“Okay, sure. You’ll be flying into Fua’amotu International Airport.”

“We’re actually interested in the direct flight from LA to Tonga.”

“Yes, it only flies direct on Tuesdays. Otherwise you have to fly via Auckland.”

“So the flight would be direct from LA to Tonga, correct?”

“Yes, into Fua’amotu direct.”

I was beginning to think I was living a version of the joke where an Australian in an outback pub asks a Canadian visitor where he’s from and the guy replies, “Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

The Australian nods politely before reporting back to his mate: “Well, I asked him, but he doesn’t speak English”.

I was on the phone with an airline agent one cold day last February. It was finally time to book our much-discussed and oft-revised trip for the winter of 2010-11. Planning had begun way back at Square One with this opening salvo of snappy dialogue:

“Where do you want to go this winter?”

“Dunno. Where do you want to go?

After making some exploratory investigations into potential wildlife encounters, we discovered Tonga to be one of only two places on our beautiful blue planet where you can – legally – slip into the water and swim with humpback whales!

Tonga, a barely visible collection of tiny dots in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, easily and instantly shot to the top of our “absolutely must do” list.

Asking the obvious question, “But how does one travel to Tonga these days?” we discovered, both to our delight and our horror that, according to the information on its website, Air New Zealand flew directly from LAX to the Kingdom of Tonga.

If they fly to Tonga at all, delightful. But if they fly to Tonga directly, a lot of other people must also be going there. Horrors. We’d better get there soon, before it’s ruined.

But does Air New Zealand fly there or not? The chirpy, friendly agent who seemed to be speaking a foreign language – in a funny accent – continued:

“After your arrival you can transfer into Nuku’alofa by taxi … well, unless you would prefer to travel onward to Neiafu? Vava’u is recommended for whale watching.”

T-o-n-g-a. We would really like just simply to go to T-o-n-g-a.

“Well, for now we’ll just book the international flights, thank you.”

“Certainly; no problem. Tongatapu it is.”

There! I heard it that time. Somewhere in all those syllables running by, the word: T-o-n-g-a.

Yes, we were young then. As further reading explained, Tonga, although tiny, is very organized. The islands are sorted into groups. Each group possesses one larger, main island. Each main island boasts the major economic centre for its group.

And in addition to all of those beautiful Polynesian names, a bustling airport serves each island group.

The words became more familiar. The names became actual places. Ideas became reality.

Several months later, not long before we were due to fly out of Whitehorse, hoping to beat the snow altogether, I phoned back to double-check all was in order. The agent was quite happy to read our flight itinerary back to us, leg by leg.

“Then Los Angeles to … hmmm … airport code TBU. Tonga, correct?”

“Well, more or less. Fua’amotu International Airport at Nuku’alofa is on Tongatapu Island within the Tongatapu Group. Tonga is really an abbreviation of The Kingdom of Tonga, the only South Pacific nation that has never been colonized, and remains a constitutional monarchy. “

There was a pause.

“Hello? Do we still have a connection?”

We all persevered. Eventually, via LAX and Nuku’alofa, we found ourselves transported to the beautiful islands of Vava’u.