Time has stood still in the jungles of New Caledonia. 85 million years ago, a fragment of the continent of Gondwana broke away to form New Caledonia. Today, New Caledonia’s wilderness has a landscape that is reminiscent of a lost world. The only thing missing is the dinosaurs. These days, the islands that make up New Caledonia provide a habitat for different types of lizards, including the world’s largest gecko lizard Rhacodactylus leachianus. Through years of French colonisation, New Caledonia’s capital Noumea has grown into a sophisticated slice of French heaven in the South Pacific. Here are some things to do in Noumea.
It’s Saturday morning and the market is in full swing. I wander among rows of stalls – manned by men and women with smooth coffee-coloured skin – browsing through the assortment of local crafts and feeling the textures of the colourful fabrics.
At the fresh produce stalls, the paw paws and pineapples are plump and juicy while the fresh greens look like they are straight from the farms. The seafood stalls bustle with activity as locals haggle over the price of mussels and prawns caught fresh that morning. I follow the aroma of freshly brewed coffee which leads me to the local gathering place, a bakery where mouth-watering French pastries are displayed in glass cases.
The Kanaks (New Caledonia’s indigenous Melanesian people who originated in South East Asia and are believed to have settled the islands around 1500 BC) integrated with the Polynesians that populated the islands much later around 1000 AD.
Although James Cook discovered New Caledonia in 1774, it became a French penal colony under the rule of Napoleon III. Over time, thousands of French people were drawn to the warm weather and relaxed island living.
Opposite the market, there is an impressive marina where rows of luxury yachts bob up and down with their proud French flags waving in the breeze. When I enquire who these boats belong to, the answer I receive from one French woman who replies somewhat arrogantly “of course, everyone who lives here owns a yacht!” At this point I begin to dream about sailing around the South Pacific without a care in the world.
In recent times, Vietnamese and Indonesian migrants have added to the rich cultural diversity of New Caledonia. This vibrant multicultural mix can be seen everywhere. At “Place de Cocotiers”, a group of Melanesian, Vietnamese and Indonesian youths are rap dancing beneath a bandstand near an ornate European-style fountain. Their actions are fluid and eye-catching as they execute back flips, handstands, one-armed handstands and cartwheels with a level of skill that obviously requires hours of practice. Another group of younger boys are practicing some basic movements; they grin and wave as I point my camera in their direction.
It’s evident that no matter what stage in life, it’s the simple pleasures that bring the people of Noumea together. In another part of the square, a group of men are engaged in serious game of giant chess that not even a camera toting tourist can distract them from. Further along, under the shade of swaying palm trees, five elderly men are absorbed in a game of Boules, the French version of lawn bowls.
This snippet of life in New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea, is simple and refreshing.
A few blocks away, chocolate-complexioned men and women in bright clothes sashay along the streets next to gleaming European luxury cars. I stop a woman in a bright blue dress for directions. “Where can I get a cappuccino?” I ask. She throws me a baffled look before letting forth in French, while pointing and gesticulating.
While most people speak fluent French, English speakers are a little more difficult to come across. I stroll on to discover delicatessens filled with French cheese and pate, liquor shop shelves stocked with good quality (and very reasonably priced) French wine and French cafes with names like La Terasse.
Although life in Noumea is charming and uncomplicated, the nation’s capital has not escaped the taint of the tourist brush. An incongruous looking imitation steam train, aptly named “Le Petit Train” (or little train), chugs around the bays, the market and the zoo, with groups of Japanese, French and Australian tourists several times a day.
There’s a flora and fauna circuit that stops at the aquarium and a cultural circuit that rolls past Noumea’s colonial houses and the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. The latter is a gleaming space-age architectural monument that holds exhibitions of Kanak culture and art. Its sleek contemporary design hints of a Noumea that is trying to break out of the sleepy island mould.
Luxury in New Caledonia
Discover New Caledonia
Aircalin flies from Sydney to Noumea. Flying time from Sydney is only 2.5 hours.
Le Petit Train is a great way to get around to all the tourist spots. Local buses run frequently and are cheap. As taxis from the airport are expensive, it’s best to organize airport transfers as part of a package.
Where to stay
Le Meridien Noumea is located on the beachfront overlooking Anse Vata Cove, tel: +687 265000.
Casa Del Sole are serviced apartments in the lively Baie des Citrons area, tel: +687 258700.