A Feast to Remember

An excerpt from a magazine article I wrote entitled “A Tongan Feast” (Blue Water Sailing, November 2014).

Apparently, we had it all wrong. The best thing about Tonga is not the sailing. No! The true highlight of this island kingdom is in fact a Tongan feast. This message was continuously reinforced from the moment we cleared customs. Must go to a feast! admonished cruisers who had arrived a few weeks earlier. Come to our village feast! called the friendly voice of a local whose community made a small fundraiser out of the event; such offers were a regular feature on the morning cruisers’ radio net. Have you signed up for the weekend feast? urged neighboring sailors.

We felt a little disoriented, because we had actually come to Tonga for the sailing, not the feasting. After thousands of miles of sailing between isolated Pacific Islands, we had finally reached a compact, sheltered cruising ground. In Tonga’s northern island group, Vava’u, we could finally enjoy the novelty of short, frivolous day trips. Our sloop became a hyperactive beehive of activity as we tacked, winched, and trimmed away. We could bask in comfortable beam reaches, kick back during placid downwind runs, and thrill in windward beats – all in a single afternoon! On the menu were deep, wide channels, snaking slalom runs between islands, and challenging, reef-dodging routes. We were in Tonga to feast, all right – to feast on the sailing.

I had to ask myself: what was this obsession with feasting, anyway? It all goes back to 1953, when Tonga’s Queen Salote attended the coronation of a young Queen Elizabeth in London. In spite of the pouring rain, Queen Salote insisted on keeping the hood of her horse-drawn carriage down throughout the long procession as a sign of respect. Salote’s symbolic gesture and winning smile earned her legions of adoring fans all over the world. When Elizabeth visited Tonga soon after, Queen Salote laid on the feast of the century: an open-air affair that stretched over a hundred meter-long table laden with tropical fruit, roast pigs, succulent seafood, and countless other leaf-wrapped goodies. Grainy black-and-white images of the feast spun to newspapers around the globe, and a legend was born.

All very nice, but as I said, we were here for the sailing. So we ventured back into open water, sailing sixty miles south to the less frequented Ha’apai group, a tangle of reefs and exposed islets. When the forecast predicted a big blow, we headed for the small island of O’ua and its promise of shelter in a deep, reef-protected basin. The trough passed over the area the next day, bringing torrents of rain. But every cloud has a silver lining, and in O’ua, this came in the sturdy form of a young local named Freddy. We were initially bewildered when this twenty-something-year-old swam out to our boat at the height of a squall and perched on our stern ladder. What on earth was he up to, swimming in such weather? What did he want?

At first, his broken English and our nonexistent Tongan did little to clarify the situation. But Markus, with his patient heart of gold, joined our visitor in the downpour, communicating through basic English and hand gestures. It was a little like navigating with paper charts: it requires some use of the brain, but ultimately gets you to your destination. Our visitor didn’t appear interested in fishing gear. He wasn’t particularly curious about our boat. And he certainly didn’t harbor any evil intentions. It seemed that all Freddy wanted was to initiate a little contact with the outside world, an impression confirmed later when we visited him on land. Living in an isolated island village with less than one hundred crowded inhabitants has its limits. What’s a little rain when the outside world comes knocking at your door?

Little did we know that this strange encounter was to pave the way for a very unique experience. When Freddy returned the next (sunny) day with a bunch of bananas, we invited him to join us for lunch. Freddy raised his heavy eyebrows in the Tongan equivalent of a nod and lingered over every bite of freshly baked bread and canned ham as if they were gourmet treats. Then he promised to return the next day with a feast for us. Now it was our turn to raise our eyebrows and nod. This we had to see.

True to his word, Freddy appeared the next day on a borrowed skiff and stepped aboard Namani with his promised feast: Tongan takeout, as Markus later joked. The meal had been cooking in an umu, or earth oven, for hours, and was now spread across our cockpit table in succulent, leaf-wrapped packages. Each dish came with a deceptively Spartan title that belied the explosion of flavors it promised. “Fish” referred to three steaming, juicy reef fish marinated in coconut milk; “chicken” was the unassuming name of a deliciously soft, steamed meat; accompanying them were octopus, taro, and cassava, plus fresh-off-the-tree papaya for dessert. Freddy borrowed Markus’ guitar to strum a few tunes while his son Anis joined Nicky in climbing the rigging and tinkering with Lego. Thanks to Freddy, we had a feast fit for a queen, and a day to remember.