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umu prep 1laulea beach1nickyThe humpback whale rises out of the water in front of the boat. It’s so close I can’t suppress a small scream. There is a rule in Tonga that you have to stay five metres away from these vast creatures but the whales don’t know that and this one has come much nearer to check us out. Within moments it is gone again, back beneath the water, but it’s not long before we see more of them, breaching and barrel rolling to display their white bellies or flicking their tails above the waves.

July to October is when the whales come down from Antarctica to the warmer waters surrounding Tonga to give birth to their calves. Many of the resorts have boats that will take you out to get a glimpse, some whale watch operations even offer the chance to snorkel with them although the day we go out the sea is too choppy and the whales don’t stick around for long enough. Still they’re not difficult to spot. A day later a pod swims past the beach we’re staying on and puts on a private show for us.

There are 176 islands that make up the Kingdom of Tonga. The main one is Tongatapu where we are staying at a guesthouse on an ocean beach called Laulea. The friendly family hosting us are happy to share their food culture. They gather a seaweed called limu to make a delicious salad, cook up some crayfish, show us how to make fresh coconut milk and on Sunday the extended family come from the local village and prepare a traditional umu with baked taro and sweet potato, taro-leaf parcels filled with meat and a suckling pig.

But it’s the ota ika I can’t stop eating, raw tuna marinated in citrus juice and coconut milk then mixed with finely diced chilli, cucumber and tomato. Thankfully the ingredients are easy to come by. Talamahu Market in the bustling main town of Nuku’alofa sells fresh, locally grown vegetables and on the wharf there’s a seafood shop (next to a really good fish and chip place) where you can buy huge wheels of tuna for $20 – $30.

While there are a number of resorts, Tonga is still relatively undeveloped and, staying at Laulea Beach House, we barely see any other tourists. Driving is interesting – pigs and dogs roam freely and straying beyond the main roads we find the dirt tracks are cratered with potholes. Fortunately it’s a short trip to one of the more interesting attractions, the Anahulu cave. This natural lime stone cathedral has an underwater swimming pool and for a $10 fee you’re given a torch and shown the way down. The cave is unlit and the rough track not properly marked but swimming in the silky dark water beneath the stalactites is an experience.

The other must-see is the Mapu’a a Vaca blowholes near the village of Houma. Go on a windy, rough day and witness the impressive power of the water shooting up through the rock formations – but be prepared to get soaked with sea spray.

Tongatapu is a real Polynesian island experience, rather than simply a resort escape. It’s an adventure as much as a holiday.

Best drink….there are several good local beers like Kingdom Lager, Mapa and Popao

What to pack…. Imported foods are expensive so even if staying in a resort it’s worth taking a stash of nibbles and chocolate with you, plus meat, cheese and olive oil if you’re self-catering.

Not to be missed…. The Oholei Beach Resort puts on a Tongan feast followed by a display of traditional dancing inside the Hina cave, every Wednesday and Friday evening, and the locals say it’s the best show on the island.

Local etiquette…Tongans are very religious so on a Sunday everything stops in Tongatapu. It’s a good day to relax or take a boat from the wharf to the tiny resort island of Pangaimotu.

Shopping destination….Talamahu Market has handicrafts upstairs where you’ll find bone carving necklaces, freshwater pearl bracelets and coconut hair combs.