Almost French

A light breeze is ruffling the palm fronds on the Isle of Pines, an idyllic island south-east of New Caledonia’s Noumea, carrying with it the irresistibly sweet smell of lobster grilling. The lobsters – caught this morning just outside the coal reef – are presented in their bright orange shells, accompanied by wedges of lime and a mound of rice. We sit with our feet dangling in the fine white sand, relishing the simplicity of the meal and feasting our eyes on the crystal-clear blue and green waters beyond. Kougny restaurant, situated on Oro Bay on the east coast of this small South Pacific Island, can be reached only by sea or foot.

Its very seclusion is part of its charm, a charm carried over to Le Meridien Resort, where we are staying for two nights. Opened six years ago, this exquisite boutique resort sits on its own islet in a large coconut grove surrounded by luxuriant gardens. The central reception pavilion, modelled on indigenous Melanesian design, looks out over a curvaceous swimming pool to a string of soaring araucaria pines beyond. Nestled in the gardens are 29 one-bedroom bungalow suites, four of which have spectacular views over Oro Bay and private steps leading directly into the sea.

Made of kohu timber, the bungalows are cosy yet luxurious and offer every modern-day comfort. La Pirogue, the restaurant located in the main pavilion, offers buffet breakfast, casual barbecue lunch and a creative menu for dinner à la carte. (Make sure you try the snails, which are unique to the island.) Don’t miss an early morning trip to Upi Bay, where you can sail on an outrigger in Noumea, capital of New Caledonia (or the ‘little France of the Pacific’, as it is often called by its neighbours). Situated in the southeast of the southern province, Noumea straddles one of the largest lagoons in the world, which explains the numerous marinas in the pretty bays nearby and the fact that New Caledonia has one of the highest proportions of private boat ownership in the world.

If you’re looking for a ‘French fix’ a few hours from home, then this is the place to come. For foodies looking for a taste of France, there’s an array of fantastic restaurants. I’d suggest a picnic lunch overlooking Anse Vata Cove, with crisp fresh baguettes and pastries from Perfecta boulangerie, French cheeses and mineral water from the Casino Supermarché and a selection of pâtés, terrines, foie gras and, or a visit to the glorious natural aquarium near the resort with its array of colourful reef fish.

A 20-minute flight lands you back French wines from Comtesse du Barry. Finish with a few handmade chocolates from Chocolats Morand. Or if you’d prefer to be waited on, Restaurant le 1881 is great for lunch. Also very charming and very French is La Chaumière. The cooking here is simple and delicious. We sampled a variety of dishes, including rillettes de thon (tuna rillettes in a rough pâté style) fish mousse, foie gras, rabbit terrine and chicken supreme. If you’re looking for something more modern but still stylishly French, try La Coupole.The chef’s clever interpretations of dishes such as crab cannelloni (wrapped in cucumber) and tuna with a citrus-flavoured caramel sauce make this something of an eye-opener. Don’t miss the spectacular warm apple tart.

Another top fine-dining restaurant is L’Hippocampe, located in Le Meridien Noumea. Service here is attentive and the food of a high standard. Opposite L’Hippocampe is Le Sextant, open daily for breakfast and themed buffet dinners. Opened in 1995, Le Meridien is Noumea’s only luxury resort hotel and the only one with a beach frontage. Its two curved white main buildings are reminiscent of a ship and there are nautical features throughout. The overall ambience is a blend of traditional French-European sophistication with the breezy feel of the South Pacific. Guestrooms are progressively being refreshed with new decor. All rooms offer a private balcony with views of the lagoon, gardens or pool. Tennis, sailing, swimming, scuba-diving, kayaking, windsurfing and snorkelling are just some of the activities on offer.

This aquatic playground also boasts an abundance of islands. Escapade Island is 15 minutes by water taxi from the city. It is on this islet, set in the heart of a 320-hectare marine reserve, that you’ll find Coral Palms, New Caledonia’s latest and most exclusive luxury resort. Its 25 over-water bungalow suites, completed in March 2004, afford spectacular views of the pristine lagoon, and their ultra modern Italianate interiors provide every comfort. A further 44 existing garden bungalows have been refurbished and there is a new swim-up pool bar and stunning fine-dining restaurant, where the imaginatively combined food is stylishly presented. For those looking for a quick three- to four-day break, New Caledonia has much to tantalise the well-heeled traveller, and much that is new to excite those who have visited here before.

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