By Shane Boocock
Lifou, Maré and Ouvéa as they are individually known, are tiny Pacific island pearls surrounded by the deep indigo and vibrant turquoise green waters of New Caledonia, considered amongst the most untouched islands in the Pacific.
For Robinson Crusoe types and people who love exotic solitude, or if you have the need to escape civilisation and the stresses of everyday life, New Caledonia has the answer – the Loyalty Islands. ??Along with the traditional picture postcard images of tropical islands, visiting one of the Loyalty Islands will reveal something of its own personality.
Majestic cliffs bristling with columnar pines, legendary rock formations rising like the walls of a medieval fortresses, forgotten caves diving deep within the island, and forests so dense that one imagines no one has yet set foot there. ??The Loyalty Islands offer the nonchalance of paradise and the exotic South Seas mingled with the mysterious depths of the Melanesian world, buoyed up by a rich and eventful history.
More than elsewhere in New Caledonia, Loyalty Island life is imbued with the traditions and legends expressed by a set of ancient rules that govern the community life of their tribes. Daily work revolves around the fields and fishing, often interrupted by customary and religious festivals. The human and cultural wealth and natural hospitality of Loyalty Islanders are an endless source of exchange and mutual enrichment for any visitor.
Lifou is the largest of the Loyalty Islands archipelago. The total area of 1,150km2 is equivalent to that of Martinique. More so than in other islands, the variety of natural sites encourages visitors to explore further afield. The coast combines long white beaches, deep cut bays and ancient coral reefs. The interior of the island, a vast plain built on the old lagoon, is covered with dense tropical forests making it especially good for hiking trips.
10,000 people inhabit the island which is divided into three districts. Wei, chief town of the Loyalty Islands, is the largest settlement. Beautifully situated along the Bay of Chateaubriand, it houses the main administrative and commercial infrastructure of the island. Officially discovered and mapped by the French Dumont d’Urville in 1827, Lifou was quickly besieged by dozens of Catholic and Protestant missionaries.
Today, daily life, social organisation and the environment still bear the marks of this historically troubled period, and the passage of the 19th century sailors, sandalwood traders, whalers and “blackbirders”. It was not until 1864 that the Loyalty Islands were annexed by France which eventually helped establish the history of the archipelago and the uniqueness of Loyalty Islanders.
Maré is the southernmost and highest of the Loyalty Islands, and half the size of Lifou with an area of 650km2. One of its spectacular features are the coral reefs rising to nearly 130 metres on the south coast. The island has a wild beauty – deeply cut cliffs of basaltic rocks, dark forests, but also wonderful small sandy coves nestled between rocky headlands and long untouched beaches lined with coconut trees. The central plain, once a former lagoon, is pierced by numerous caves and natural pools where fish and turtles shelter in perfect isolation Maré is divided into eight districts that make up 29 tribes. The main activity here is vegetable farming.
In 1803 it was named Britanni, after the sailboat Captain Raven was exploring the area in. Maré has long been influenced by mariners, British traders and missionaries, and we still find this influence in the Nengone language with strongly tinged words and pronunciations of English.
Ouvéa is one of the most beautiful atolls in the Pacific, with its white sandy beach that stretches for 25km, lapped by clear water and brilliant changing hues. The island is crossed from north to south by a single road that runs along the endless beach, sometimes planted with coconut trees on the edge of lagoons. Seawater in the lagoon often acts as a mirror to the majestic Lékiny cliffs above.
The 4,300 inhabitants of Ouvéa draw their origins in the Polynesian and Melanesian migration. The Polynesian influence is much greater here than on Lifou and Maré. For this reason they speak two native languages, Ouvéa: the Kanak language, and the uvea faga-Polynesian. Ouvéa inherited the nickname of “The Island Closest to Paradise” in the 1970’s.
Katsura Morimura, a young Japanese writer came to stay at Ouvéa and wrote her novel in 1966. Enchanted by the setting and warm welcome, she titled the novel she was writing “The Island Closest to Paradise”, which told a love story between a visiting Japanese woman and an older man who was somewhat of a playboy. It was made into a movie in 1984 entitled “Tengoku ni Ichiban Chikai Shima”.
“It’s safe to say not much has changed in the Loyalty Islands where time slows down on a daily basis – a place as close to paradise as you can find”.
??Where to stay -Campgrounds:?
Le Kuien – Lifou – located 500m from the entrance to Xodre tribal village, this campsite is between two little creeks separated by rocks and a coconut grove, near the famous Xodre Cliffs. It has capacity for 50 tents, picnic shelter/picnic space, and an external shower and toilet block. The restaurant serves local dishes, bougna (to order), as well as coconut crab or seafood.
Camping Chez Francine – Maré – this small private accommodation facility is located in Patho tribal village, opposite the beach of the same name with capacity for 20 tents. The restaurant serves local dishes, bougna, seafood meals.
Camping De Lekine – Ouvéa – An exquisite natural setting next to the beach at magnificent Lékine Bay. You’ll find a thatched hut for 2 persons and about 30 tent sites, parking, showers and toilet and refreshment stall. An equipped kitchenette available.
Le Petit Corail – Ouvéa – situated in the heart of the Banoutr tribal village opposite Fayaoué Beach with capacity for 20 tents. There is parking, 1 faré (shelter), showers, toilets and the restaurant offers local takeaway dishes, bougna, sandwiches and various drinks.
??Where to stay – Cottages (Gîtes):
Xaada Sa Nord – Maré – this gîte is the ideal place to experience calm in the midst of a luxuriant and fertile natural setting, and discover the north of the island and its hidden beauties. there are four studios (3 persons), showers, toilets, a traditional hut (10 persons), as well as a campsite. The restaurant serves local dishes, bougna (minimum 2 people) and seafood.
Beaupre – Ouvéa – situated at Fayaoué Bay, opposite an idyllic beach on the turquoise-green lagoon in the natural setting of ouvéa Island. You’ll find a 5-person bungalow, 2 bungalows for 4 persons with tv, fans and showers and toilets. There are 3 rooms (3 persons) with fans and external shower and toilet block with hot water. The restaurant serves local specialities, a la carte menu at lunch and dinner, seafood platter, lobster and coconut crab.
Marguerite – Ouvéa – opposite Fayaoué Beach and ideally located halfway along the island, this gîte offers an excellent starting point for discovering the splendours of ouvéa Island. There are 3 bungalows for 4 people and 1 bungalow for 2, all with hot water. There is also a campsite and restaurant which serves local specialities and a coconut crab meal.
??Where to stay – hotels:?
Drehu Village Hotel *** Lifou – At Chateaubriand Bay, on the edge of the white-sand beach of the same name and its sparkling blue lagoon, this hotel is ideally situated in the heart of wé, the capital of lifou, the Drehu village. It was renovated in 2008, and offers a three-star level of comfort and service. There are 28 bungalows (1-3 persons), 2 suites (1-3 persons) each with a deck overlooking the sea, bathroom, lounge, tv and video, air-conditioning, safe, telephone, satellite, tea and coffee, refrigerator. The restaurant offers island specialities on a set menu or a la carte. Leisure activities at the hotel include beach games, snorkelling, ping-pong, kayaking, bike hire, and excursions such as island tours of the island, water sports, guided visits, hikes, and tribal visits.
Le Servigny ** Lifou – situated on the Lifou Island plateau in Nang tribal village, and ideally located in the middle of a tropical forest, halfway between the superb Chateaubriand Beach and the Jokin Cliffs, and 15 minutes from Easo Beach. There are four air-conditioned bungalows (4 persons) with a fan, telephone, television, refrigerator; and 2 rooms (3 persons) with air-conditioning, refrigerator, television and pedestal fan; as well as a fully equipped traditional hut (max. 8 persons) with external shower and toilet block with hot water. The restaurant serves French cuisine and local specialities, with a varied menu and daily specials. Facilities include a 170m2 swimming pool, car and mountain bike hire. Island tours in a minibus (picnic/snack, 4 adults minimum), guided visits and adventure treks can be booked.
Oasis De Kiamu Hotel * Lifou – the hotel nestles in a coconut grove at the foot of a cliff, opposite a charming little white-sand creek in the heart of Jozip tribal village. There is capacity for 12 with showers, toilets, tv, telephone, fan, satellite and air-conditioning in 1 three-room apartment (4 persons), 2 one-bedroom apartment (2 persons) with kitchenette, and 3 family rooms (4-5 persons). A wi-Fi access point is available. the restaurant/bar offers island specialities on a set menu or a la carte while leisure activities include snorkelling and petanque. You can hire mountain bikes and cars or arrange island tours, walks, guided tours, and hikes.
Nengone Village *** Maré – By the edge of a superb creek, the hotel (renovated in 2008) nestles in the midst of a dense coconut grove with a luxuriant tropical forest in the background. The bungalows face the sea, with its beautiful white-sand beach, fringed with New Caledonian pines and rocks. There are 20 bungalows (1 to 3 persons) with bath and 3 suites (2 persons), each with a deck overlooking the sea, television, air-conditioning, safe, phone, hair-dryer. The restaurant offers island specialities on a set menu or a la carte, and there’s a bar and lounge with wi-Fi Bike hire, kayaking, snorkelling and ping-pong are on hand, while guided visits, adventure treks, tribal visits, walks in the forest, snorkelling etc can be arranged.
Paradis D’ouvea **** Ouvéa – with its bungalows and luxury villas set on New Caledonia’s most beautiful beach, a few steps from mouli Bridge, the Paradis d’ouvéa harmoniously combines ultramodern decoration, high-quality service and the original beauty of “the island closest to Paradise”. There are 10 bungalows with sea views and 5 villas with terraces. the restaurant offers island specialities on a set menu or a la carte. Excusions include tours of the island and mountain bike hire, while hotel activities include scuba diving and snorkelling.
From Noumea, the Loyalty Islands lie just 40 minutes away aboard the new ATR domestic airline Air Caledonia or within a few hours on the high-speed catamaran “Betico”.