Earlier this week I asked some of my colleagues if they had ever heard of Tuvalu. “Tuval-who? What is that?”, they asked.
In spite of the internet, the world is so big that our collective ignorance makes us overlook lesser-known places on the world map. When we Googled “least visited country in the world”, Tuvalu topped the list and that was motivation enough for us to dig deeper.
With less than 2000 visitors every year, Tuvalu is a tiny independent nation in the South Pacific, located midway between Hawaii and Australia. It has a population of less than 12,000 inhabitants across nine islands and is the world’s 4th smallest country.
Given its remote location, it’s an expensive place to get to, and only two flights operate from Fiji every week (usually on Tuesday and Thursday).
Since we’re unlikely to head there anytime soon, we thought why not virtually visit Tuvalu this weekend?
We looked at content on the internet: YouTube videos, Instagram photos and videos, TripAdvisor reviews and travel blogs. Being an island, we thought we’d find the usual imagery: crystal clear water, white sand beaches, palm trees, stunning sunsets. What we found instead surprised us. So we decided to curate a 36-hour itinerary for Tuvalu, inspired by NY Times’ ‘36 Hours’ travel series.
36 Hours in Tuvalu
11.30 AM: Touchdown Tuvalu
Touch down at the Funafuti International Airport (FUN) and head to the main island, Funafuti, an atoll that consists of 30 motu, or islets, surrounding a translucent lagoon.
2 PM: Eat Local Chinese
Head to 3 T’s Funafuti for some Taiwanese/Chinese food. Based on the reviews, they serve excellent seafood (fresh steamed fish, salt and pepper squid, etc.).
3.30 PM: Nap on the Airport Runway
The one experience that you’re unlikely to have anywhere else in the world is taking a nap on the airport runway!
With only two flights a week, the airport runway is where locals gather to take a nap in the afternoon, as it happens to be the coolest spot in the island- with the best breeze.
5 PM: Play ‘Te Ano’ With the Locals
Come evening, the runway turns into a playground. Try your hand at playing ‘Te Ano’, Tuvalu’s national sport.
7 PM: Get High on Toddy
Don’t forget to try some local toddy while on the island. Toddy is a kind of palm wine created from the sap of various species of palm trees.
7.00 AM: Go Lagoon Hopping
Grab a quick bite for breakfast and head out into the ocean on a catamaran or yacht before it gets too hot. You can go surfing, snorkeling or deep-sea diving to explore the underwater life and coral reefs. Dive a cave or look out for shipwrecks dating back to World War II. If you’re lucky, you may even meet a wonga!
Tuvalu also boasts of both lagoons and beaches, and you can experience the beauty of both on this tiny island.
1.00 PM: Lunch Like a Local
Catch a coconut crab… and maybe eat it too. The coconut crab is a species of terrestrial hermit crab, also known as the robber crab or palm thief. It is the largest land-living arthropod in the world and can be found in Tuvalu. It is also a popular delicacy in Tuvalu.
3.00 PM: Stamps, Books & Handicrafts
If you’re a stamp collector (or even if you’re not), don’t miss checking out the Tuvalu Philatelic Bureau in Fongafale. The bureau has a huge collection of Tuvalu’s collectible postage stamps, including first-day covers.
Next up, it might be interesting to make a visit to the Tuvalu National Library. It may not have an extensive collection, but it is sure to be interesting!
Another interesting place is David’s Drill, a hole in the ground with a fascinating backstory. In 1896 researchers from the Royal Society of London, accompanied by an Australian professor named Edgeworth David drilled down to 340 metres to test Charles Darwin’s theory of coral atoll formation (although the results remained inconclusive).
Finally, take back a souvenir that’s hand-crafted by local women. The Tuvalu Women’s Handicraft Centre runs a stall near the airport where they sell beautiful woven fans, shell necklaces and baskets, among other things.
6.00 PM: Fatele Dance
Bring in the evening with some traditional music and dance. Watch local teams compete against each other in the energetic Fatele dance and music sessions, or even better, try it yourself!
8.00 PM: Seafood Dinner
End your trip with some scrumptious dinner. Think fresh fish, fried chicken, coconut dishes, pork, and taro. Red Horse Beer from the Philippines is quite popular on the island, but be warned that it’s pretty strong.
However, to truly eat like a local, sit on the floor and eat with your hands!
Climate Change is Real
While Tuvalu seems like the perfect place for travelers looking to go off-the-beaten-track, the threat of climate change is real. Tuvalu is forecasted to be one of the first places in the world to be submerged in water due to rising ocean levels.
There are ongoing efforts to plant mangroves in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, there’s a high chance that there may be no Tuvalu left in a decade’s time :(
How to get there
Fiji Airways flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Suva, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from Suva to Tuvalu.
Where to stay
You can stay at Filamona Hotel which is located in close proximity to the airport and is run by a local Tuvaluan family, with the facilities of a hotel.
When to go
Tuvalu has a warm, but rainy, climate throughout the year. The rainy season is from November to February, while the cyclone season is from November to April.
Visitors are issued with a free 30-day tourist visa on arrival, and there’s no departure tax.
In Funafuti, the best way to get around on the main island (called Fongafale) is by motorbike. You can rent one for $10 a day or hitch a ride with a local rider.
The local currency of Tuvalu is the Australian dollar. However, there are no ATMs, credit cards aren’t accepted- so cash is king here.
English is the official language (being a former British colony) while Tuvaluan is the local language.
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