New Caledonia, a Franco-Melanesian nation in the South Pacific, is a convenient option for Australian luxury travellers seeking a flop-and-drop holiday. But it also offers experiences for those wanting adventure, cultural encounters and a taste of France – minus the long-haul flight.
Consisting of the main island of Grande Terre; the Loyalty Islands of Lifou, Mare, Tiga and Ouvea; and the distinctive Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines), New Caledonia is also home to a reef-fringed, World Heritage-listed lagoon, which is the world’s largest.
We encountered these distinctive natural and cultural attractions from the moment we exited La Tontouta International Airport in Nouméa and were welcomed by Wececa (whey-chay-cha), a group of singers clothed head-to-toe in traditional Melanesian dress. It’s the beginning of a varied Pacific Island experience visiting the laidback capital city of Nouméa, the other-worldly Isle of Pines, and a secluded luxury resort in the Bourail region on the west coast of Grande Terre. All these destinations offer something different while providing an authentic experience of New Caledonia’s French influence and Melanesian roots.
With its expansive lagoon and barrier reef (second largest only to Australia’s), New Caledonia is a water lover’s playground, with opportunities for boating excursions, snorkelling, scuba diving and swimming at virtually every turn.
In Nouméa, I boarded a private catamaran to explore the islets surrounding New Caledonia’s capital city. My noticeably sun-kissed, barefoot guides were originally from France and had clearly become accustomed to the laidback New Caledonian way of living. While they steered the boat around the harbour and out to sea, I was left to recline in the sun, taking in the surroundings. Around midday, I was served a tasty picnic lunch of fresh prawns, cold meats, salads and desserts and shortly after, we reached the small, picture-perfect islet of Goéland, translating to “Seagull Island”. The islet was near empty, save for a local family picnicking under a blue beach umbrella and my guides left me to explore with my camera (Instagram-worthy is an understatement) while they went spearfishing for dinner. For those who prefer to be at sea rather than in the air, chartering a yacht is an unbeatable way to appreciate New Caledonia’s expansive lagoon and its white-sanded islets from different angles, all while luxuriating onboard.
The following day, I boarded a smaller speedboat in the stunning Ile des Pins, arguably the pièce de résistance of New Caledonia and named by Captain James Cook for its distinctive native Columnar pine trees. Departing in search of turtles, the excursion first took me to the powdery-sanded Nokanhui Atoll for a spot of exploring, then to Moro Island – perhaps one of the most polaroid-worthy experiences I had in New Caledonia. Through a clearing in the island’s bush were shaded picnic tables, hammocks, swings and a near-empty beach. I was served a specialty Melanesian lunch of lobster and ‘bugs’, papaya salad, freshly caught fish and yams. After lunch, I tried snorkelling the clear waters. It’s quite incredible how clear they were, a testament to the island’s renown for a great diving experience. If you’d rather stay dry, you can recline in one of the shaded hammocks or on the white-sanded beach. And while I didn’t encounter any turtles, I didn’t leave disappointed when I spotted a pod of dolphins frolicking around our boat with an enthusiasm mirrored by all onboard.
New Caledonia’s food offering is a mix of locally grown and sourced ingredients (think seafood and venison) coupled with imported goods from New Zealand, Australia and primarily France (wine, cheese, dairy).
After touching down in Nouméa, I sampled a host of different New Caledonian specialties. First was a fresh and sizeable meal at Au P’tit Café, which has a rotating chalkboard menu of authentic, gourmet French-style dishes and wine list to boot. The cheesecake a la passion, salade de fruits frais (passionfruit cheesecake with fresh fruit salad) is the café’s signature dessert and thankfully one of the few items available all year round – as this is a dessert I’d want to go back for.
The following morning, I headed to the local markets, an interesting way to start the day for those wanting to experience how the locals live.
The next stop on my itinerary was Chocolat Morand, the famed creation of artisan and master chocolatier Patrick Morand. Patrick, a French native with more than 10 years running the boutique in Nouméa, explained his passion for chocolate and his ongoing journey to create new flavours inspired by local New Caledonian ingredients like vanilla bean and passionfruit. I sampled a delicious vanilla bean French macaron and an assortment of his famous chocolates, the most notable of which was a mint-flavoured dark chocolate – the explosion of fresh mint with the sweetness of the outer casing was très bon.
Drinks-wise, there’s local institution Domaine du Faubourg, a specialist premium wine and spirits bar. Opened in December 2015 by three childhood friends from the south of France, this hidden gem has a selection of 500 wines and spirits by the glass with new arrivals every week. Co-owner Roman poured a selection of French wines to taste, including a delicious Château Fombrauge 2013 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, one of four Bordeaux Grands Crus Classés from renowned wine magnate Bernard Magrez.
Back at my hotel, Le Meridien Nouméa, I decided to try in-house, fine-dining restaurant L’Hippocampe for dinner – an experience that’s not to be missed. Met with impeccable service by manager Thierry, the evening completes my very tasty foray into Nouméa’s fine cuisine. As I savoured the last morsel of smoked duck foie gras, it was as clear as the waters off Nouméa’s shoreline that the food and wine culture here is certainly worth exploring.
At every turn in New Caledonia, there are visible influences of both French and Melanesian cultures reflected in the architecture, music and cuisine. Aside from enjoying the relaxing South Pacific beaches, coupled with the urban elegance of France, I discovered there are day trips available to experience New Caledonian art and culture just 10 minutes from central Nouméa at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, where you can learn more about indigenous Kanak music, art, theatre and dance.
Heading northwest to the Bourail region, near the Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa, you’ll discover cultural tours providing an insight into the rich Kanak traditions. If you are travelling during the film festival season in July, head off the beaten track to the town of La Foa, with a boutique and quaint movie theatre that hosts the annual La Foa Film Festival – showcasing around 20 international feature films, along with short films by local filmmakers.
New Caledonia’s blend of culture, as I found, is more than meets the eye.