A Pristine Paradise in New Caledonia
A pristine paradise in New Caledonia
25 July 2013
The Loyalty Islands represent the survival of a fragile world, one untouched by mass tourism where the indigenous Melanesians treat nature with care and respect.By Tatyana Leonov
The tiny Loyalty Islands may account for just 10% of New Caledonia’s landmass, but they represent the survival of a fragile world, one untouched by mass tourism where the indigenous Melanesians treat nature with care and respect. With landscapes full of stories, the archipelago’s heart is in its people – and it is their way of life that makes visiting the Loyalty Islands a truly extraordinary experience.
Meet the locals
The pristine archipelago is one of three provinces that make up New Caledonia, a remote French territory located 1,500km east of Australia and 1,700km northwest of New Zealand. From above, the six inhabited and several uninhabited islands looks like a string of lustrous beads sparkling in the azure-blue Pacific.
Melanesians represent about 42% of New Caledonia’s population, with French descendants accounting for most of the rest. The Loyalty Island residents are, however, mostly Melanesian – or kanaks, as they are commonly referred to. These black inhabitants, also indigenous to Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Solomon, live in tribus (tribal villages); groups set up by the Protestant and Catholic churches and lead by tribal chiefs.
All land in the Loyalty Islands, spread over the communes of Lifou, Ouvéa and Maré, is composed of customary estate, meaning that there is no private property; everything is owned by clans and families and cannot be sold or parted with. This leads to a population that is both stable and close-knit, and although different languages are spoken across the islands, many customs are shared.
Immerse yourself in kanak life with a homestay in a traditional hut, built using wood and either straw or coconut palm fronds. The clay or cement floor huts have mats for sleeping and a traditional hearth in the centre, and cooking and showering facilities are housed in separate buildings.
If invited into a home, visitors should make a small offering, often referred to as a “customary gesture”. This action (rather than the gift itself) shows that you respect your hosts, and you may get the opportunity to learn more about their tribe or visit specific clan sites such as secret caves, cliffs, beaches or lakes.
Staying in a village also makes it easy to partake in and learn about daily activities, such as weaving coconut tree or pandanus leaves to make baskets, mats, hats or plates. Or try your hand at sculpting using rare local island woods such as buni, sandalwood, trelewegeth, mesup or kohu (these special varieties offer a marvellous range of grains and textures to work with. Loyalty Island sculpture traces its roots far back to sacred objects such as the flèches faîtières (spear-like wooden totems placed on top of huts), and the doorposts and hut posts of the chefferie (chieftaincy hut). These decorative and ornamental items are usually mythic or clanic totem animals or plants – an echo to legends of their struggle for emancipation.
Throughout the year, annual festivals such as April’s Avocado Festival in Maré, August’s Waleï Festival in Ouvéa, and October’s Vanilla Festival in Lifou feature traditional dancing and lively music. Agricultural and rural markets and community days also often include energetic kaneka concerts complete with dance and song performances, and feasts with freshly caught fish.
Exploring the islands
Coral cliffs juxtaposed with white, sandy beaches border densely forested Lifou, the largest and most populated of the communes – and the easiest to visit due to the tourist infrastructure. Hire a car at Lifou airport and cruise through luscious greenery, catching glimpses of tribal life. You might see a group of women chatting around a large round pot while they cook pain de marmite (a heavy round-shaped bread), or a bunch of friends meticulously carving elaborate sculptures.
Excellent excursions include the stunning Jokin Cliffs located at the north point of Lifou, and bucolic Xodre Cliffs at the southeast end. It is easy to whittle away hours watching the impressive display of waves crashing against the cliffs, disintegrating into spray. For those seeking more active pursuits, a number of hiking routes showcase Lifou’s beauty – the Wetr district is best for guided walks and these can be booked in advance through Lifou Nature. Shorter beachside strolls are most pleasant in the southern Lössi District.
New Caledonia’s longest beach, Fayaoué Beach, can be found on the island of Ouvéa – a stunning 22km of unbroken, powder-white sand where crystal waters, rich in both marine and reef biodiversity, make for excellent snorkelling and diving. Head to Mio Palmo Piongée, a diving club surrounded by the coral reef, chalk cliffs and turquoise lagoon to see green turtles, manta rays, humphead Maori wrasses, parrotfish, surgeonfish and sharks, and on the external reef slopes, gorgonian coral, crinoids and other bouquets of alcyonarian coral.
The approximately 4,300 residents of Ouvéa draw their origins from both Melanesian and Polynesian roots, and for this reason two languages are spoken in Ouvéa – Iaaï, a kanak language and faga-uvea, a language of Polynesian origin. The Polynesian influence is visible in the inhabitants’ physical appearance as well as their dancing. This is also the reason their huts are square, unlike the round huts found in on the other islands.
Maré is the southernmost and highest of the Loyalty Islands. Made up of five coral layers built up on each other, this wild beauty has idyllic beaches contrasting with towering cliffs, basalt rocks and deep dusky forests. When it comes to tourism, Maré is the least equipped island of the three, with only a few tribal accommodations available. Maré people are less infused with commercial motives and it is up to the traveller to initiate contact with the local people.
Wabao Bay in the Wabao District is home to some of the finest beaches on Maré – the perfect spot to unwind and forget your urban existence. At the very south of the island, the Eni District, is home to just one tribe with around 350 inhabitants. In 1995 the first gîte (a rental holiday home), Waterloo, was opened here. It’s still the only place you can stay in the Eni District, offering travellers a first-hand opportunity to truly immerse themselves in the kanak way of life.
Each of the three island-communes is accessible by plane from New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea – with less than an hour’s flight time. Lifou and Maré can also be reached by high-speed boat from Noumea which takes approximately four hours.
New Caledonia enjoys more than 200 sunny days a year and is pleasant to visit year round. October to February is especially lovely with long warm days and very little rain.