It wasn’t until the third day in New Caledonia that I noticed an Australian accent. It had carried across the water at Le Méridien resort on the Ile des Pins where I was propped up poolside for the day with an iPad. Why were there so few Australians on this island paradise under three hours flight time from Sydney smack in the middle of the September school holidays?
Sydneysiders escaping indifferent weather for warmer temperatures were flying straight over the top of us on their way to Fiji, or heading off in other directions, on longer flights to Thailand and Bali. The Australian accent belonged to a father of two who had left it too late to make the family’s usual school holiday reservation at a Fiji resort, the choice for the last two years. And so, at the last minute, fingers crossed, he’d booked a garden bungalow at Le Méridien Ile des Pins and took a chance on a different resort destination.
The Ile des Pins is not everyone’s second choice, though. New Caledonia is, in fact, a popular destination for the Japanese (although their numbers are declining), South Koreans (who are moving in to fill the gap left by the Japanese) and the French, who come because New Caledonia is still a French territory, the dominant language is French and the cuisine is heavily influenced by French methods. When they all arrive on the Ile des Pins, they certainly find the paradise pictured in the brochures.
The island is a 20-minute flight from the New Caledonian capital of Noumea, so no sooner are you up at cruising altitude than you’re making the descent. A ten-minute transfer from the airport followed by a welcome drink in the lobby and then you’re on the glorious white sand beach Le Méridien resort fronts. A coral reef rings the island, creating one of the world’s largest lagoon beaches. For swimmers, that means shallow, calm, crystal clear water heated by the sun to bathtub temperatures. For lounge lizards, the view from the deckchair is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
What next? If your paradise island holiday dreams involved more than just a beach umbrella, an occasional drenching in the ocean and a saunter across the sand back to the next chapter of your very good book, then you’ll need to put a little effort into getting organised. A 10-minute beachfront stroll from the resort, around to the next cove, there’s a lobster restaurant run by locals dishing up freshly caught seafood on the ocean’s edge. You’ll need to walk there to make a reservation though and if you front up for lunch any time after noon, you might well find that they’re already all out of lobsters.
After a 20-minute hike along a water channel that forms the border of the resort, you’ll find a sparkling, pristine, natural pool perfect for snorkelling. Or you might like to venture from the shore out into the blue by way of canoe or paddleboat, a choice of which is daily lined up by the resort staff along the shoreline.
And if even that seems like a bother, never mind. Nobody on the Ile des Pins seems to bother too much with anything really. You won’t get swarmed by pool attendants offering you iced water and cool face towels and my advice for that is to just get into the way of things. Perhaps as you stroll from your bungalow to the pool you could let someone know that in an hour or so you might like a refreshment and the snack menu would be useful. Otherwise expect to be left alone to relax into that sensation of splendid isolation. There you are, perched on a tiny piece of lush green, surrounded by the infinite blue of the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles from anyone who might be interested in what exactly you’re doing with your time these days.
So, why are so few Australians making use of this safe, pristine resort destination on our very own doorstep? For a start, New Caledonia’s two arms of government (north and south) don’t seem to agree on the need for a booming tourist industry. The island’s rich nickel mines provide good employment and the wealth from the mines is topped up annually by a fat cheque from France which is enough to provide for good health and education systems. As a result of the combination of all of these factors, little funds are made available for the promotion of the destination to the hordes who might arrive from Australia and New Zealand. And anyway, why would the New Caledonians willingly share their unspoiled paradise with those who would spoil it?
Air Calin, the national carrier, currently enjoys a monopoly only code-sharing with Qantas and Air New Zealand on some flights. So, airfares from Australia, while not exorbitant, are higher than they might otherwise be if say, Virgin Australia was filling its wide-body jets with holiday makers for the short trip across the pacific from Australia.
Compared to the popular resort destinations of Thailand, Bali and Fiji, New Caledonia is expensive for Australians. Since the Australian dollar has started loitering around parity with the US dollar, the destination has seen a higher Australian visitation, but, according to local hotels, not significantly higher. The French Pacific franc (XPF), the New Caledonian currency, is fixed to the Euro which has remained high against the Australian dollar despite its recent comparative strength. The Japanese yen on the other hand, has been in a slump which is part of the reason for the drop off in visits by the Japanese. This unhappy situation has delivered the tourism operators of New Caledonia a sudden shock. They’ve realised it isn’t prudent to rely too heavily on just one market, namely the Japanese honeymoon market, and there is a push for heavier promotion in Australia and New Zealand.
In Australia, the most likely demographic to target would be the luxury travellers. You’re the ones least distracted by the inexpensiveness of the competing tropical destinations. You’re also more attractive to the government, being what is known in the industry as high-yield (you spend more), low-impact (they need to host fewer of you). The problem is, though, there aren’t that many places for you to stay. New Caledonia’s entire five-star offering is three properties; the high-end French hotel chain Le Méridien operates an excellent resort in Noumea and the one on the Ile des Pins and then there’s one other independent resort named Escapade Island Resort, on an island just off the coast of Noumea accessible by boat. The good news is though that the Starwood Hotels & Resorts chain, parent company of Le Méridien, is opening a Sheraton on its own white sand beach in the less inhabited north of New Caledonia, in 2014.
So, did the Australian family of four have enough fun on their Ile des Pins holiday?
The parents were predictably gob-smacked by the natural beauty of the place, not that they had that much time to relish it, though. Unfortunately, there isn’t a kids club at Le Méridien Ile des Pins (or at any of New Caledonia’s luxury resorts), perhaps because the honeymooners who are its usual residents have no need for them. Not that they were the kind of parents who would have made constant use a kids club.
Still, some resort-organised activities oriented to childhood would have been a blessing to a full-time corporate lawyer and an IT executive looking forward to a little holiday for themselves. They were in and out of the pool entertaining their eight-year-old, all the time keeping a nervous surveillance on their four-year-old who seemed to be forever nearing the deep end. They were canoeing and paddle boating the lagoon with the kids, not having much time to simply ponder it from a deckchair.
They did enjoy dusting off their high school French but their eight-year-old despaired the lack of a phrase book; he would have liked to get in on the fun of it. The absence of humidity suited the parents compared with what they would have encountered at a more tropical destination; the weather conditions in New Caledonia are similar to those of Brisbane at all times of the year.
Having fielded complaints from the kids though, they thought that the pool was a little chilly, it not being heated. They admitted that they are among those who find delightful the constant friendly bulas of Fijian resort staff at every conceivable encounter and they missed that kind of thing from the New Caledonian staff. They had however emailed ahead of their arrival to announce that they were a family of vegetarians and were overwhelmed with gratitude when one of the resort’s managers had really outdone himself making sure the family was well fed with three hearty vegetarian meals for each day of their week-long stay. Their vegetarian status though was a disadvantage when it came to the extraordinary seafood plated up each day in the resort’s kitchen fresh from the surrounding ocean.
For my part, no number of beaming bulas flung my way by passing staff could have equalled the pleasure I got from the pride I saw on the faces of the food and beverage staff on buffet night at the resort as they lined up alongside the dessert table waiting to receive hungry guests. On that table, the French influence was at its finest; they really do excel at dessert. The other thing the French are very good at is of course romance, which is just one reason why I began to think, and it might be sweeping to say it but, New Caledonia is not so much at this very moment the perfect family holiday choice as a pretty fabulous drop and flop destination ideal for a quick getaway, perhaps even one of the amorous kind.