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A South Pacific paradise of sandy beaches, palm trees, tropical forests, and dazzling marine life. That’s New Caledonia in a nutshell, right? Not exactly. In fact, that’s only half the story.
Less than three hours’ flying time from Brisbane and Sydney, New Caledonia is a lush, diverse, and multicultural destination that will surprise you in ways you never saw coming. For Aussies seeking a short-haul getaway, it’s perfectly situated. Best of all, it offers a taste of France without the hours of flying it takes to get there.
Located just 1500km off the east coast of Australia, New Caledonia comprises more than 150 islands, including the main island of La Grande Terre, and the gorgeous Loyalty Islands. The capital and largest city, Nouméa, is surrounded by blue waters, white beaches and gently swaying palm trees. There, you’ll discover a relaxed destination where time somehow just melts away.
Though one could easily go on for days about the many ways New Caledonia will take your breath away, here are five good reasons you should consider making the short trip.
Many places have been described as “the Hawaii of [insert geographical location here]” to varying degrees of success. But, in the case of New Caledonia’s main island, La Grande Terre, it’s actually a pretty accurate comparison. In addition to its many beaches, wetlands, and grassy plains, it boasts a dramatic spine of mountains from the north to the southern tip.
Heading across the central mountain range to the East Coast, it feels as though you’ve been transported somewhere really special. With a population of largely Melanesian origin, the East Coast has also retained a charming air of authenticity. More humid than the West Coast, it features incredible biodiversity, too. Must-see locations include Bâ waterfall at Houaïlou, and the famous timetable road linking Canala to Thio.
In the Great South, just 45-minutes south of Nouméa, you’ll encounter one of the country’s incredible natural wonders – the Blue River National Park. This 9000-hectare wilderness area – known for its fiery red lateritic soil, emerald green trees, sapphire waterfalls and freshwater lakes – offers prime conditions for exploration and adventure. It is also here that you may have the chance to spot New Caledonia’s rare national bird, the Cagou, in the wild.
Of course, you don’t travel all the way to an island without wanting to take in some of the other islands, too. Close to Nouméa, Amedee Island and Duck Island (Ile aux Canards) are perfect for day trips. Further afield, Insta-worthy Ouvéa atoll features a 25km stretch of immaculate white sand fringed by emerald green coconut palms, and clear waters filled with a myriad of colourful corals and tropical fish.
Beyond Ouvéa, from the majestic Isle of Pines to Lifou and Maré, each island has its own character and charm.
New Caledonia is more culturally diverse than you may realise. It does feel a bit like a piece of France somehow broke off and floated to the southern hemisphere, but it has also retained a strong Melanesian influence from its local indigenous people, the Kanaks. An intriguing mix of French and Melanesian culture permeates every inch of the country.
Representing just over 44 per cent of the population, the Kanak people are friendly and welcoming, eager to share their Melanesian culture and way of life with visitors. A good starting point to learn about Kanak culture is the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouméa.
At the centre’s heart is a unique structure of steel and wood, which evokes the spirit of traditional Kanak huts. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, it is a spectacular, multi-use space featuring an art centre, museum, performance spaces and botanic garden. The museum shines a light on the proud heritage and art of the Kanak people, with carefully curated exhibits ranging from everyday objects and intricately carved ritual sculptures.
For a more in-depth immersion into the Kanak culture, consider staying in Lifou, Maré, or Ouvéa during fairs such as the Feast of the Avocado or Bird Fair. Organised in cooperation with the local tribes, there really is no better way to dive into Kanak culture.
A homestay in a Kanak community also offers a great opportunity to experience a taste of daily life, and perhaps learn a few words of New Caledonia’s 30 indigenous languages. Don’t fret if your French language skills are lacking, though; English is widely spoken.
There is also another group worth visiting, and it’s one you may be surprised to find on a tropical island – cowboys! The cattle farming industry of New Caledonia is focused along the West Coast, where the mountains give way to grasslands and savannahs covered with paperbark trees. A visit to a rural property, such as La Ferme de Nemeara, is a perfect way to meet local stockmen and get a taste of the unique bush lifestyle that exists here.
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With its tantalising mix of cultures, New Caledonia’s dining scene is fusion food at its finest. From authentic French classics to island staples made with tropical ingredients, you’ll find a plethora of restaurants serving mouth-watering dishes to suit all budgets and tastes.
As you’d expect from an island in the Pacific, seafood features heavily on most restaurant menus. Fresh prawns, lobsters, marlin, mackerel, crabs, and mussels… It’s all here and it’s all delicious. Be sure to try dishes such as moules marinières, mussels in a cream and white wine sauce, or a flavoursome bouillabaisse fish stew featuring fresh prawns and mussels.
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The market at Port Moselle in Nouméa, which is open every morning (except Monday) from 5am to 11:30am, is one of the best places to stock up on fresh seafood. Here, you’ll find local fishermen anchored right by the market to unload the morning’s catch, along with home-grown fruits, vegetables, flowers and other produce.
Bougna, a traditional Melanesian dish which combines chicken, lobster or fish with yams, bananas, sweet potatoes and coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked over hot stones is a must-try local delicacy. Other mouth-watering local delicacies include small mangrove oysters, known as huitres de paletuviers, and vol-au-vent des fruits de mer, which is a pastry filled with seafood and cream sauce.
Whether in the air, on the ground, or in the water, New Caledonia has adventurous travellers covered. Hiking, mountain biking, horse riding, fishing, sailing, kite-surfing, kayaking, snorkelling or scuba diving – whatever floats your boat, you’ll find it here.
For divers, there are a wealth of incredible sites to choose from. A few must-sees include the wreck of La Dieppoise at Amedee Lighthouse, The Prony Needle and Prony Bay in the Great South, and beautiful Poindimie – renowned for swim-throughs and Gorgonian fans.
Back on land, hikers in for a treat at Mount Dore, which dominates the view directly across the lagoon from Nouméa. The trek to the 800-metre summit is steep, and takes around two hours to reach, but spectacular views from the top make the hard slog worth it. Dawn is a favoured time for photographers, but those who enjoy a sleep in won’t be disappointed.
If Mount Dore is too tame, there’s also GR North – a challenging yet visually striking series of hiking trails, each of which takes six to seven hours to complete. Passing through creeks and forests, rugged mountain ranges and beyond – it is not for the faint of heart.
Despite having this exotic tropical paradise right on our doorstep, New Caledonia retains a feeling of being off the beaten path.
Travelling to and around New Caledonia and its many islands is a breeze. The simplest way to see the sights of the main island is by renting a hire car. The local road network is well maintained and, unless you plan on taking on some of the minor mountain roads or exploring national parks, a two-wheel-drive car is more than adequate.
If you’d rather sit back and let someone else do the driving, there is also the extensive RAI coach network offering 25 routes and 360 stops throughout the country. Reasonably priced, the RAI Network is a quick and easy way to cover more ground with minimal fuss.
To get out to the islands, you’ll need to fly or catch a high-speed ferry. New Caledonia’s domestic airline Air Calédonie operates regular scheduled flights to the Isle of Pines and the main Loyalty Islands (Maré, Lifou and Ouvéa) from Magenta Airport in Nouméa. The high-speed passenger catamaran Betico 2 is a good way to travel to the islands by sea.
(Lead image: Sébastien Jermer / Unsplash)