4 and a bit days in New Caledonia
In our part of the world a 3hr flight is a close one. So one recent long weekend I booked myself onto a flight to New Caledonia, my first trip to the Pacific islands.
So close and yet so different. New Caledonia is a French territory in Melanesia, and it’s a bit like France of 1970s transported to the tropics. I loved it from the moment I saw the blue reef lagoon from the plane, and the green mountains from my bus into the city centre.
Despite many locals not speaking english, it’s an easy place to get around. There is enough language knowledge in and around tourist areas, and Noumea, the capital, is pretty small so you can hardly get lost.
There is something instantly charming about this place. It doesn’t look super posh or polished, in fact some structures look pretty old school (don’t get too excited about the city markets for example). The whole downtown Noumea is nothing to write home about – old blocky architecture and crumbling pavements.
But find yourself a place by the beach, and watch the sun setting over the ocean, and there is no better place to be. City beaches are on your doorstep, with palm trees throwing shade over a few metres of sand towards the water; Anse Vata and Citron Bay are the best (but the beach near the Chateau Royal is where the locals go, it’s a hidden gem).
My first morning has started with a visit to a local patisserie (croissants are so much better than in Sydney!); few things can beat having your takeaway breakfast by the seaside with turquoise waves stretching into the horizon. Holiday feeling envelopes you in New Caledonia and doesn’t let go until you board your plane back.
Spending at least half a day on Ilot Canard (Duck Island) is a must. It’s a 5min ride in a water taxi from the main beach, but seems like a world away. Lounge chairs just 3m away from the water; great snorkeling with beautiful coral and curious fish; afternoon sun shining off the ocean ripples; kite surfers and boats on the horizon. It’s a holiday outside of the holiday.
Talking about kite surfing, water sports are very popular in New Caledonia. A lot of French people visit the islands in general, and many of those come for the wind and wave sports. I witnessed some crazy flips from the side of the beach just on the edge of Anse Vata (while admiring the warm turquoise water underneath my palms as I stood in the waves).
The best part of New Caledonia though is its diversity. After two days in Noumea I headed to Plum, a tiny populated area just 50min drive south of the city. It couldn’t be more different – black sand beaches, red soil, wind turbines, wild green nature reserves. I found an old prison house that was built inside an overgrown tree; mangrove trees on the beach; hard-core bush hikes to the mountaintops; and serenity of staying at a hilltop bungalow, away from it all, and so cosy in my hammock overlooking the ocean.
And the people are so nice. My airbnb host Delphine was lovely, sharing her tips about the places in the city and in her area; sharing a meal and a great conversation with her family on the desk overlooking the ocean and starry sky was one of the highlights. Young people on the bus giving a kiss on the cheek to the old lady on the front seat because everyone knows everyone in the local area; bar staff helping me out with calling a cab when I found myself stuck in a far away area with no buses at night; cheerful young people ferrying visitors in a water taxi; even fellow tourists are quite nice.
Could it be the island lifestyle weaving its magic? Many French people come to New Caledonia for a holiday or for a short stay, and never leave. Why would you, when you have bougainvillea and honey-flavoured hibiscus and palm trees in your backyard, blue sky, even blue-er ocean, and a laid-back attitude.
I loved New Caledonia, at first sight. I’m already plotting a comeback – with a visit to Isle of Pines, a true tropical paradise with white sand and blue water which I didn’t get to see; or Loyalty islands, with their own varieties of heaven; or the untouched reserves of nature in the Blue Rivers National Park.
Do check out New Caledonia if you are in this part of the world; between the relaxing beaches with palm trees, turquoise warm water, French breakfasts by the ocean, tropical colours and flowers, great weather, and the easy-going lifestyle, you’ll find something to love.
- Accommodation is reasonable; can get an ocean-view room for $120 a night in the main beach area. That bungalow I stayed in is a true gem and not expensive at all.
- Air Calin and Qantas fly direct to Noumea in less than 3hrs
- The buses stop at 8pm, but are otherwise the best way to get around the city, and even to outer areas (but budget more time than schedule allows for your trips to/from the airport and out of town). There are very few taxis in the city, and you have to call them up, I haven’t seen one free on the streets at all
- The water taxi to the Duck Island (Ilot Canard) costs around $15 return, and you can easily change your departure time while you are at the island
- La Bodega Del Mar tapas bar in Anse Vata is a great place to have a drink and dance (later in the night), on the water, popular with late 20s-30s crowd
- Le Petit Café is a great and reasonably affordable restaurant to try good French Pacific cuisine (apparently #1 in Noumea according to Trip Advisor). You need to book in advance (can do it online)
- The beach next to Chateau Royal is the best one in Anse Vata, more sand and bluer water, plus the jetty. Can sneak in and use the lounges from the hotel free, no one really pays attention to those
- Buying food in supermarkets or baguettes/sandwiches/pastries in patisseries is a cheaper way to manage food, as restaurants can be pricey. Plus a good patisserie is so good! (do check out L’aterlier Gourmand if you are staying in Anse Vata or close, croissants and apple tart are to die for)
- At low tide you can walk towards the rock formation at the far east side of Anse Vata without getting your shorts wet; feel yourself like an explorer!
- City markets are better off seen before 9am (but they are quite small and tired) – a great place however to stock up on souvenirs as they are cheaper than in stores or tourist centres
- Citron Bay has a lively evening atmosphere, and its café terraces are a great place to watch sunset.