27 May 2013

The Not-So-Secret Cove and The Resort on the Cliff

Imagine a place where the South Pacific Ocean violently lashes a huge rocky uplifted reef. And now imagine sitting in the serene water on the other side of the reef 10-20 meters away from the breakers. Channels carved into the coral form deeper pools in the shallow water that you can swim in, and otherwise you walk around in ankle to knee-deep water. And on the other side of this calm band of water that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction, is a beach of soft, brilliantly-white sand. "Secret Cove" is a favourite destination for lazy weekend afternoon swims and picnics, as well as midnight bonfires, being sheltered from the wind, and completely hidden from sight from the farmer's access road up above on the cliffs.
Even though it's a rough day, we're safe behind the barrier reef, watching blowholes. 
The south coast of Tongatapu is known for the Blowholes (tubes in the uplifted coral reef that funnel the oncoming waves to create spectacular natural fountains), but not for beaches or swimming. A shallow band of water behind the reef wraps almost around the entire East, South, and West sides of the island, occasionally broken in places by channels. On one hand, this reef protects the island from the open ocean to the South, but it also makes the ocean on that side of the island largely inaccessible. swimming on this side of the island, with a few exceptions can largely be described as wading, as the deepest the water gets is waist-level. There's the added consideration of the blowholes being tubes in the coral that open onto open ocean...pressure pushes water through them to form the fountain, but when the wave goes out, there is powerful suction that can pull things down into the tube. Some are large enough to pull someone down and through the reef, which is certainly deadly. What makes Secret Cove notable is that it is a nice combination of deeper pools to swim in, small blowholes allowing for safe swimming, and a large, easily-accessible beach with soft, fine sand.

Here's an album of more picture of a storm hitting the barrier reef.

Ankle-deep water punctuated by deep pools to snorkel in
This beach was one of the first beaches that we visited here on the main island, and is one of the only beaches I have gone back to, time and time again over our 3 years in Tongatapu. The access road is simple to find (see map directions at the bottom of the page), easy to navigate, and the beach is only 9km from downtown Nuku'alofa, or a 30-40 minute bike ride. We have had bonfires and barbecues on this beach, gotten sunburns and sat on blowholes (small ones are fun but not dangerous). It's sheltered, and just isolated enough that it does not usually draw hordes of people. And if you get tired of the beach and would like a cold beverage or a bowl of chips or a meal, the beach is right next to Keleti Beach Resort, which can be reached either by walking through the ankle deep water to the east for 100 meters, walking over the sharp petrified coral, or climbing back up the path and walking along the cliff.

As you go down the road to the resort, you're greeted by the impossibly blue ocean!
When you approach either Secret Cove, or Keleti Beach Resort for the first time, the road slopes down from the rich agricultural land on the back side of the island towards the ocean. The ocean slowly appears as a deep blue band framed by the bushes and trees on either side of the road, and when the road finally opens up, the ocean is laid out in front of you. It's a sight that I stop and marvel at every time I see it. The south side of Tonga looks out over deep ocean that quickly drops down to the second lowest point on the planet at around 10000 meters, courtesy of Tonga's position on the far Eastern edge of the Australian continental plate where it meets with the Pacific plate.

Liz and her husband spent most of their lives in Christchurch, NZ, and came back to Tonga to renovate the resort
Keleti Beach Resort is one of two accommodations on the South side of Tongatapu situated at the top of the cliffs above the beach and the barrier reef. It is just one road to the east of Secret Cove, or accessible from the beach. The resort was founded decades ago by a Tongan man, and is open during the day, every day, to walk-ins for meals and drinks (though if you go there in a large group and are planning to eat, it is best to call ahead). The current owners are the son of the founder, and his wife, a couple who grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, and returned to Tonga a year ago to renovate the resort and take over the operations from the founder.

The beach access path at Keleti Beach Resort
The lounge and bar area overlooking the ocean
The resort's main building is built around a courtyard that overlooks the beach and ocean. On either side is the bar and lounge area, and the dining room. As resorts go in Tongatapu, this one has a very good view that makes up for its relative isolation, and they make some excellent breadfruit chips (fries).

Down the path to the side of the main reception and dining building is the beach access and accommodations. Being a Tonga resident, I have never had a reason to stay the night at the resort though, so I can't speak to the experience of staying there, just visiting. The staff have always been very kind and friendly, and I have enjoyed spending time on the terrace with a cold drink and chips while playing cards and talking.

Both the resort and Secret Cove beach are worth the day trip out of town. If you are riding a bicycle, it is an easy distance to ride, with shade and parking available. While it is not the most spectacular vista in Tonga, it is a beautiful, peaceful place to swim or enjoy the view. I highly recommend checking out this part of Tongatapu!

See directions below.

The little bungalows at the resort on top of the cliff
The Royal "Bungalow" of the late King George Tupou V
In order to get to Secret Cove from Nuku'alofa, take Taufa'ahau Rd. out of town, passing the Hospital and Royal "Bungalow" (read mansion). In the town directly after, you continue on the main road, looking for the Church of Tonga in Ha'ateiho which is on the right-hand side of the road coming from Nuku'alofa, and has a distinctive 3-roof architecture and blue, yellow and red stained glass. The road down to the South Side of the island is right next to the church, and used to be marked by a sign for Keleti Beach Resort. 

Church of Tong that marks the turn off of the main road
Continue down this road until it ends in a T-junction with the road that runs the length of the south side of the island, and take a left. Secret Cove should be the next bush track/dirt road to the right on this road, and Keleti Beach Resort will be the second road the right about 1/2 kilometer down the road. 

The large Mango Tree that marks the turn to Secret Cove Beach
If you are going to Secret Cove, the bush road continues down towards the ocean. Follow the road all the way to the end where it opens into a large grassy clearing. There is room to park vehicles, but if riding bicycles, I would highly recommend locking them up as you would anywhere else in Tonga (i.e. securely to a palm tree with the frame and front wheel locked). While not extremely remote, this beach is far from town and you don't want to lose your mode of transportation.

From the clearing, there is a path towards the ocean that cuts through some rocks down to the beach. Please watch your step as the ground is uneven and some of the rocks are sharp.

See the map at the bottom of the post for the details of this route to Secret Cove.

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