New Caledonia - lassaie a’faireBy Shane Boocock

Waking up in a foreign country is always a splendid feeling. New sounds, new sights and often new smells – wonderful memories for the later years. New Caledonia is no exception.

In the lush interior of the mountain region of Sarramea, I woke to hear the sound of soft cascading waters flowing over rocks only a few metres from my patio and distinctive bird calls that I had not heard in New Zealand before.

Twenty minutes later I realised just how European New Caledonia is. I went to plug in my computer only to discover the plug sockets are only for round pin plugs, just like in France of course.

New Caledonia is sometimes referred to as the “Island of Light,” and you only have to look out over a crystal clear lagoon to nearby atolls, swim above coral reefs, wander barefoot along alabaster white sandy beaches or hike trails in lush mountain settings with natural waterfalls to understand that this country is bathed in natural light and beauty.

It was on his voyage to New Zealand on board his beloved ship the Resolution that Captain Cook discovered and named the country in 1774. Yet it wasn’t until the reign of Napoleon III in 1853 that France officially took control of New Caledonia.

This all-year round destination is today blessed with the embracing air of French and Melanesian lassaie a’faire, what we might call ‘island time.’ Only two hours from Auckland, it has wide ranging appeal and likeability, so much so that you can be fooled into thinking you’re somewhere on the Cote d’Azur with the French Alps as a backdrop.

The main island, or “Grande Terra” as it is known here, is roughly 80km long by 50km wide and is located in the southwestern part of the Pacific. It is divided into three distinct provinces: South, North and the Loyalty Islands. Located in the south is the fly and flop island that is a magnet for romantics, the “Isle of Pines,” whilst the Loyalty Island’s archipelago lies to the east and the little known Belep Island is off the northern tip.

In the coffee growing region of Sarraméa, we stayed for two nights at Hôtel Evasion (Escape Hotel) situated in a charming valley on the banks of a tumbling mountainside river. At dinner they presented cuisine gastronomique with a specialty of terroir piscine and the following morning a wonderful French style breakfast. For the active traveler, there are nearby horse riding stables or you can take quad bike trip for up to six hours into the hills over backcountry trails.

We hiked in the newly created Parc des Grades Fougeres (the park of large ferns), a 4500 hectare region of tree-clad mountains and low valley forest. This region also acts as a buffer zone to New Caledonia’s World Heritage site – the largest lagoon in the world. In the forest, thick African-like vines stretch hundreds of meters into the canopy. Newly created and opened in October 2007, there are currently five trails total 20km for hiking or quad bike riding – and guided trips by local Kanack people are available.

Another option is to visit the privately-operated Haute Nessadiou Nature Reserve, Moindou. Here you’ll find hiking trails (with or without guide) where you can search for fossils, fauna or flora, or alternatively go deer and wild pig hunting. The reserve is set in 200 hectares of savannah, niauli forest, creeks, and lush valleys. They operate a camp ground with kitchen facilities, shower and toilet or you can choose to stay in a bungalow.

Only 80 kilometers south-east of Noumea, 20 minutes by plane or a 2.5 hour ferry ride, is l’îsl des Pins (the Isle of Pines) one of the most spectacular island locations you’ll ever land on.

Known by its 2,000 or so inhabitants as “Kunie,” here time seems to be on hold as locals glide by on rusty bikes or fish in lagoons with throw nets. Beaches are bleached white under swaying palms and soaring Araucaria pines. This idyllic location retains the charm of a long-forgotten world that the English writer James Hilton might have chosen as Shangri La in his book, Lost Horizon.

The island has a number of gîtes, an ideal holiday accommodation for the cost conscious traveller but sometimes regarded as ‘basic’ in terms of facilities; however most gîtes are generally very well kept. At Gîtes Nataïwatch there are bungalows with self-contained facilities, an outdoor barbeque area, campground, communal dining room and lounge, and plenty of sporting gear to rent.

We spent a wonderful evening at Hôtel Ouré, a complex of bungalow-style lodges set on Kanumera Bay at the end of a sheltered inlet. There’s a lovely 150 metre beach and deep blue lagoon, ideal for kayaking or snorkelling or just wandering barefoot as the sun goes down – this is the perfect spot for cocktails and dinner.

Back on the mainland, New Caledonia’s main city, Noumea has an embracing air and feel of the French Riviera with its winding promenade stretching south from the downtown port area through three large bays of white sand so fine it feels like you’re walking on a bed of flour.

The city, often referred to as “a little piece of France,” is located on the Southern tip of the island, surrounded by translucent, blue tropical waters, mountain ranges, golden beaches and a coral reef forming the largest lagoon in the world. It is a city dotted with the urban elegance of France – from the profusion of old French colonial houses with wrought iron balcony rails, tree-lined squares and men playing petanque, to French inspired cafes and restaurants and Parisian style shopping – Noumea seems to have it all.

About 10 minutes from the city centre is Le Meridien Noumea, located on the beachfront on Point Magnin, overlooking Anse Vata cove. It is well-known as the only luxury resort hotel in the city of Noumea. Described as a “French Pacific Hotel”, Le Meridien Noumea is a unique blend of traditional French-European sophistication and Pacific Island ambience. The rooms all have commanding sea views out to the lagoon, there are lush gardens and a large swimming pool and beach bar, complimented by a fine selection of international, Asian and French European restaurants.

There is plenty to do in and around Noumea, but some of the sights not to be missed include the Botanical Gardens, L’Aquarium de Noumea, the local market at Port Moselle, the Amedee Lighthouse, and Musee de Noumea displaying intriguing carvings and Melanesian culture and the history of New Caledonia.

For the sense and feel of France, Noumea and New Caledonia is a must for any New Zealand traveler. It’s unique, it’s a wonderfully different destination, and it’s quite literally right on your own doorstep – an oasis in paradise.

Facts:

Accommodation:
Hôtel Evasion – stylish bungalows with balconies in a riverside setting about an hour from the international airport, two hours from Noumea. Tel: +687 44 55 77 www.hotel-evasion.com.

Hôtel Ouré îsl des Pins is a hotel complex of bungalow-style lodges set in on Kanumera Bay at the end of a sheltered inlet. Tel: +687 43 13 15 www.oure.nc

Le Meridien Noumea, 10 minutes from the centre of Noumea, a beautifully presented five star deluxe hotel on a small beach. Tel: +687 26 50 00 www.lemeridien.com

Le Meridien, îsl des Pins is a five star property with just 39 bungalows set in a 4.5 hectare of coconut groves. Located in the spectacular Oro Bay with natural turquoise lagoon and beautiful private beach, 15 minutes from the airport. Tel: +687 46 15 15 www.lemeridien.com?

Gite Nataïwatch – basic and rustic with self-contained bungalows and campground facilities as well as a small restaurant. Located right next to Hôtel Ouré on the same beachfront. Perfect for those on a budget. Tarif 9000XTP a bungalow. Tel: +687 46 11 13, Email: nataiwatch@lagoon.nc

Haute Nessadiou Nature Reserve, Moindou – Camping: 1000 cfp per night/person, 500 cfp night/enfant -12 years. Bungalow: 5000 cfp per night for 2 adults/2 children. Contact: Bernard and Denise Goumy Tel: +687 46 93 12/687 83 63 55, Email deniseleslie@hotmail.com

Shane Boocock was hosted by New Caledonia Tourism. He flew to New Caledonia courtesy of Aircalin, the International Airline of New Caledonia, that offers four flights per week from Auckland to Noumea.
www.aircalin.com / www.newcaledonia.co.nz