It’s always been said that the French Overseas Territories are like remote enclaves of France dotted around the world. But it’s not until you go to one that you realise just how true that is. At least it’s certainly true for the region of Noumea on the island of New Caledonia, which is a terribly Scottish pseudonym for Nouvelle-Calédonie. See, at the mere mention of the name you’re already smelling ripe cheese, crusty bread and the strangely distant terroir of a French vineyard. And that’s the point I guess, amongst the mangoes and palm trees there is this pocket of humanity that is without hesitation French, through and through. So I haven’t been to any other far flung FOTs (yet!) to determine whether this is consistent, but I surely now know why all those Year 11 French language classes whipped off to nearby-Noumea rather than particularly-distant-Paris!
I love that Air Calin have doused their aircraft with a tonne of paint to make it seem like you’re joining a garlanded float rather than an A330 to be spirited away to paradise. And a word of advice : if you can book yourself on to this flight from Sydney rather than the considerably smaller, more cramped Qantas codeshare 737 you will arrive in Noumea in a much more relaxed disposition. And yes, all the onboard announcements are in French first, not to mention the food and beverage service immediately putting you in a French frame of mind. Now I take it if you’re hoping to appreciate all this then all’s good, but if you were looking for just another Pacific island resort holiday you’ve probably caught the wrong flight, and you’ve already turned off this blog post! Never mind, your loss!
So let’s get the age old question out of the way first – is Nouvelle-Calédonie expensive? Well, in terms of getting there – no. We took a “2nd person half price deal” and it was good value compared to other Pacific destinations. Our first hotel didn’t include any sort of meal package, so eating out in Anse Vata or Baie des Citrons for three meals a day is moderately expensive, especially breakfast in relative terms. However our second hotel included breakfast and a two-for-one dinner buffet, and so it didn’t seem as much so. However, as always in France, a baguette, some hunks of cheese and a bottle of red from the supermarket (if you can call it that, more like a glorified corner store) and you’re on your way to that classic French travelling dinner, except with a tropical sunset – best of two hemispheres at once I’d say! So the answer, as in most places, is you can set your own budget and make it happen. What I will say though is finding a knife, plate or a wine glass in a hotel in Noumea is a bit of a challenge since the minibar is spartan or non-existent.
So Noumea – it has a reputation for being just a stopover port on the Pacific cruise circuit, and certainly the centre is just a small capital city business district with a scattering of coffee shops and boutique. The City Markets down by the harbour offer meager craft and fruit/vegetable options but nothing to write home about. And back tracking to the coffee issue – just like in France, their milk coffees are made with longlife milk, so they taste like, well, longlife milk. We did however find a tea shop in Rue de Sebastopol called Infinithé that had an eye-popping array of tea options, and while the host was probably an Anglophile on the inside, being a tea devotee, she was distinctly Parisien in her approach to English speaking guests. But to be fair, she was the only person we found to be so in a week in Nouvelle-Calédonie.
Arguably the Number One place to visit is the Aquarium in Anse Vata – go at around 10.30am for feeding time – the commentary is in French, but “humpback” is universal! There’s a great ocean tank with everything from minnows to sharks, and children squealing with delight on the outside – that’s okay when they’re not your own. But prior to that there’s a succession of smaller exhibits taking you from the freshwater mountain habitats down to the mangrove margins and out to the coral reefs. The colours and diversity of aquatic life from around the island are spectacular and well worth the visit.
The other worthwhile attraction is the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. As someone with an architectural bent I loved the authenticity of the building – the Renzo Piano design flaunts it’s exposed details, and just seems to grow out of the landscape on the point at the northern limits of Noumea. The actual exhibitions were a little underwhelming, but still a great cross-section of Pacific art and cultural expression.
The most satisfying halls included extensive audio-visual, written and artistic work around the history of the indigenous Kanak people, the impact of colonialism and the formulation and out working of the Noumea Accord which, to correct my statement at the beginning of this blog, makes Nouvelle-Calédonie a “special collectivity”, not an FOT. Don’t go on a Monday or Public Holiday (it’s closed), but do take the adventure of the No. 40 (N2 line) bus from Place Moselle, and your insect repellent (they do have some at the reception counter). The bus ride is something of a cultural experience in it’s own right, and depending on the age of the bus and the driver, can be quite an alarming tour through the windy roads of Noumea! Buy your prepaid bus tickets at the bleak looking box of a building that looks more like a toilet block than a ticket office, go on, don’t be afraid to open the door, there’s a friendly lady inside!
From Noumea we headed off to the small atoll of Ilôt Maître in the Noumea Lagoon, and the L’Escapade Resort. For accessibility you can’t beat it – a short ferry ride out from Port Moselle. Part of the protected area creating a Marine Park that encircles Nouvelle-Calédonie, the atoll sits just above the surface of the lagoon and is surrounded by wide sand flats that increase it’s area by at least 50% when the tide is out. But whether you’re in a beach bungalow or an over water bure you can be in the water in moments, swimming for hours with an amazing array of colourful fish, urchins, seasnakes and turtles.
Evidently the seasnakes, which curl up in hidey holes on the island (like under your doorstep!), are poisonous, but you’d virtually have to stick your finger down their throat to elicit an aggressive response. For most people the highlight are the turtles, of which there are plenty, but I loved the vast clouds of fish that just parted as you swam through. Our visit in early June had us comfortably swimming in regular swimwear with hired snorkels and flippers for an hour at a time before needing to thaw out in the sun.
An early Sunday morning departure caused some consternation for the breakfast staff, but it’s a decent hike back to La Tontouta Airport, and the ferry only goes back to Noumea four times a day so you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But here’s to sunset cocktails, short haul adventures laced with Saint Nectaire cheese, merlot and perfect baguettes. If you’re hunkering for something sweet in the Anse Vata area don’t miss L’Atelier Gourmand in Route de I’Anse Vata for that perfect pastry or cake, fabled as the best patisserie in Noumea, if not the South Pacific!