16 October 2017
Holding a bag of warm croissants, I meander down to Anse Vata Bay where I plop myself down on the sand to watch the sunrise. I’d woken early, thinking that I would have the beach to myself ... but early mornings in Noumea are nothing like I imagined.
I spend maybe 20 minutes watching the sun do its morning dance – a prance across the sky resulting in an escalating series of vivid oranges and pinks. During this time loads of people jog past me. Some wear slick sports gear; others jog barefoot wearing just boardshorts; one tiny muscular woman runs straight into the oceanand starts swimming vigorously. The hyper-intense oranges and pinks transform into pastel shades as the swimming woman tracks further out to sea. I feel a tad guilty as I bite into my second croissant. And when I finally return to my hotel, I make sure it’s a power walk. After all, I want at least to look like I fit in.
New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea sometimes gets pushed to one side. Travellers come to this paradise tovisit the Loyalty Islands – mostly Lifou, Ouvea and Mare – a sparsely populated archipelago of New Caledonia, where tropical fish utter about in water so clear it hurts your eyes.
Some hire cars and drive to the paperbark tree-dotted western plains of Grand Terre, the nation’s largest island, to experience New Caledonia’s cowboy culture. e ochre mountains and thick bushland mesmerises trekkers, with the 120-kilometre Grande Randonnee 1 trail being a popular route.
Scuba divers need not go far; New Caledonia boasts one of the largest coral reefs in the world, stretching 150 kilometres in length.
But it’s worth spending at leasta few days exploring bustling Noumea.
Captain Cook was the first European to sight New Caledonia in 1774; he even named it New Caledonia because of its resemblance to Scotland, where his father was born. In the absence of Cook claiming it for the British Crown, the French annexed the land in 1853.
Today the French influence is a big part of the attraction. In Noumea, the shoreline is dotted with smart-looking boats, the style of the wooden houses in the suburb of Faubourg Blanchot is known as “French Paci c”, and you can find fabulously French food.
Bakeries sell the most wonderful baguettes and croissants, wine stores stock a plethora of ne French wines, and supermarkets have more fromage than some shops in Paris. It’s like the French Riviera, but balmier.
New Caledonia’s population of about 260,000 people is made up mainly of Melanesians (also knownas Kanaks) and the descendants of French settlers, with smaller numbers of people from the surrounding region. It’s an eclectic mix.
The Port Moselle Market is another great place to experience this blend of cultures. I make my way there one morning to watch the early-risers. Smiley Kanak women dressed in oral muu-muus trade fresh pineapple and papaya. Seafood vendors (some actually wearing berets!) show of today’s catch – red chunks of tuna and mahi-mahi, along with prawns, oysters and mussels.
But while New Caledonia is hometo a mix of cultures, its cuisine has remained relatively segregated. Youcan enjoy two distinct cuisines – French with a touch of the Pacific (often cooked by chefs who hail from France), and traditional Kanak fare.
I suppose I overindulge. ere was fresh crab cooked French-style at L’Hippocampe one night; a hefty serving of fragrant truffle risotto at Le Roof; a delicious ham-and-cheese crêpe at La Crêperie Bretonne...
Window-shopping becomes my much-needed exercise. Rue de Sebastopol is one of the main shopping boulevards in town and I spend a few hours each day ambling into boutiques. They’re a French fashion mecca, with everything from Dior to Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier to Lacoste, L’Occitane to Petit Bateau for sale.
I promise myself I’ll come back with a few more credit cards. I still want to try kite-boarding (New Caledonians are crazy about the sport), wake-boarding too. Perhaps I could even add 4am swims to my repertoire ... or I could just stick to what I do best and spend my days perusing boutiques and my evenings indulging in fine French food and wine.
For more information about Noumea, see newcaledonia.travel/au.