Captain Cook named New Caledonia for its resemblance to the Scottish Highlands but the intrepid explorer didn’t even deign to disembark his ship. If he had, he would have found little to compare the island paradise to the chilly wilds of Scotland. The French took possession in 1853 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, this French territory blends Gallic sensibilities with the local Kanak culture to create a situation in which you may find yourself eating a crusty baguette fresh from the oven – under a palm tree.
Heaven is a two-hour flight Brisbane... Image via Visit New Caledonia
New Caledonia is a lot closer to the east coast of Australia than Bali, less touristy than Fiji and has clear blue waters teeming with reef life. The capital, Nouméa, is a cosmopolitan city with French bistros, boutiques and colonial buildings. And it’s all just a few hours by plane from Australia’s eastern cities. In case you need any more convincing, here are 10 reasons to explore New Caledonia.
Noumea... Image via Visit New Caledonia
And croissants, mille-feuille and éclairs. Thanks to its French heritage, New Caledonia has plenty to offer in the way of les boulangeries. Local favourites in Nouméa are L’Atelier Gourmand for buttery croissants and chewy baguettes and A La Vieille France for sweet patisserie treats such as macarons in a dizzying array of flavours.
Baguettes aplenty. Image via Visit New Caledonia
All the water sports
Located in the world’s largest lagoon and possessing the second-largest barrier reef and one of the biggest marine reserves (more than 1.3 million square kilometres), New Caledonia is a diver’s paradise. The crystalline lagoon also lends itself to windsurfing, kitesurfing, snorkelling, canoeing, scuba-diving and simply wallowing – so many things that it’s hard to know where to start. We suggest grabbing a snorkel and mask and going for it just about anywhere. Beneath the surface, swimmers can encounter parrotfish, mackerel, sea dragons and the occasional ancient turtle.
Paddle-boarding on the smooth, clear waters of New Caledonia. Image via Visit New Caledonia
French je ne sais quoi
Pétanque in public squares, tiny French bistros and supermarché shelves lined with wine, cheese and charcuterie… For Francophiles without the time to visit Paris, New Caledonia could be the fix you need.
Nouméa’s oldest district is Faubourg Blanchot, the earliest bourgeois residential area of the burgeoning colony. Its neighbourhoods are dotted with colonial mansions and bougainvillea-swathed wooden cottages and make for a lovely afternoon’s wandering.
A colonial wooden cottage. Image via Visit New Caledonia
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Le Petit Train is, as its name suggests, small. The cute yellow and red train, also known as the Tchou Tchou Train, does a two-hour circuit of Nouméa that gives visitors a great overview of the city, taking in Anse Vata Beach, Faubourg Blanchot and the Zoological and Forest Park, among other attractions.
Baguette and imported comté aside, the Kanak cuisine is a must-try. Either head to a local food market or find one the many Kanak communities that offer a taste of New Caledonia, such as freshly caught fish and lobster in coconut milk and papaya salad.
A feast from the ocean. Image via Visit New Caledonia
New Caledonia is made up of four archipelagos consisting of dozens of far-flung islands and islets. Ouvéa island to the north of the main island, called Grande Terre, and the Isle of Pines to its south are the most beautiful.
One of the Loyalty Islands, Ouvéa is referred to as “l'île la plus proche du paradis” (The closest island to paradise), which in these idyllic parts is saying something. Ouvéa has almost 25 kilometres of white-sand beaches, though at some points the island is just 40 metres wide. At Hanawa, the narrowest part, there’s a magical deep-blue hole where tourists and local children swim. Explore Saint Joseph Church, built in 1912, and buy soap from the coconut-oil distillery, one of the island’s main industries. Catch a glimpse of the endemic Ouvéa parakeet and visit the “shark nursery” to see newborn sharks.
A bay at Ouvéa. Image via Visit New Caledonia.
Isle of Pines
A paradisiacal island south-east of Nouméa, Isle of Pines (locally known as Île des Pins) is surrounded by the New Caledonia Barrier Reef. At the centre of the island is N’ga Peak, where it’s possible to see all the stunning beaches below.
The natural swimming pool at Isle of Pines. Image via Visit New Caledonia.
There’s an abundance of things to explore: Oro Bay and, nearby, a natural sea-water swimming pool separated from the ocean by a rock barrier; the Oumagne Grotto, buried among luxuriant tropical plant life; and the vestiges of an unlikely 19th-century French penal colony.
The vestiges of an old French penal colony on the island. Image via Visit New Caledonia.
The pristine island is protected by UNESCO, which means it won’t be ruined by overdevelopment and unchecked tourism.
The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, named after a Kanak leader who was assassinated in 1989, emulates the shape of traditional ceremonial houses. It celebrates the indigenous culture, showcasing historic relics, traditional artworks and contemporary pieces by Kanak artists.
Melanesian-style bungalows with thatched roofs dot New Caledonia’s islands. Some, like those at Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa, edge towards the beach; others, such as those at L’Escapade Island Resort, hover over the reef, where the sound of tropical fish splashing around at feeding time reaches the ears of the dozing inhabitant.
Who wouldn't want to escape to L'Escapade? Image via Visit New Caledonia.
Thanks to its barrier reef, New Caledonia has claimed its fair share of shipwrecks over the years. La Dieppoise, the last wooden patrol boat of France’s Royal Navy, was deliberately sunk off Amedee Island in 1988. Now the wreck stands upright 26 metres beneath the surface, where shoals of colourful fish dart in and out of its cabins.