OLIVIA Merlen concludes her travel series on New Caledonia with a trip to its beautiful islands and plenty of tips on what to do when you get there.
With turquoise waters that form the largest lagoon in the world, lunar landscapes characterised by red earth and tropical seclusion, New Caledonia is a land of contrasts that’s only a three hour plane ride from Sydney.
The archipelago was discovered by James Cook in 1774 on his way to New Zealand. Startled by the resemblance to his native country, he named it New Caledonia – the former name of Scotland.
French migrants then took possession of the islands in 1853, keen on the mineral deposits they found. Eleven years later the first boat of convicts arrived. Today, nickel mining is still important for the island’s economy.
But the first true inhabitants of the island were the Melanesians, who arrived around 3,000 years ago during the Lapita period and brought their customs and traditions with them.
Named “the land of eternal spring” for its semi-tropical climate, New Caledonia has become a popular destination among its Australian neighbours, who can revise their French basics in a heavenly environment, and among Japanese couples who choose to get married here.
Noumea and its surroundings
Noumea is the point of arrival for on the grande terre (main island) of New Caledonia. Landing by plane in Tontouta is already a sight to behold with the barrier reef on one side, the red earth mountains on the other and finally a single landing strip in the middle of nowhere.
Noumea is the biggest ‘city’ on the island with 163,723 inhabitants or 40 per cent of the population.
The Ouen Toro hill looks down on Noumea’s peninsula and stands out against the blue surrounding the islets, Ile aux Canards and Ilot Maitre, as if from the sky.
Down by the Ouen Toro, the Baie des Citrons is a family friendly and lively bay with many bars and restaurants. In contrast to this sheltered bay, the nearby Anse Vata is a place where the trade winds are always strong. All along, trucks are parked on the side of the road for locals and tourists to rent cheap windsurfs and other materials. Water taxis also depart from there to the two little islets, one of which has a marine reserve you can discover through a marked underwater path.
Away from this bustle, the city centre might seem a little dull. Only the cathedral and the Coconut Square with its music kiosk are worth seeing, followed by a stint of souvenir shopping at the “curios”. The centre is also the place where the rich culture and history of the island are preserved in different museums.
Getting there: you can find return tickets from Melbourne to Noumea from $800
Where to stay: Youth hostel YHA in Noumea from 1700 FCP ($18) per person, (687) 27 58 79
What to do: Get a free “The Traveller’s Guide” at the Office de Tourisme
Water taxis to the Ile aux Canards 1200 FCFP ($13) and to the Ilot Maitre 2800FCP ($30) return, per person
Rent windsurf, kitesurf, kayak and stand-up paddle boards at Anse Vata
Noumea’s market is open daily from 5-11am
Get the nature and culture pass at the Office de tourisme: one entry per person to six of Noumea’s venues, including the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, 1700 FCFP ($18)
Current exchange rates: $1 = 94.65XPF
A day in Amedee Island
The Mary D Princess sets off at 8.30 from Noumea and during my tour, the crew on board began by briefing its passengers on the busy day ahead, along with a warning about the strange creatures we might encounter.
“This is the tricot rayé and you will find them everywhere on the island,” a member of the crew explains with a brochure. “They are even sometimes in the toilets.”
Although they possess highly toxic venom, the snakes, with their little jaws, are known to be a shy species and not dangerous as long as they aren’t disturbed.
Not long after we arrive on Amedee Island, we set off again on a glass-bottom boat and the remoras, also called suckerfishes, quickly stick their heads under the boat (as sharks or turtles would) – ready to follow the excursion.
The glass boat floats only a few centimetres above the corals. Soon the head of a turtle surfaces above the water to breathe, much to the delight of the many passengers.
Once the boat returned to shore, those who hadn’t had enough set off again to go snorkeling.
There are other attractions follow too – a traditional dance show, a lesson on how to climb a coconut tree and how to tie a pareo like a Tahitian.
The Mary D tour includes: return trip to Amedee Island, glass bottom boat tour, barrier reef discovery tour, buffet lunch and other activities. 13900 FCFP ($147) per person. Check days of departure.
Isle of Pines
South east of the mainland, the Isle of Pines, or Kunié as the locals name it, remains a place untouched. When we arrived there, we had the impression we were navigating during the explorers’ era. Called the ‘place closest to paradise’ for its beauty, the island is bordered by thousands of Column pines, white sandy beaches and 400 strange tumuli or mounds.
At the end of the pier, the locals impatiently await their loved ones who are returning with provisions from the mainland. Vast crowds of tourists also disembark there, rushing to the shuttles that will bring them to the few resorts on the island.
Staying two days on the island is ideal. On the first day, you can explore the inland by renting a cheap bike or a car from one of the tourist resorts.
The island has two beautiful caves. The Oumagne cave also known as the Queen Hortense’s Grotto is one of them. It’s important to leave a few coins here for the tribes people.
Our second day on the island was spent on an adventure. At 7.30, visitors meet at the St Joseph’s Bay, where the authentic pirogue owners await to guide us along the Upi Bay. Amid the sound of lapping waves, the pirogue glides on the turquoise waters.
At the end of our ride, we stepped in the water to get to the beach. Past the forest, we reached Oro Bay, which resembles a river bordered by column pines. Everyone goes snorkelling near the coral heads, which is home to many fish. A sheltered haven of water, where even sharks can’t access, this pool is heaven.
Where to stay: Camp Nataiwatch 1800 FCFP ($19) for a tent (687) 461113, Gîte d’Oro, Chez Regis 1500 FCFP ($16) for a tent (687)434555
What to do: Book the pirogue trip at the resort, 4000 FCFP ($42) per person
Recommended length of stay: 2 days
For more information on the isle of pines, click here
Depending on your budget and length of stay, you can check out other magnificent islands in New Caledonia called the Loyalty islands. For more information, go to this website.