Traveling to Mata-Utu, the capital of the Polynesian islands of Wallis and Futuna, is like traveling to an entirely different world. Located on the island of Wallis, the town is surrounded by thick jungles and home a fascinating, traditional culture that is struggling to stay that way in the midst of rapid change. The inhabitants have kept their culture remarkably intact in the face of a strong French presence and an influx of Catholicism, but more brand-new Toyotas have shown up on the few streets, and satellite TV is popping up in more and more homes.
One of the reasons that Mata-Utu and Wallis have maintained their souls is because there has never been a big push for tourism, and there are no plans for one in the future. This means that traveling to the island is often expensive and difficult, but it also means that you will not do battle for space with heaps of honeymooners or waves of package tourists upon arrival.
Mata-Utu is home to just over 1,000 people, and its downtown district is dominated by the cathedral, designated as a French national monument. Next door is the King’s Palace, a surprisingly plain building that does not architecturally match its significance. A small variety of restaurants surround the palace and cathedral. There is also a small shopping mall not far from the city center.
The Wallis archipelago is encircled by a lagoon that is surrounded by a coral reef. An impressive array of marine fauna thrives in and around the waters, including endemic species like the chestnut-breasted munia, mayna birds and white-collared kingfishers. Cool shade is provided by colorful hibiscus trees, many varieties of bamboo, banana trees, coconut palms and breadfruit trees.
One of the most beautiful places on the island is Laoalo Lake, a crater lake that reaches depths of 262 feet and is ringed by cliffs reaching heights of 98 feet. The little fishing village of Vailala is close by, and so are the remains of Tonga Toto, a fortress that looked over the sea dating from the 15th century. Each of these sites can be accessed by the island’s 21-mile coastal route.
Another fortified Tongan settlement can be explored about six miles southwest of the capital. Called Talietumu, the fortress’ remains include a few preserved structures and buildings, including a central elevated platform built around 1450.
The tropical location of Wallis means that the weather is often markedly hot and humid. The dry season from May to October is the best time to visit because the average temperature is only 80 degrees and the hot climate is made more tolerable by sea breezes. During the rainy season from November through April, the temperatures tend to climb and cyclones are more common. On average, Wallis receives ten feet of rainfall each year, and dark grey rain clouds cover the sky about 260 days a year.