FRENCH-KANAK PARADISE IN THE PACIFICNot surprisingly, Australians are visiting New Caledonia, our closest Melanesian destination, in unprecedented numbers, with a 15% increase in 2014 over the year before. JOY DODDS reports.
When its Melanesian people, the Kanaks, were colonised by the French from the 1840s, it produced a unique cultural melting pot. This mixture of Pacific island relaxation and European flair provides the magnet for this distinctive destination right on Australia’s doorstep.
New Caledonia is also an ecological stand-out – home to one of the largest nature preserves on Earth with the world’s largest coastal lagoon and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Natural Park of the Coral Sea (Le Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail) covers more than 1.3 million sq km, larger than Alaska – and the second largest protected area on the planet. The newly-established sanctuary comes after the decision to protect its natural wealth, covering 450,000 hectares of coral reefs, 25 species of marine mammals, 48 shark species, 19 species of nesting birds and five species of sea turtles. The park’s ecosystem also generates up to 3000 tons of fish every year, providing an important food source for New Caledonia’s quarter of a million human inhabitants.
New Caledonia comprises the main island La Grand Terre (400 km long, including Noumea, the capital) and the Loyalty Islands – Lifou, Maré, Tiga and Ouvéa, as well as the Isle of Pines to the south of the main island. Of the Loyalty Islands, Lifou has immaculate beaches, volcanic cliffs, tropical forests and caves while tiny Ouvéa has a 25-km white sand beach bordered by coconut palms facing the lagoon. Maré has a wild beauty with deeply carved cliffs, dark forests, long undisturbed beaches and caves.
Just off the coast of Noumea is Duck Island (Ile Aux Canard), easily accessed by water taxi from Anse Vata bay and perfect for snorkeling and swimming while glass-bottom boat excursions to Amédée Island offer a colourful insight into an incredible underwater world.
The Isle of Pines (Ile des Pins) is a breathtaking group of islands with perfect beaches and UNESCO-protected lagoons for swimming, snorkeling and diving. Known as the “Jewel of the Pacific”, it is a 20-minute flight from Noumea. Wellness spas such as Le Méridien Ile des Pins are also popular.
North of Noumea on La Grande Terre, are reefs, lagoons, isolated beaches and a rugged interior, perfect for mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, fishing, hiking, horse trekking and even hunting for trophy Rusa deer. A helicopter flight over the top of Mount Katépei affords spectacular views of the Heart of Voh, lagoon, reef and surrounding mountain range. Outside Noumea, the landscape is a haven for naturalists and adventurers with the Blue River Provincial Park, 9000 hectares of untouched wilderness, endemic plant life, rivers, swimming sites, waterfalls and fresh water lakes. La Foa offers horse-riding treks in the mountains while environmentalists visit the recently designated RAMSAR site, Les Lacs du Grand Sud Néo-Calédonien, the country’s largest freshwater reserve, ideal for camping, hiking and kayaking.
In fact, New Caledonia is ‘Action Central”. Noumea is known as the “windsurfing capital of the world” – and for good reason. The trade winds blow steadily, filling the waters of Anse Vata Bay with sailboards. Diving in stunning coral reefs is popular as is the Great Lagoon Regatta held in June on the world’s largest lagoon. Each November, the world’s greatest windsurfers compete, as do elite athletes in the international marathon/half marathon in August and the triathlon each April.
New Caledonia is ideal for relaxation, pampering and sightseeing too.
Explore Noumea with its harbour, cathedral, Place des Cocotiers and the Parc Zoologique et Forestier (Noumea Zoo and Botanical Gardens) Port Moselle Markets open daily, with seafood stalls selling freshly-caught fish, as islanders sell fresh papaya, pineapple and passion fruit and the French serve up buttery croissants and coffee. Noumea comes alive at night, especially the waterfront regions around Anse Vata Bay and the Baie des Citrons, with bars and nightclubs to suit all tastes. Rue de Sébastopol is one of the main shopping boulevards with boutiques selling French labels from high street to high end.
Staying in a Kanak community offers an otherwise rare insight into Melanesian culture and at the same time contributes to the economic development of communities that still largely subsist on hunting and small-scale farming. The Tjibaou Cultural Centre, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano (designer of Paris’ Pompidou Centre), is a contemporary building inspired by the traditional Kanak architecture with interactive exhibitions.
Culturally, the island nation is a melting pot. While French is the official language, there are about 30 Kanak dialects spoken only in remoter areas, while English-speaking staff are common in resorts.
With its stunning land and seascapes and colourful cultural mix, New Caledonia makes a great destination.
For more details on New Caledonia:
www.haveitall.com.au or call (02) 9028 3575
Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa
With its idyllic beachfront location on the scenic west coast of New Caledonia in Bourail, the newly-opened hotel combines Melanesian and traditional French influences. The 180-room resort offers 60 bungalows, an 18-hole golf course, a health club and spa. Dive, snorkel, sail, windsurf, water/jet/wake ski and kite surf, as well as enjoying tennis, squash, cricket, cycling and horse riding in the mountains. www.sheratonnewcaledoniadeva.com
Aircalin has increased direct full-service flights from Australia to Noumea. Flights take less than three hours from Sydney, under four hours from Melbourne and under two hours from Brisbane. Sydney flights operate 6 flights weekly; Brisbane and Melbourne each have 3 flights weekly.
La Tontouta International Airport is located 45 minutes’ drive from Noumea city centre.
For reservations call 1300 655 737 or visit www.aircalin.com
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media