, Spanish and Brazilian numbers, often ending with a tortured wail like cats having kinky sex.

He deserved a standing ovation, and was quite happy to talk later when I soon discovered that his green checked shirt had seen a lot of endless summers and not a lot of washing machines.

For us, Eduardo was integral to our trip because he established a musical thread to this Tongan adventure, which included plenty of snorkelling and swimming in general around the bays which, for the most part, provided a backdrop not unlike a romantic South Pacific movie.

Well, that is aside from that night when we were dropped back to our catamaran after dinner when a mini-tornado hit, violently spinning the boat 360 degrees, flipping the anchor out of the sand and shoving us perilously close to shore.

 By the time it took hold again with the depth alarm sounding remarkably like a finish to Eduardo’s songs, we were in 1.7m of water in a boat with 1.4m draft.

Still, stung by driving rain, we managed to reset the anchor and it was a small price to pay for some tall stories down the track.

More music came the day after we returned the boat which cost us $8000 for the week, quite a hefty price we reasoned in the end because it had some functional issues that needed addressing. Anyway, we hired a small boat, a guide and a driver for the day to swim with the whales because, while we saw whales every day, it’s forbidden to swim with them without a licensed guide.

Kiwi Amber, whose father pioneered the industry 26 years ago, and her driver, a local called “Nutty” took us to familiar ground where whales are almost certain to be found.

 And, so it was, as we all had the joy of swimming with these majestic creatures, watching them watching us before plunging in slow motion to the depths with a gentle swish of the tale. It was awe inspiring and an encounter we’ll all remember for ever.

Now, the music. After several liaisons with the same whale, Amber took us for a snorkel to the nearby Coral Gardens that featured soft and hard corals and a kaleidoscope of beautifully coloured fish.

The six of us contently cruised along this drop-off happy with our lot when the music started. I thought my tinnitus was playing up when I heard the mournful song of the humpback, first a moan, then punctuated with shrieks and shrills. It was an ethereal experience to share this whale’s cathedral. 

Staring suspended over a colourful garden of coral with hues you don’t see on land and watching fluorescent fish dart this way and that listening to the whales was a moment that time will never take from us.

The following day the music continued, this time at a cathedral on land, the impressive Catholic church in Neiafu.

Tonga, a nation of 110,000 people, harbours deep religious beliefs, with churches often the most impressive buildings in a town or village, especially those belonging to the Mormon faith.

For a non-religious person like myself, the Mass was overwhelmingly moving, not because of the sermons but because of the velvet voices and harmonies of the 500 or so who crammed on to the pews, massive men in traditional garb and classy women with polished skin and colourful jewellery. 

There was not a more appropriate way to end our musical adventure in and around Vava’u archipelago.

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