Loggerhead turtles, drowned kauri forests and exquisite little French restaurants – Karen Ransome finds something quite special in New Caledonia.
Cruise ships have given New Caledonia a bad rap. Spending less than 24 hours in port, it’s easy for passengers to sail away thinking there’s not a whole lot to see on this tiny dot in the Pacific Ocean.
The truth is that they don’t know what they’re missing.
With ten leisurely days to explore and a hire car to roam far and wide, you’ll discover an island paradise with so much to do that you’ll really have to make some hard decisions.
Confronted by a crystal clear lagoon dotted with islands and surrounded by the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, water-based activities are always going to be at the top of the list.
But while the cruise ship crowds head off on the pre-packaged half-day tour to Duck Island, you can hire your own private zodiac and have a coral atoll all to yourself.
Frederic from Dal’Ocean Charters zipped us out to Laregnere Island where ours were the only footsteps on the white sandy beach. Snorkelling in and around the coral reefs just off shore, our sole companions were the wandering turtles and hundreds of curious tropical fish happy to feed from our hands.
A short ride across Dumbea Bay and our skipper dropped us at the slightly larger Signal Island for a casual beach picnic and more underwater explorations.
Both islands were well equipped with shelter sheds and toilets, and the whole experience easily rates as one of the best days of our trip... but there’s a whole lot more to discover on land.
Who knew, for instance, that we’d stumble on a Swiss-style mountain chalet barely half an hour’s drive from the capital, Noumea?
Okay ... I’ll admit ... we found it by accident.
The day started with a stand-up paddleboarding excursion on the Dumbea River. At Parc Fayard in the tiny village of Dumbea, we came across Cyrille who rents out SUPs and kayaks from a converted shipping container.
He sent us on a gentle excursion, following the river around the parkland, under the old railway bridge, around the island and back through a zippy little section of almost-rapids.
It was time for a coffee. I took a wrong turn. The road was narrow and winding. I couldn’t do a u-ey so we just kept going to the top of the mountain.
And there it was: A picturesque, steep-roofed timber chalet looking out across the coastline and lagoon. Best of all, it was a restaurant – the Auberge du Mont Koghi.
Settling in near the fireplace propped with skis, a hot chocolate seemed in order ... and it would have been rude not to sample their incredible Tarte Tartin. The only thing missing was a blanket of snow on the roof!
Our next excursion was a 63km drive inland to the Blue River Provincial Park.
This 90km2 reserve was established as a park in 1980 but the network of walking and cycling trails is a much more recent development.
Our new best friend, Cyrille from Parc Fayard, had given us the secret combination to the locked kayaks he stores in the park and, without further ado, we were soon paddling away from the shore to the mystic tangle of twisted trunks and tortured limbs of a drowned kauri forest in the middle of a man-made lake.
Another day, we headed northwest along the coast road from Noumea, where there’s more serenity and solitude to be found on the Three Bays bushwalking track that starts at Roche Percée (‘pierced rock’) Beach.
On the 3.8km Sentier des Trois Baies, spectacular clifftop views reward the patient observer with sightings of loggerhead turtles and other sea life.
If you’re not too late back, you can sample a French snack at La Crêpe Bonahomme, a rustic shed café set out under the trees.
But if you really love la cuisine Française, head back down the highway to the bustling heart of Noumea.
There are so many exceptional French restaurants, cafes, boulangeries and patisseries in the capital that it’s hard to pick a favourite ... but, okay, I’ll give it a shot.
We started our gastronomic journey at Le Bintz in the Marina Port du Sud precinct. The waterfront location (ask for a table on the terrace), artistic presentation and sublime seafood make this a great option for lunch or dinner.
We also enjoyed a casual late lunch at L’Annexe in Place des Cocotiers, the beautifully manicured park that runs through the city’s CBD.
But the absolute crème de la crème was Au P’tit Café, a cosy neighbourhood restaurant that specialises in “what’s good right now” with a selection of only four dishes that change every week.
There are loads of other great holiday experiences in New Caledonia that you’ll find in the well-worn travel guides: the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Isle of Pines, Noumea’s morning market, the Aquarium des Lagons are all well worth a visit.
But take the time to get off the beaten track and you’ll discover one of the best island destinations in the Pacific.
This article by Karen Ransome originally appeared in the February/March 2016 edition of 50 something magazine.