I remember, as a seven-year-old boy, being thoroughly disappointed visiting my first “island.” Not that my loving parents didn’t have the best of intentions—but as a child, when you’re told you’re going to an “island,” you envision the actual “island” geography and landscape you’ve seen growing up: those crazy-desolate tropical and tiny islands from shows like Gilligan’s Island and every movie from the 60s and 70s about a shipwreck or conquest in the South Pacific. I can specifically remember not quite being able to grasp the concept that we were “driving” to Florida’s Captiva Island. Why didn’t we need a little boat to get to this “island?” And then, when we arrived, why were there highways, stoplights, a Howard Johnson’s and McDonald’s? It was all very confusing and candidly a little disappointing.
Oh, and if my parents are reading this—Mom, Dad, please don’t take the above paragraph as being ungrateful; we sure had some great memories on Captiva—but when you’re that small you just don’t quite understand how all of the world works yet. I had a hard time understanding why there were so many other people on this “island;” not to mention cars, and buildings, and “things.” I thought islands were supposed to be just sand and coconuts. First my realization that Santa wasn’t real…and now this whole tropical “island” thing is a sham too? Is anything real???
Though it may have taken over three decades to finally set foot on an authentic, almost deserted tropical island–the kind I had wanted to see as a kid–now I finally was here, and Tonga’s Uoleva Island was everything I’d ever dreamed of. No electricity, no cars, no roads, and certainly no “bridge” the mainland. I’d finally arrived to the kind of island I had been yearning to visit since childhood, and I would enjoy every moment of it.
Arriving to Uoleva was no easy feat. I took a train from San Diego to Los Angeles; flew from Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji; then from Nadi to Nuka’alofa, Tonga; then Nuka’lofa to the island of Ha’apai; a car to the marina, a small boat to Uoleva’s waters, and theeeeeeen an even smaller boat to tender to shore. My legs got soaked during the final transition, but I’d made it, and didn’t care if I was wet. I could barely contain my excitement.
Mahe brought his three little girls small Tongan flags on sticks to wave during the match against New Zealand that first night, but for whatever reason he wasn’t able to secure a connection to see the game through the island’s meager Internet connection. Here there was no satellite TV. The few appliances and small LED lamps were powered by solar. Rain water was stored in glass bottles and kept in an eco-fridge. This was all part of “the experience,” and I loved every detail.
I was a guest at Sea Change Eco Retreat, one of only four super-quaint lodges on Uoleva. And I soon realized I was only one of three guests on the entire island. High season was behind us, and the island was closing up shop for cyclone season. Though I’d miss swimming with the whales—a popular attraction in the area—I was delighted to have pretty much free reign of the entire island. I thought this only happened in the movies.
My hosts were fantastic. Becky (originally form London) and Mahe (a native Tongan) ran the resort, along with their wonderful daughters Lilly, Layla and Bella (ages 3, 5 and 7, respectively) and a couple adorable dogs and puppies—they’d be my company for my three-day, two-night stay on this fantasy island. No crowds, no tour groups, no frat boys at the bar playing drinking games. There was just about as many people here at the lodge as the cast of Gilligan’s Island. This was going to be awesome.
My quarters were a little wooden cottage with three beds. Becky called it a falé (Tongan for house) and it was very charming, and super basic. When I say basic, I just don’t mean sans TV or air conditioning—but literally, just four wooden walls, a roof, and a string of three LED light bulbs strung across the ceiling, powered by solar. There weren’t even windows, but rather big wooden flaps that acted like shutters that you’d prop open with boards. There was a small porch in the front with a table and chairs. The wooden outhouse was just ten feet away and included a toilet, sink and, to my surprise, a hot shower. My little falé was just perfect, and only steps from the beach, with not another cottage in sight. My only disappointment was that I hadn’t booked at least a week here.
I spent the next two days exploring the deserted beaches and swimming and snorkeling the emerald waters on every side of the island. It was neat making the only footprints in the sand, and walking for hours without seeing another soul. The only litter on the beach was coconuts and driftwood, and rush hour consisted of a lane of crabs that left behind little lines in the sand. I was able to leave my phone back in my falé and for the first time since I can remember, truly decompress. There was no other choice. And it was wonderful.
I enjoyed falling asleep in my little house. It was the first time in ages I didn’t watch TV before bed. I just turned out the light and listened to the soothing sounds of the waves and the crickets until I was out. A tremendous rainstorm woke me up in the middle of the night, but the sounds of the water pounding on the wooden roof above me soon lulled me back to sleep.
One of the highlights of staying at Sea Change was my personal chef! Mahe was an awesome cook, making homemade Tongan recipes from scratch and serving me special dishes three times a day. Becky makes an amazing iced coffee. The level of service here was just so unique; it felt like I was both a valued and even “royal” guest, but also a family member at the same time. My only disappointment was forgetting to snap a photo of me with my new friends Becky and Mahe. I enjoyed their company as much as I enjoyed the property. I thought how cool it must be for their small children–to experience growing up on a little island like this, so far away from the bustle of normal life, sheltered from the chaos that surrounds most kids. No big city crime, no peer pressure to wear expensive brand name clothes. No Kardashians. Just a simple and happy life. What memories they will have to cherish when they are older!
Day three and it was time to say goodbye, as we tendered our tiny boat from the sand to the (not much) bigger one waiting for us a hundred feet out. Back on the main island of Ha’apai, not only did our hosts give us a nice morning tour, but we even stopped by Mahe’s home where his family was doing some traditional cooking and craft work. These are the kind of real experiences you can’t “buy” on a tour–you’re just lucky to experience now and again if you’re in the right place at the right time. I wished I’d more time on both Uoleva and the main island of Ha’apai. I have to come back to swim with the whales–I hear that’s just incredible!
30+ years to experience a real-life, almost deserted island was worth the wait!
You can find out more about Sea Change Eco Retreat HERE. Be sure and tell Becky, Mahe, and their beautiful little girls and doggies, that Ramblin’ Randy says hello!
Disclosure: Unless stated on my blogs, I always pay for my accommodations; but this time I was lucky enough to be hosted by Sea Change Eco Retreat. I’d like to thank the owners, and especially my hosts Becky and Mahe, who were just fantastic. I would’ve picked Sea Change even if I wasn’t invited…it’s truly a gem.This entry was posted in Oceania