Neiafu is the second-largest town in Tonga with a population of about 6,000. It is situated beside the Port of Refuge, a deep-water harbour on the south coast of Vava'u, the main island of the Vava'u archipelago in northern Tonga. To the north-west lies the 131m high Mt. Talau with its distinctive flat top.

Don Francisco Mourelle de la Rúa, commanding Spanish frigate Princesa was the first European to come to Vavaʻu, in 1781. He charted Vava'u as Martín de Mayorga who was the Viceroy of New Spain at the time. Captain James Cook had heard about the island some 10 years previously, but the people in Haʻapai told him it would be no good for him to go there as there was no harbour. Apparently they did not want him to go there, and Cook heeded their advice. But Mourelle found excellent anchoring, and he gave the spot the name Port of Refuge. In 1793 Alessandro Malaspina visited, claiming the islands for Spain.

The waters of the islands are known for their clarity, it being said that you can see the bottom at 40 metres. The area attracts many humpback whales between June and November.

Click on any of the small photos to get a larger version of that photo

We visited a botanic garden, where the enthusiastic owner showed us various native trees that he had saved from extinction, and also vanilla production.

Vava'u is a major production area for high quality vanilla and he gave us a chance to see how the vanilla bean grows. The plant, a member of the orchid family, has a small cream or yellow flower which must be hand pollinated. He said when he was younger he could pollinate 500 beans an hour by hand, but now relied on more dexterous girls to do that work. The bean then takes nine months to grow, after which it is dried and cured, which develops the flavour and turns the pod dark brown or black. It is said to be the most labour-intensive agricultural product in the world. The value of individual beans means that farmers go to great lengths to protect them from theft, including, some claim, pricking their individual code numbers on each bean with a pin.

We continued on to his cafe by the sea for dancing (from his family) and a snack of his home grown fruits and coconut milk.

The ship then moved anchorage a short distance over lunch to get to our afternoon stop Mala Island

Mala Island The Vava’u Island group is known to be the prettiest island group in the Kingdom of Tonga, and Mala Island is considered to be the “Jewel of Vava’u” - so says the tourist handout. It is now a private island with a white sandy beach and snorkeling. The Mala Island Resort appeared to have been abandoned. We went by zodiac to Swallows cave, which judging by the amount of graffiti has been a tourist haunt for many years. The eponymous swallows in fact nest there, and their nests were the source of the main ingredient of "birds nest soup". Though today most swallows nests are factory farmed in purpose buildings. I personally was not over impressed by the cave!

There was snorkeling off the beach at Mala. The resort appeared to be now closed.

TripAdvisor. We booked Mala Island Resort on a whim and we are so glad we did - yes, it's quite dilapidated and run by eccentric management but it is also in one of the most beautiful locations in the world. The huts all the face the sea in a different direction and the million dollar views never fail to surprise and satisfy every time you look at the them. Certainly renovations would make them more liveable but they were roomy (ours had two queen size beds), clean, screened and private. There was only five of us on the island so we had no one next door. The bathrooms are quite adequate with gas hot water. We didn't need to use the air conditioner and I suspect it might have been quite loud and rickety given its age. Nesha runs this place practically by himself with the help of a few local girls. These girls could probably do a bit more to help him! We found him to be full of humour, forthright and willing to assist with anything we wanted - he ensured transport was available, ran us over to the main island or to meet the dive boats in his rubber dingy whenever we wanted, even procured tanks for us on a Sunday and lent us the dingy to go diving (with a warning to stay away from the villages). He seems to know everyone which helped things run smoothly and relatively on time. The meals are cheap and of very generous proportions - and he will organise to cook whatever you want. You just need to know what you want as we were never shown a menu!

On to Alofi, Niue

South Seas Holiday