The Kingdom of Tonga is what many consider the “True South Pacific.” Here on its 177 islands—only 52 of which are inhabited by a mere 103,000 people—visitors are treated to an uncrowded, unhurried, and undiscovered experience marked by deserted white sand beaches, authentic centuries-old traditions, and a generous and genuine people that give Tonga its reputation as the “Friendly Isles.”

Meaning “south”, Tonga consists of the southernmost group of islands in central Polynesia, scattered over 435,000 square miles between New Zealand and Hawaii. And while its more prominent neighbors of Fiji and Samoa might surround it, the Kingdom of Tonga stands on its own as an at once compelling destination. It is made up of four major island groups: Tongatapu and ‘Eua in the south, the Ha’apai group in the middle, and the Vava’u group in the north, as well as Niua Fo’ou and Niuatoputapu, two islands that make up the Niuas island group. Tongatapu is by far Tonga’s largest island, housing 70-percent of the country’s small population and serving as a relaxed gateway to the country’s many wonders.

Life in Tonga unquestionably reflects its island nature. Diving and snorkeling in stunning coral atolls and fishing, kayaking, and kite surfing over the crystal clear ocean waters are all popular, as is trekking across ancient lava tubes and vast rainforest tracks and simply lazing on some of the abandoned beaches. Yet travelers would be remiss if they didn’t take time to immerse themselves in the unique Tongan culture, which remains true to its ancient, 3,000-year-old ancestral roots. This is partly because Tonga is the only Pacific Island nation never to be colonized by a foreign power and because it still retains its millennium-old indigenous monarchical structure of governance, making it the only remaining Kingdom monarchy in the South Pacific. Indeed, Tonga is the closest to “true” Polynesia one is likely to find, where life revolves around a proud royal monarchy, friendly hospitality, and rich cultural inheritance as showcased in its moving church ceremonies, kava drinks, and tapa cloth production.

And best of all, because most of Tonga’s tourism industry is still intimate and locally owned, it is easy for visitors to experience the archipelago’s famous friendliness firsthand. Whether secreted away in a luxury resort or island hopping on your own private yacht, Ker & Downey ensures that authentic Tongan hospitality is always on display in the “True South Pacific”, a place that really does have it all.

Tonga and Humpback Whales

About 150 miles north of Tongatapu is the flawless Vava’u island group, a collection of more than 50 islands known for their clear yachting waters and annual summertime humpback whale populations, when the gentle giants take shelter in the reef-protected waters of Tonga to give birth to their young. The arrival of the whales from June to November completes a remarkable cycle, as the new calves return to where they were first conceived 11 months earlier. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where visitors can witness this natural phenomenon under the water, swimming alongside the whales.