‘Eua is nicknamed “The Forgotten Island” and one of the only islands in Tonga that you can find a rainforest climate. There are great hikes, caves to explore, and, my favorite, SWIMMING WITH WHALES! But before you go to ‘Eua, there are a few things you should know.
There are two options on getting to Eua from Tongatapu. The quickest way and most expensive way is to take the shortest flight in the world lasting only 7 minutes from the airport.
The more affordable option is to take a 2-3 hour sketchy ferry ride. If you’re coming from Nuku’alofa (Tongatapu Island), all the information you read online is a bit misleading or inaccurate.
It’s difficult to book your ferry in advance as I’ve heard from several travelers I met on the island. Instead, you have to find your way to the Nuku’alofa pier and find a person holding a carbon booklet and selling them to you just before your departure.
The ferry can be unreliable, and you may not leave on time or that day if the weather is unfavorable. I tried getting my ferry ticket one day prior, and she asked me to just come an hour (at 10am) before departure to pick it up. Also, look for a blue and white ferry boat. When I arrived, there is a small outdoor waiting area (search for a large group of locals) and wait until she calls for tickets.
The ride to ‘Eua is a bit choppy. You’re going headwind, and so that makes for a much more bumpy ride. The way back to Nuku’alofa is much smoother and faster.
There is no public transportation on the island, but it is hitch-hiking friendly! Most of the overnight accommodations offer a free shuttle for booked tours.
After Your Arrival
Once you arrive, you’ll come to a dirt-covered parking lot. There’s the Ovava Tree Lodge that’s within walking distance and Deep Blue Diving tour operator. This is considered to be “the main town,” but that’s not saying much. Booking accommodation in this area makes things more accessible to the largest market referred to by locals as “The China Shop.” To get there, you’ll find just over the bridge and take the first right (there are no street names here).
Digicel: offers more hot spots and places to top up your SIM around the island, including the China Shop and households. If you choose to top up at a house, look for the Digicel sign. The signs are usually displayed on a window of what looks like someone’s home.
TCC (Tonga Communication Center aka U-Call): the less expensive option, but I wish I went with Digicel mostly because of Digicel’s accessibility. There is only one TCC store in ‘Eua, and that’s in the central area of town, covered during unusual business hours. If you rely heavily on the internet, it’s a frustrating process only being allowed to top up a maximum of 1G at a time, or 5G for a computer. Wifi is not necessarily always available in restaurants either.
UCALL 3G Internet Rates
50MB 24hr $2
100MB 5 days $3
500MB 1 Month $13
1GB 3 Months $25
There are very few accommodations on the island, but I hear the tourism board is trying to work on maintaining a standard that caters to travelers being good news for us.
This is my favorite place to stay on the island and what I hear from locals and other travelers as their favorite too. It’s a little ways from town (about 20-minute walk), but it’s right on the coast with an easily accessible beach and partial ocean view from your room. You can actually see whales breaching from the outdoor dining and hang out area.
Other elements that make this my recommended accommodation are hammocks, sun decks and 50MG of free wifi. They will also offer you free ferry or airport pickup and drop off a complimentary continental breakfast, and free lemon or lemongrass tea and/or free rainwater always out in a bin. Not to mention the super friendly staff! I guess you could say these guys have their “ish” together. The rooms are super clean, hot water, reliable toilet plumbing, and crisp white linens tightly tucked in the beds. It’s an overall great value for what you’re getting at TOP 65 ($30 per night).
Ovava Tree Lodge:
This is the only lodge located “in town.” It’s actually pretty cute and has a nice ambiance, but I heard from another traveler that you have to climb a staircase (ladder) to get to your bed/room. Otherwise, I had lunch there, and it was decent.
I don’t know much about this place, but I did meet a couple of travelers who stayed here and didn’t seem to have any complaints.
I had an “interesting” local experience here. The host was nice, but I could not in good faith recommend this place to travelers. I hate talking poorly about local businesses, but it was overvalued. There’s little that can be done to make it feel fairer priced and a more comfortable stay for guests in this two bedroom guest house.
The guesthouse charges TOP 60 ($30) per night, $5 ferry pickup, $5 each way to run errands and an additional $5-10 to use the kitchen where half of the appliances don’t even work. There were no locks on my door. No wifi. The shared bathroom connects to the other guest room, but the bathroom door that attached to the guest room didn’t close all the way always leaving a slight crack where you could see in the bedroom a tiny bit or vice versa.
This is manageable when I had female guests, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable once an older man moved in. The bathroom was also dirty with toothpaste in the shower ledge all 3 nights I stayed there. The toilets weren’t clean either, and I often felt like I had to wipe it down each time I used it. One perk is that there was hot water! No towel provided though.
Everything felt dirty. My room had dead insects on the window ledge, lots of mosquitos buzzing through (less when I kept the windows closed and went crazy with insect repellent), and I felt the need to wear flip flops because the dirt debris on the floor would kick up on the sheets. The dresser also was unusable. There was sticky goo in the drawers and looked like mold or mildew had taken over. Also, my bed was a full-size futon that fell at a slight tilt, and the pillow felt like lumpy socks. The blanket she provided was big and warm though! Perfect for the cold winter Tongan nights.
There is also no food in the neighborhood, and she doesn’t have a menu for guests. When I arrived, it was late afternoon, and I asked if we could stop by somewhere to eat, and she seemed surprised that I didn’t bring my own food. I think she eventually felt sorry for me when I pulled out my only two apples and a small bag of almonds to last me until the next day, so she offered to cook me dinner for TOP 20 and also provided me some of her leftover soup her daughter made for her that morning. I did enjoy the dinner, and the portions were more significant than I could finish on a hungry stomach (white fish cooked in coconut milk with root vegetables) and felt it was a reasonable price to ask.
She was also kind enough to make phone calls when I needed it. So, as I said, I don’t like talking poorly about businesses, but there’s definitely a lot that could be done to make the place more beautiful and for a better value. A couple of recommendations I’d have would be to remove the transport pickup and kitchen fees, and include complimentary tea and/or coffee with some biscuits for guests.
Where to Eat
Dining out in ‘Eua is scarce. Everything closes early, and food seems to be hard to come by so make sure you bring your own snacks. My first two days I pretty much survived on apples and nuts that I brought over in my backpack. Most of the accommodations offer meals but only during a specific time. It’s also recommended you let them know early if you plan to have dinner so they can prep the food. Otherwise, you may not have anything to eat because meals are made to order with advance notice.
There are no restaurants or dining options otherwise, but the meals are pretty good from the accommodations that offer it.
Swimming with Whales (Our Favorite!)
A lot of people choose to go whale swimming here instead of the other islands because it’s known to be cheaper (and better). Tourism hasn’t quite caught up to ‘Eua island yet, so there are only two tour operators who will take you on whale watches and whale swims and only one of those offers scuba diving tours with only two divemasters on the island. Here’s what I think about the two whale operators.
Deep Blue Dive
I first chose Deep Blue Dive because they had a familiar name and had a dive shop on Tongatapu. The booking lady at the Tongatapu location was nice enough to help me book an accommodation (Highlight Guesthouse) when the island was already known to be sold out for weeks, so I felt safe going with them – but then a twist of events happened where I lost my trust in them as a tour operator on ‘Eua.
I stopped by their shop located at Ovava Tree Lodge and spoke to the nice lady who is the wife of the Divemaster / Whale Boat Captain. She initially offered me a discount for bringing my own dive gear, but when I spoke to the captain, he wouldn’t honor it saying that the dive gear was complimentary as part of the package. I didn’t fight it and just accepted it. This is sometimes the norm for dive operators.
Deep Blue Dive said they’d call me later that evening to confirm the pickup time, but they never did, and I had to follow up with them. Also, fine. I didn’t mind that.
But here’s where things began to go wrong.
I asked the guy if he could confirm the maximum number of guests that were allowed on the boat. I heard this company sometimes booked over maximum capacity, and I wanted to have as much time as possible with these whales in smaller groups.
The price was a bit steep at TOP 290 for one half-day of swimming with whales (including lunch) and another TOP 90 for one dive. I talked to another whale operator who offered the whale swim for TOP 200 but decided to go with Deep Blue Dive because I wanted to go diving too and knock out both in one day.
Deep Blue Dive said they’d call me to let me know the rest of the details. I found it strange they didn’t ask for my dive card or any dive insurance though. When I asked if their tanks were all up to date, he said that nowhere on the island services tanks, so they service their own (a bit convenient). I also confirmed that everyone on the boat planned to do a whale swim and dive combination that day.
My pickup time from my accommodation was for 9:00 am. It seemed a bit late, but I didn’t question it too much. We make it back into town and get started at around 10:00 am on the dock. Deep Blue Dive asked me to leave all my dive gear, and we’d go diving in the afternoon after lunch.
The water vessel is small but seemed fine for Tongan standards. There was a rusty little nail that was sliding around on the boat, but I let that slide. We received a boat safety briefing before we left and went out about 5 minutes before seeing our first whales. It’s that easy on this island!
I’m excited to go swim with some whales, but these guys wanted nothing to do with us. We see lots of whales, and they seem to be all around, but each time we came close on them, they’d go diving deeper and leave us. It was like a whale game of hide and seek. I’m bummed, but you can’t predict nature.
The entire day was a game of chase. We jumped in once, but they swam away before we could get close. It’s cold, and my group and I were making funny jokes about why they didn’t want to swim with us. Due to how slow the activity was, it would have been an opportune time for our guides to share some fun facts about whale behavior. Instead, one of the guides was seasick hurled over the boat or sleeping it off from the little boat roof. The other guide never said a word to us, and the captain kept to himself.
So, we had no luck the entire day and decided to break for a late lunch at around 2ish. The meal was a small bowl of soup and a loaf of sliced bread for the group to share. Despite the small soup portion, it was still delicious. I had to fill up on bread to get full though.
There was a lot of nice little service touches that Deep Blue Dive was missing. Overall I didn’t feel like I was getting a good value. Water, hot tea, and maybe some biscuits would be a nice touch to offer in between. You don’t want people getting dehydrated in the sun all day, offer some water.
Whale season is also in the winter time, and the breeze gets very cold out on the water. Tea would be a nice way to keep guests comfortable. And something cheap like crackers or biscuits for those who missed their breakfast or have low blood sugar. I kept questioning where all our money went $290 x6 = $1740 TOP ($782 USD). The only expenses I saw flowing out were for 1 Captain and 2 other staff, and gas. Maybe some maintenance on gear but they had an odd assortment of gear. Moving along…
After lunch, our guide canceled our afternoon dive to go continue whale swimming. It turns out that not all guests were signed up to go diving like I asked and confirmed the day before.
Instead, he allowed an ADDITIONAL 5 guests at the last minute onto our boat! This really didn’t sit well with me because now the boat felt overloaded, the dynamic changed, and the group who joined were a bit boisterous and inconsiderate. After telling them how we didn’t see any whales all day when we went back out there, they sort of pushed their way into the water first. I thought there were only supposed to be a maximum of 6 guests at a time with the whales because we don’t want to stress the whales out. But then all rules and communication went out the window, and we felt like we were all racing and chasing to get to the whales. We had a beautiful 5 minutes with the whales, but my intuition felt something wasn’t right. They also refilled their outboard with gas while we were out in whale territory, which also didn’t feel right.
After the swim, he dropped us off to a snorkeling area (which he didn’t have to do, so that was nice, but it was 5:30pm by this time and cold with the sun setting!) We all get in and begin snorkeling to the reef for 10-20 minutes, and when I swam back I noticed we were anchored into the reef!!! I’m screaming “ENVIRONMENT CONSERVATION!!!” in my head.
I brought up the canceled dive (my reason for choosing them over the other whale operator) and then asked why he allowed twice as many guests as he said he would. His response was, “Well, I didn’t have to take you out again after lunch.” I paid my $290 + 3% credit card fee TOP and left feeling unsatisfied. I also didn’t feel comfortable rescheduling my dive for the next day. His word could no longer be trusted.
Hideaway: The Whale Whisperers
I was first recommended to go through Hideaway for the whale swimming by two ‘Eua locals, but I decided not to listen and go with Deep Blue Dive instead. Feeling unsatisfied and believing my experience with whale swimming could be improved, I decided to book for a second day with whales. There was a girl who booked her second whale tour with Deep Blue Dive who also stayed at Hideaway. She booked her whale tour through Hideaway a couple of days prior and said most politely that Hideaway was 100 times better. Two others from the whale tour and I booked with these guys, and it already started off way better. Here’s why:
First, my pickup was between 7:30-8:00am for 8:30am start time. I liked that it started much earlier. We get onto a vessel similar looking to the other dive boat only a bit smaller and head on our way. While we were waiting to load onto the vessel, Marta (from Chile) was already a greater host. She filled our time sharing fun facts about whales when we were getting on the boat and then continued to do so throughout the entire day. She was very warm and hospitable anticipating our needs before we even knew they were needed like offering us free bottles of water, cookies/biscuits, and even peanuts. This felt right. AND IT WAS FOR ONLY TOP 200!
The Captain (rumors say they call him the “whale whisperer”) was a humble man named Kiko. He was born in Tongatapu but grew up in ‘Eua and knows these waters (so say the two locals and even he!). After having some conversation with him when he picked me up from my accommodation, he shared with me how he is the only whale operator in ‘Eua who attended a 3-week course on whale swimming. He was quiet but warm and spoke just enough to hear more about his perspective about whale watching on ‘Eua admitting that September is the best month to go because the whales and their calves are likely to be more social around that time.
Within minutes of us first getting out, we swim with 4 humpback whales. Then throughout the entire morning, we jumped in and swam with more of them. The icing on the cake was when we were all sitting on the boat and began hearing loud whale sounds echoing. We were ecstatic! We eventually jump in the water and start listening to them even louder vibrating through our bodies. It was such an incredible experience.
We ended our day at 1:30pm and had enough time to enjoy the rest of our day doing whatever we wanted. We all left feeling so grateful and satisfied that we tried to make sure he was paid well by the gratitude we felt that day. He even offered one of the girls to pay only ½ because she didn’t get to swim with whales the other day (the weather was too rough and choppy). She said, “Nonsense! I’m paying you the full amount anyway.” THAT, my friend, is excellent service!
This is exactly what I expect from a whale tour operator. Excellent service from both Marta and Kiko, anticipating needs and keeping us entertained with fun facts throughout the quiet time between swims.
My only hope is that they expand into diving, but I’m pretty satisfied if they stick to what they do best – and that’s whale swimming!
I never met anyone whom swam with Whales! Can just imagine the sounds would be terrifying. Might be on my bucket list next to swimming with the sharks…. 😀