New Caledonia is the Australian east coast’s closest neighbour – it’s just a three-hour flight from Sydney to the capital, Noumea. But this collection of tropical islands, a French territory in the Pacific, doesn’t feel anything like home. European and Melanesian culture has combined to form a unique destination, where you can dine on flawless French cuisine as you sit on a paradise beach with your toes in the pure white sand and discover the culture and traditions of the native Kanak people. Close enough to visit for a long weekend, New Caledonia should be on the travel bucket list of every Australian. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, several times a day. The flight duration from Sydney to Noumea is just under three hours.
Entering New Caledonia
Australian passport holders do not require a visa to visit New Caledonia for a holiday. Just make sure your passport is valid for at least six months.
Arriving at La Tontouta International Airport
Noumea’s international airport is on Grand Terre island (New Caledonia’s main island) approximately 45 kilometres from the city. A taxi into town can cost upwards of $100. It’s worth checking if your hotel offers an airport transfer. Otherwise, there’s a shuttle bus into the city which costs about $50 or you could consider hiring a car, especially if you plan to explore on your own.
A mix of French and local laws apply in New Caledonia. Drug offences, including the possession of even a small amount, can result in fines or imprisonment.
Smart Traveller warns that while same-sex marriage is legal in New Caledonia, outside of Noumea much of New Caledonian society is not accepting of it.
The language barrier
French is the official language of New Caledonia and more than 28 native dialects are also spoken across the four archipelagos. English is not widely used, so brush up on some helpful French phrases before you go or prepare to be misunderstood.
Customs and etiquette
If you are invited to visit the tribe or home of a Kanak, always bring a small gift to offer – food, a few metres of a textile, money or a packet of cigarettes are appropriate items.
In New Caledonia it’s considered impolite to cut into a conversation uninvited (you should wait to be asked), speak too loudly in public, arrive late to a pre-arranged meeting or fail to show respect to everyone, especially elders.
The currency in New Caledonia is the South Pacific Franc or Cour de Franc Pacifique, abbreviated to CFP or XFP and commonly referred to as the franc. It’s pegged to the value of the Euro, with one Euro equal to 119.332 CFP.
Major credit cards are accepted across New Caledonia. Euros, Australian dollars and New Zealand dollars are sometimes accepted.
Alert your bank before you leave Australia, just in case your purchases are thought to be fraudulent and your account is frozen.
Make sure your bank won’t hit you with extra fees when you use your credit card in New Caledonia. Your Australian bank and ATMs in New Caledonia will both charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away.
Tipping is not customary in New Caledonia. Feel free to round up the bill at a restaurant or in a taxi, although it’s not expected.
Mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue and Zika, are a risk in New Caledonia. Wear mosquito repellent and see your doctor before you go to discuss other preventative measures, especially if you are pregnant or plan to be.
Hospital standards are high in New Caledonia, but very expensive. Smart Traveller warns that an intensive care bed in a Noumea hospital could cost upwards of $5000 per day. Take out travel insurance before you leave for your trip.
The main mode of public transport in Noumea is the bus network. It’s made up of the Karuai bus, which has nine routes across the main island including two tourism-dedicated routes that stop at places of interest for visitors (routes 12 and 41) and RAI, the interurban coach service that has more than 25 routes across the main island. Buses stop at ferry ports, from where you can reach the islands. It’s also possible to fly to outer islands Ouvéa, Tiga Lifou and Maré on local airline Air Loyauté, with most flights no longer than half an hour. The easiest way to get around islands Grand Terre, Lifou, Ouvea, Isle of Pines and Mare is by rented car or scooter.
Being in the South Pacific, the weather in New Caledonia is beautiful most of the time. The average temperate hovers around 20-27 degrees Celsius year-round and there’s an average of 345 sunshine days annually. However, New Caledonia does experience a cyclone season from the end of November to May, with February to April being the most dangerous time. Bushfires are a risk from September to February.
When to go
The best time of year to visit New Caledonia is from September to November, when the islands experience perfect weather for swimming with little chance of rain. The downside is everyone wants to visit at this time, driving up the prices. If you want a better deal on flights and accommodation, visit from February to July.
Civil unrest occasionally results in protests and demonstrations in New Caledonia, which can be dangerous. Avoid large gatherings of people and political events.
Petty theft and car break-ins are not uncommon, so always keep an eye on your belongings and keep expensive valuables concealed as much as possible.
There have been reports of drink spiking in New Caledonia, so never accept a drink from a stranger or leave your beverage unattended in a bar or restaurant.
The tap water in New Caledonia is typically safe to drink, but this can vary between islands and accommodation styles. The safest bet is to drink filtered or bottled water.
It’s a tropical destination, so the dress code is relaxed in New Caledonia. Anything goes during the day, but at night the French influence is noticeable – a chic outfit for women and a collared shirt for men doesn’t hurt. Dress more conservatively when visiting an indigenous tribe or a sacred site.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to New Caledonia take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including evacuation.
Where to stay
Noumea has the most to offer visitors in the way of restaurants, shopping and nightlife, but the most beautiful scenery is further out. The Loyalty Islands comprises six small islands about 100 kilometres north of Noumea, three of which have accommodation for visitors; Lifou, Ouvea and Mare (Lifou has the most options). The beaches are pristine, with snorkelling, scuba and doing nothing the main activities.
The east coast of the main island (Grand Terre) is lush and green, and there’s more opportunity to experience the traditions of the indigenous population.
Isle of Pines to the south of the mainland is frequented by cruise ships during the day, but it’s worth staying here to experience how stunning it is in the mornings and evenings when there’s less people.
Phone calls and mobile data
Your Australian mobile phone might work in New Caledonia, but you could get hit with data roaming fees, so check with your phone company prior to your trip. You could purchase a local SIM to use while you’re there as long as your phone isn’t locked to your Australian carrier – again, check with your phone company before you leave. The emergency number in New Caledonia is 112.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
New Caledonia has fast and reliable internet. Many hotels, bars and restaurants offer free wi-fi.
In New Caledonia the voltage is 220V, compared to Australia’s 230V, and the frequency is 50Hz, the same as Australia, so most devices should work without issue. Wall sockets are the European type, so you’ll need an adaptor to plug in Australian devices.
Handy apps and websites
Pick Me is the most popular ride-sharing app in New Caledonia.
Smart Traveller for safety information.
XE for currency conversion.
La Tontouta International Airport for information on flights, weather, traffic, parking, terminal locations and airport shuttles.
New Caledonia – the official tourism website.