Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Coffee and vanilla in Vava'u

Hospitality comes in all shapes and forms. Sometimes you encounter it in the most unlikely of places. With a name that means "the friendly islands", we discovered hospitality first hand in the Kingdom of Tonga during a tiki tour of Vava‘u.

The port at Vava‘u is small and pretty. The tiny town is less than a stone's throw away and visitors can easily wander through markets to a few mall street blocks. There is a more tropical feel to this island than Tongatapu and the humidity is more obvious.
The wharf at Vava‘u
There are churches almost everywhere in Tonga. We passed so many on the main island of Tongatapu but didn't actually go inside any. St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral sits atop a small incline in Vava‘u. It stands out as an imposing whitewashed figure on the edge of the town and is worth walking up to see.
St Joseph's Cathedral
Inside St Joseph's Cathedral
Back in the township, it seemed that hiring a taxi for an hour was the best way to look around the island. I use the term 'taxi' loosely. Taxis don't have to be registered or even have doors that shut and we had many offers called out from within private vehicles in dubious states of disrepair. We found an 'actual' taxi back at the wharf, negotiated an hourly rate of T$80 (around $NZ53 - slightly above the going rate some others paid but there were few options available) and headed off for a tour.

Our driver didn't speak a lot of English but seemed to know where tourists might want to visit. We were treated to "Tongan air conditioning"; the sliding back door of the van didn't close and it was very hot so our driver just pushed it the whole way open and left it there. (No seat belts either, so we just held on tight.)

We drove up and down a hill and stopped next to a bridge to look at this lagoon. I didn't quite catch the story or significance of the lagoon but the events of the next few minutes will ensure I won't forget visiting it. After jumping back into the van (with the Tongan air conditioning wide open), we needed to back off the bridge, which the driver did by reversing a hundred or so metres. He then answered a mobile phone call but didn't let it interrupt him. Tonga must be the only place in the world where we could legally sit inside a van with the door wide open while the driver did a one-handed u-turn on a bridge and talked on the phone.
Lagoon near the bridge
Back towards town, our driver stopped to pick someone up. Another passenger? Perhaps. He didn't look Tongan and seemed to know the driver. "Hello," he said. "I hope you don't mind being flexible, but we do things a little differently in Tonga. I just need to pick up my groceries from the shop. It won't take long. Is that ok?" Who were we to argue?

It turns out our passenger was a Swiss national who had been living in Vava‘u since visiting many years ago. He married a local Tongan woman and they had returned to Vava‘u after living in Europe for a few years. His English was excellent and he pointed out various landmarks along the way. He also made an unbelievable offer.

"So, you ladies are on the cruise ship? What's the coffee like on board?" he asked.
"Pretty bad," was our honest answer.
"I have the best coffee at my place. Do you drink coffee?"
Do we ever?!
"I have the beans sent from Italy and make coffee using rain water. Come and have coffee with me - free of charge, of course."

At this stage we thought he may have been involved with a cafe in town that looked quite upmarket but didn't really take him seriously. "Sure, that would be good," we replied noncommittally as we drove up a hill towards his home, dropping him off along with his groceries. So much for the coffee.

Our next stop was at Veimumuni cave and fresh water pool. Used as the bathing place of local villagers as recently as 30 years ago, the source of the water is unknown. Even though the mouth of the cave directly faces the ocean, the water does not originate from there. Our driver insisted that 20 women could fit in the cave at once, but we weren't prepared to see for ourselves.
Veimumuni cave
Our hour long tour was marching on. Once back in the van, our driver headed back towards the house where we'd dropped off his Swiss passenger. "Coffee," he announced before ushering us onto the property.

Within moments, our host had emerged from the house carrying some indoor furniture. He set up a table and four chairs underneath a giant mango tree in the front yard while his dogs checked us out as visitors. His wife joined us ("I was in the shower when I was told to make coffee because we're having guests!" she said) and we chatted for a few minutes before the coffee arrived in beautiful espresso cups - and it was the most delicious coffee I'd tasted since leaving Wellington. We sweetened it with icing sugar as there is no sugar in Vava‘u, despite Tonga producing so much sugar cane. Sipping coffee in the shade of a mango tree in a stranger's front yard is an experience I'll never forget.
The best coffee in Tonga
Just as we were thanking our hosts for their coffee and hospitality, we heard mention of a vanilla plantation "just up the road". We looked expectantly at our driver who reluctantly agreed to take us there. "Why do you want to go to a vanilla farm?" he asked. "Because we're bakers!" was our reply. We were thrilled to visit the home of Queen baking products and be welcomed by the strong aroma of delicious vanilla. It turns out we'd just missed seeing all the vanilla pods laid out to dry in the sun on huge drying racks. They'd were collected up in large bags, ready for processing and packaging for Queen products in Australia. We bought some specialty Vava‘u vanilla pods and coconut moisturiser from the factory shop across the road.
Vanilla pods ready for drying
Vanilla pods are spread on racks and left to dry in the sun
Mālō, Tonga. I'll never forget the warm hospitality of Vava‘u.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Tiki tour of Nuku‘alofa

Nuku‘alofa is the capital city of the Kingdom of Tonga. We'd arranged a private tour of the island of Tongatapu with Toni's Tours. Toni is originally from England and has been living in Tonga for 25 years. "Tonga is home. I'm a Tongan," he told me.

They say that time slows down in Tonga. The open road speed limit is 70 km/h and the hot, sticky, dusty climate does the rest. Pigs are everywhere around houses and along the side of the road, bringing a whole new meaning to the term free range. There are fishing pigs all around the lagoon searching for whatever food they can find.
A fishing pig
We began our tour by driving around the lagoon to Niutoua. Ha‘amonga ‘a Maui is at the eastern most point of the island. Tonga claims to be the very first country in the world to see the dawn of every new day, something this Chatham Islander finds somewhat contentious. The top stone of the ancient trilithon monument lines up with the skyline on the longest day of the year.
Haʻamonga ʻa Maui trilithon
We drove to the scenic Captain Cook's landing point. There is a makeshift craft centre at the site where you can buy trinkets while listening to a Tongan musical group performing local songs. We watched a group of preparing to work on printing a large tapa cloth.
Preparing tapa cloth for printing
Nearby, Paepae‘o Tele‘a is the site of the terraced royal tombs built over 300 years ago for the Tu‘i Tonga. Tu‘i Tonga are historical figures considered to be half god, half man. They held a significant place in Tongan culture and were revered in society. However, Christianity saw the end of worshipping any other god and the last Tu‘i Tonga died in 1810. One Tu‘i Tonga was laid to rest on top of each burial site. Second tier royalty are now buried in the lower levels of each pyramid.
Paepae‘o Tele‘a terraced tomb
Our day ashore was almost in the so called middle of winter for Tonga. This means a temperature of 26°C (that can drop to as low as 8°C at night) and some welcome warm breezes. Our tour guide explained that the Tongan winters are getting progressively warmer and wetter. The impact on agriculture is immense. Crops such as coffee that would flower in summer were now flowering two or three times a year, making for smaller fruit and exhausted plants who chewed through nutrients twice as fast as usual. Watermelon is now available all year round (something I'm not complaining about). Bougainvillea and poinsettia grow freely on the side of the road but frangipani is no longer taking its winter hiatus, meaning its branches are continually trying to flower and hold onto its foliage. Beautiful, but ecologically worrying.
A coconut plantation
There is so much plant life crammed onto this tiny island. Talo (taro), yams, Naturally, there are coconut trees but interestingly enough coconuts are seemingly worthless in Tonga. The green coconuts are used for milk but the ripe coconuts are cut in half and fed to the pigs. "Nobody eats coconut meat," I was told. Some people make coconut oil if they need it but most Tongans buy desiccated coconut packaged from Indonesia if they need it for cooking. Apparently you can buy a ripe eating coconut for around 10 cents, but they're usually just given away and not sold as there is so little demand for them!
Double coconut tree
I'd been told about Tonga's lack of infrastructure and its effect on daily life so had some idea of what to expect, but it is quite humbling to see this first-hand. It seems like so many initiatives were started but not finished or, once established, left unmaintained until they simply crumble away. Many houses are ramshackle with panels of rusted corrugated iron secured by concrete bricks. Chicken wire and makeshift tarpaulins wrap around windows. The once bright colourful paint is now faded and peeling. Buildings destroyed in cyclones are left abandoned. It seems that the Chinese and Japanese are in competition with each other to develop infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and even a solar farm. Tourism seems the main motivation to clean up the destruction and entice foreign money, but I really wish the communities had the means and support to do this for their own benefit. Roadside shops dot the rural roads, their grilled front walls offering glimpses of supplies for sale but many now lie empty.
Roadside store
There are Christian churches absolutely everywhere, from the lavish Mormon churches each with their ostentatious cookie-cutter layout to the colourful buildings belonging to the Church of Tonga. Funded by the community, each tries to outdo the other in design and form at the expense of the congregation's homes and quality of life.

Our next stop was the famous blowholes at Mapu a Vaea, which apparently had been performing beautifully the day before we visited but still were a great site to see on the day we arrived. The sea pulls back along the rocky sea wall and a thunderous roar signals that something is about the happen. The water rolls back in, smashing up against the wall and releasing itself through a series of blow holes that spurt torrents of water high into the air. Sometimes they blow in succession from left to right across a distance off around 100 metres, much like the rolling of surf breakers.
Blowholes at Mapu a Vaea
Finally, we headed over to Keleti Resort for lunch overlooking the ocean. It was a lovely way to finish our tour and a very warm welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga.
The view from Keleti Resort

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Dravuni Island

Just south of Suva in south east Fiji is the tiny tropical paradise that is Dravuni Island. This is the Fiji you see in postcards: coconut trees along the shoreline, white sand beach, crystal blue sea and endless sunshine. Our cruise ship had to anchor at sea and tenders brought us ashore to the centre of the island where the school is located. The island is tiny; you can cover it on foot with just a fifteen minute walk in one direction and ten in another. There is a small hill from where I’m assured the view is superb. Various snorkelling spots surround the main beach area and locals will take you out on scenic boat rides for a small cost.
Dravuni Island
Despite all my mixed feelings about Fiji and tourism endorsing its status as a military dictatorship, along with my general aversion to lying around on beaches, I thoroughly enjoyed the clichéd tourist experience of a few hours on Dravuni. After a quick look around the village and a wander along one of the main trails, we settled at a semi-shaded spot under a coconut tree and let the cathartic tropical air work its magic.
Dravuni Beach
The tiny village at Dravuni
Dravuni School
Colourful shirts and sulus on sale were flapping flamboyantly in the warm breeze from makeshift outdoor stalls. They were accompanied by the usual range of pendants, carved kava bowls and turtle memorabilia that you'll find anywhere else in Fiji. An offer of a ten minute head and shoulder massage for just $FJD10 was too good to turn down and I now have yet another sulu to add to my colourful collection of beautiful yet rarely used sarongs.
Beach side stalls
Then it was into the shallow water, crystal clear save for a few beach floaty bits that were easily swept away. As someone who is averse to cold water, I haven’t dipped more than an occasional toe in the sea in more years than I care to remember. The salt water's healing properties coupled with a relaxing massage did wonders for my tired, aching body and mind.
A sandy paradise
Vinaka, Fiji.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A day in Suva

Fiji, the jewel of the Pacific. Endless white sand beaches, leaning palm trees, pineapple plantations and tropical sunsets.

Suva, the capital city, is not like the Fiji of picture postcards. It's more of an industrial and Government centre and, on a Sunday, we quickly discovered that every shop is closed. The malls and a few outlets opened especially to extract tourist dollars from us cruisers – and fair enough. Opportunities to capitalise on tourism dollars in this part of the country are rare as tourists flock to the more popular resorts on the other side of the island. It's quite surreal to realise that your cruise liner has more storeys than any buildings in the CBD; its presence in the harbour is obvious.

Overlooking Suva harbour
After a quick look around downtown Suva, we returned to the port in search of a local tour. This is more challenging than you'd imagine. We ran the gauntlet of independent tour operators eagerly shoving laminated posters of tropical scenes in our faces while shouting 'deals' until I gathered enough staunch to forge an escape path through them. We settled on a small operator who promised three hours looking at historical sites, a traditional Fijian village and a visit to a watering hole at the bottom of a waterfall, saving beaches for another day. They thanked us repeatedly for supporting locals by coming to them directly for a tour (something I prefer to do when travelling) and were lovely hosts.

We set off in an air conditioned van – pure luxury on a 28°C day. (Yes, we kiwis are only used to highs of 15°C at this time of year.) We stopped for photo opportunities and sunshine at various sites before making our way to a traditional Fijian village, Orchid Island. This village was hit pretty hard by Cyclone Winston earlier this year but they've done a fantastic job cleaning up the damage. The village lives independently of government funding and tourism helps generate some income.
Thatched village hut
Hand woven roof over a walkway
We were shown inside a 100 year old traditional temple with a hand-thatched ceiling and Tiny shells on the walls represented the fingers of deceased chiefs' wives. Apparently when a chief died, their wife was required to chop off a finger. (I'm not sure why.) If she refused, she would be burned alive so usually chose to go along with the plan. It was an eerie story.

A traditional Fijian temple
Weaving and carvings. The tiny white shells represent dead chiefs' wives' fingers.
Looking up towards the temple roof
Our guide then showed us through the gardens to a turtle pond, where two horn-billed turtles swim around in the shade. Sadly, they are the last remaining animals in this village. The rest had to be set free during Cyclone Winston as the water and mud levels rose higher than their outside enclosures.
Home to two horn billed turtles
Next, we were guided through beautiful tropical trees and plants and made our way to a museum-type enclosure where we heard about the history of how Fiji and Fijians came to be. We were allowed to take photos and touch the artifacts, including these tools and weapons that were used in combat.
Traditional weapons
Orchid Island cultural centre
We finished off our tour with a visit to a popular water hole at the bottom of a small waterfall. The long rope casually tied around a tree limb is a throwback to idyllic kiwi waterholes of the past, before health and safety laws kicked in. It's refreshing to see that sometimes life's simplest pleasures, like jumping into a waterhole on a hot day, really are the best.
Waterfall and watering hole

Monday, 13 June 2016

Cruise cocktail class

Never have I ever seen as many cocktail menus and signs as during the past two weeks on the Pacific Pearl. I'm not complaining; cocktails and their limitless flavour combinations fascinate me. Although I rarely drink alcohol, you'll almost always find me perusing cocktail menu ingredients.
We signed up for a cocktail making class while at sea one afternoon. We learned how to measure, muddle, squeeze, shake and pour four cocktails, then spent a blissful hour or so consuming our creations. Our workstations were beautifully set up like this. Of course, it wasn't so tidy once we'd finished, but that's ok when the result is yummy cocktails to enjoy.

Here are the cocktails we made and the recipes so you can try making them at home. 1 ounce (oz) is roughly 30 ml, or the bigger part of a cocktail jigger (measuring cup).

Fresh grapefruit cosmopolitan

Any Sex and the City fan will love this variation on the cosmopolitan.
  • 1 oz (30 ml) grapefruit vodka
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • 1 oz cranberry juice
  • fresh grape fruit slice
  • squeeze of lime
  • 15 ml sugar syrup
Muddle grapefruit and all of the ingredients. Half-fill the shaker with ice. Shake until cold and strain into a chilled glass.
Grapefruit cosmopolitan

Pimm's cup

This one is usually made in tall pitchers and served on English summer afternoons. These Pimm's cups are individual servings and can be made with any fruit combination.
  • 2 oz Pimm's
  • fresh mint leaves
  • grapes
  • oranges
  • strawberries
  • lemonade
Add all the ingredients into a glass. Make sure you bruise the mint to bring out the full flavour. Top up with lemonade and stir.
Pimm's cup


This variation on a Portuguese/Brazilian cocktail features my favourite citrus flavour: lime.
  • 3 lime wedges
  • 2 oz citrus vodka
  • ½ oz sugar syrup 
Muddle limes with vodka and sugar. Fill to top with crushed ice.

Coffee and cream

This dessert cocktail has plenty of potential to experiment with different flavoured sauces (such as caramel).
  • 1 oz coffee and vanilla infused vodka
  • 1 oz Patron XO Café (coffee liqueur)
  • ½ oz Baileys
  • 1 ½ oz cream 
Add all the ingredients into a shaker. Half fill with ice and shake until cold. Use chocolate syrup to make fancy patterns on the side of a chilled glass and strain cocktail mixture into it.
Coffee and cream cocktail
Infusing vodka
You can infuse your own vodka or buy it ready-flavoured. Here's how to make your own. Remember that the higher quality alcohol and ingredients you use for your infusions, the greater the final product will be.

Coffee and vanilla vodka

  • 10 vanilla pods
  • 100 coffee beans
  • 1 litre of vodka
Cut vanilla pods length ways and add them with coffee beans to a bottle of vodka. Leave to infuse for three days or until vodka changes colour.

Citrus vodka

  • 2 limes, peeled
  • 6 lemons, peeled
  • 2 oranges, peeled
Add all the peels to a bottle of vodka. Leave to infuse for three days or until vodka changes colour.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Cruising the Pacific Islands

I've been cruising! 15 nights on board the P&O Pacific Pearl sailing out of Auckland and making our way around the Pacific Islands. We stopped at three ports in Fiji, two in Tonga and one in the Cook Islands before a long journey home. The opportunity to go on a mid-winter girls' cruise to the tropics seemed beyond my circumstances when it first arose. I'm sooooo glad my friends were persistent and pushed me into joining them.

There are so many stereotypes about cruising (and cruisers) that it's hard to know where to begin. Many of them are spot on while others are gross exaggerations but still make a good story. They say that cruising can become addictive and I can see why. There's so much to do, or so little if that's what you prefer. Cruising isn't for everyone; two of us sailed without our long term partners, something the crew thought was very funny, especially when we celebrated a friend's significant wedding anniversary on board while her husband was back at home.

I've only been home a day or two but have already been asked so many questions. What was the best part? Where was your favourite port stop? Did you go shopping? What didn't you like? Was it full of old people? And what about the food? (There was soooo much fooood. That will be a post on its own.) I'll do my best to answer them in the next wee while and bring you along on my journey.

So, join me virtually on my Pacific Island cruise. I'll add posts to this cruise tag during the next couple of weeks. I wrote some posts on board the ship and a few more after returning home. I'll apologise in advance if I bore you silly with tales from my first ever cruise, but I'm doing my best to hang onto the holiday glow before it fades along with my teeny tiny tan.