Everything You Need to Know About Trying Kava in Tonga as a Visitor
Kava is a hugely significant part of the Tongan culture, not only used for nightly social gatherings but also for royal ceremonies. The traditions surrounding kava drinking, as well as the calming effects, are what make kava an intriguing prospect for many visitors to Tonga. Discover where to try kava in Tonga, including at resorts, culture tours and authentic faikava sessions, in this guide.
Frequently Asked Questions About Kava in Tonga
Get your question answered in our list of the internet’s most asked questions about kava in Tonga.
Do Tongans Drink Kava?
They most certainly do! Many Tongan men drink kava in kava circles known as faikava on a weekly, if not nightly basis.
What Does Kava Mean in Tongan?
“Kava” in Tongan refers to the pepper plant, piper methysticum. Its scientific name comes from the Latin word for “pepper” and the Greek word for “intoxicating”. The word “kava” is said to derive from the Polynesian legend of a girl, Kava’onau, who was sacrificed by her parents and from whose grave the first kava plant miraculously sprouted.
Is Tongan Kava Strong?
Tongan kava is strong; drinkers will feel the calming effects of kava after two or three drinks. Tourists can usually request to drink half a coconut shell (the vessel kava is usually served in) for the taste but don’t usually feel its narcotic effects at this dosage.
What is the Kava Ceremony in Tonga?
The common “kava ceremony” in Tonga is less of a ceremony and more of a casual gathering of local men drinking kava and sometimes singing and playing guitar. However, there is also the “Royal Tongan Kava Ceremony”, known as “Taumafa Kava“, which is a ritualised installation of the monarch of Tonga with the chiefly nobility. During the ceremony, the chiefs will pledge their loyalty to the King or Queen.
Is Kava Samoan or Tongan?
Both! Kava plays an integral part in both the cultures of the Pacific neighbours, Tonga and Samoa.
Kava at Tonga Accommodations and Restaurants
Resorts, guesthouses and hotels know that their guests are intrigued by the kava culture of Tonga. With that, you’ll find a few accommodations in Tonga putting on a weekly activity for guests where you’ll get to try kava, whether it’s in a relaxed setting of the accommodation’s restaurant or during a more formal “cultural night” like a floor show. Some of the accommodations allowing guests to try kava include:
Humpback Lodge (Vava’u)
Humpback Lodge in Vava’u hosts a “kava night” at its public restaurant every Saturday complete with a kava ceremony and string band entertainment. Taste Tonga’s most iconic drink and learn about its significance before indulging in an array of Tongan dishes presented at the buffet. Your meal is then accompanied by the relaxing tunes of a local string band. Learn more about the location in the 10 Best Cultural Shows in Tonga.
Beautiful Ofu Island Backpackers (Vava’u)
Also in Vava’u, Beautiful Ofu Island Backpackers allows you to escape the hustle and bustle of the main island with their umu and kava night on Ofu Island. Included in the price, you’ll travel by boat from the Old Neiafu Harbour to a small village on an off-shore island. On arrival, you’ll be welcomed with a kava ceremony and enjoy traditional Tongan meals that have been prepared in an umu earth oven. The real highlight is the dance performance by local villagers, concluding with an epic fire dance. Learn more about the schedule and location in the 10 Best Cultural Shows in Tonga.
Blue Water Retreat (‘Eua)
‘Eua Island‘s closest accommodation to a resort offers a weekly kava night for guests. Blue Water Retreat aims to make your stay on ‘Eua as effortless as possible with all meals provided, as well as in-house activities from island tours to whale swimming. Learn more about this accommodation in Where to Stay on ‘Eua: The Best ‘Eua Accommodations.
Port Wine Guest House (Vava’u)
Express your interest to experience one of Port Wine Guest House‘s “Kava Nights” and the accommodation in Neiafu will typically organise a night for guests to experience kava drinking in the dining area of the guesthouse. They also can arrange umu and barbecue feasts on request. Learn more about the accommodation in the 20 Best Guesthouses in Tonga.
Toni’s Guesthouses and Apartments (Tongatapu)
This selection of budget accommodations on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa aims to provide a more authentic experience of Tonga. Not only are guests at Toni’s Guesthouses and Apartments often welcomed with a barbecue or welcome snacks, but ask about their “kava circles”, where the team often arranges a faikava similar to the real deal (see “Joining a Faikava or Kapulu” below) with a mix of locals and in-house guests. Learn more about the guesthouses in the 10 Best Guesthouses in Nuku’alofa & Tongatapu.
‘Alakoka Tahi Moana Guest House (‘Eua)
‘Alakoka Tahi Moana Guest House or Kiko’s Guest House on the island of ‘Eua is more like a Tongan homestay, allowing guests to effortlessly immerse in the Tongan culture. Ask to experience a “faikava” and they’ll either take you to one of the many nightly kava nights in the local villages or organise one at the guesthouse depending on guest numbers. For the former, see “Joining a Faikava or Kapulu” below to know what to bring. Otherwise, learn more about the accommodation in the 5 Best Guesthouses on ‘Eua.
Kava on Culture Tours
Another easily accessible way to experience a kava ceremony or tasting is on a culture tour in Tonga. This is usually the most informative experience, where a guide will provide insights into the ritual of drinking kava and will be able to answer any questions you may have.
Ancient Tonga (Tongatapu)
Ancient Tonga is a cultural centre based in the Popua suburb of Nuku’alofa. Their culture tours are very comprehensive, dedicating some time to kava and its significance to the Tongan culture. During their “Half” or “Full” culture tour, a guide will show you a kava root and give a demonstration of how it is ground into a kumete (kava bowl) and mixed with water for drinking. Of course, you’ll get to taste kava in a traditional vessel; a coconut shell.
Teta Tours & Travel (Tongatapu)
Part of the Teta Tours & Travel “Culture Tour” is tasting kava and experiencing the ritual of a kava ceremony. This is your welcome to the unique location of your culture tour, ‘Anahulu Cave, where you’ll learn about how the kava drink is made and taste it from a coconut shell.
Learn more about all of the tours mentioned above in the 15 Best Culture Tours & Experiences in Tonga.
Joining a Faikava or Kapulu
The most authentic way to experience kava drinking in Tonga is to attend a kapulu (club), which is also known as “faikava” (to drink kava). This is where local men gather together most evenings or before Sunday church to sit in a circle and drink kava, while the most vibrant faikava also involves singing harmoniously and playing the guitar.
Despite being a “men’s club”, you’ll be surprised at how welcoming these kava sessions are for visitors. Perhaps more important than the tradition itself to Tongans is sharing the tradition, so you’ll find that most kapulu are very welcoming to visitors of any gender or race.
How to Attend a Faikava
Ask your accommodation provider if they can recommend a local faikava. It’s best to ask about this experience if you’re staying at an accommodation run by Tongans, typically a guesthouse, as they’ll often recommend their own kapulu that they know and trust. Faikava usually takes place around 8 pm most nights and occasionally before church, so on a Sunday at around 9 am. There’s nothing like a good buzz before church!
The Best Place to Attend a Faikava
What to Bring to a Faikava
Like most places in the world, it is customary to contribute something to a social gathering. What can tourists bring to a faikava? Unsurprisingly, a bag of kava powder for the kapulu to enjoy during their next kava session is a winner! If you can’t get your hands on a bag of kava, leave a cash donation from your group. Around TOP$50 is acceptable, which is approximately the price of a 1 kg bag of kava powder.
Where to Buy Kava in Tonga
Kava might take a little time to find in Tonga. Although available in many grocery stores in Tonga, it’s not always available in the first grocery store you visit. That’s with the exception of ‘Eua; almost all grocery stores on ‘Eua have bags of kava for sale!
Alternatively, we have seen kava for sale at ‘Utu’one B&B (Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu) and Kaila Handicraft (Neiafu, Vava’u).
How Much Does Kava Cost?
In Tonga, 500 g (1.1 lbs) bags of kava powder are for sale for TOP$25-$30 and 1 kg (2.2 lbs) bags for around TOP$50-$60.
Customs at a Faikava
Finally, what are the customs when attending a faikava in Tonga? First, if you have brought some kava, give it to the server sitting behind the bowl. Then, it is customary to take your shoes off and sit on the floor when you are invited to do so. There may be low stools to sit on.
You will be passed a half-shell of kava to drink. Drink it in one gulp (like a shot) and you can raise your cup slightly in acknowledgement and thanks. Usually, you’ll pass the cup to the person serving the kava by sliding it back across the floor (locals will help get it back to the server if you’re shuffleboard skills are not up to par).
You are usually welcome to stay as long as you like at faikava, but it will not be taken badly if you want to leave before the session has ended (they can sit there for hours). If you did not bring kava for the session, leave some cash by the kava bowl and server and give your “mālo aupito“.
Learn more about Tongan customs in our guide to Tonga Etiquette: Respecting the Local Customs.
How to Make Kava
Want to try making kava yourself? It’s pretty simple. All you’ll need is kava powder, water, a bowl and a straining cloth.
Place one cup of kava powder in a straining cloth (muslin or cheesecloth works). Place the cloth in a bowl with about 1 litre (4 cups) of water and knead with hands for 5-10 minutes, keeping the powder inside the cloth until the colour of the water appears like milky coffee with a slightly foamy surface. Once ready, pour the liquid for drinking. One cup of kava with 1 litre of water will serve one to four people.
More About Kava in Tonga
That’s it for our guide to kava in Tonga. For more on experiencing the culture of Tonga, take a look at the following:
- The Guide to the Tongan Culture and Traditions
- Traditional Tongan Food: 10 Foods to Try in Tonga
- 10 Drinks in Tonga You Have to Try
Finally, discover more experiences in The Kingdom in our 101 Best Things to Do in Tonga: The Ultimate List.