New Caledonia: The Jewel of the Pacific

Music blares. Passengers line the bars. The party has begun. The ship’s horn sounds out its guttural call across Sydney Harbour, surely one of the most effective advertising sounds ever conceived. Another ship is leaving Circular Quay bound for the South Pacific.

As thrilling as it is to be drinking the cocktail of the day out of a large green plastic fish as we sail away, I am looking forward to reaching New Caledonia, where we have three ports-of-call. Sometimes referred to as the Jewel of the Pacific – possibly by the same advertising types who invented the ship’s horn – the French overseas territory promises a litany of cultural and natural thrills, served up with foie gras and escargot. New Caledonia is also home to the largest lagoon in the world and has a rich cultural and gastronomic diversity, mostly based on islander and French philosophies.

I am aboard Carnival Spirit but this could be any one of the fabulous Australia-based cruise ships that ply their trade throughout the South Pacific in the southern summer months. After a couple of days of excellent food and both organised and organic fun, we reach the islands Captain James Cook named in 1774, as the northeast of the main island – Grande Terre – reminded him of Scotland. France took possession in 1853 and New Caledonia was, in turn, a penal colony, nickel mine and an allied naval base in the South Pacific during WWII. Indigenous Melanesian Kanaks suffered like all indigenous victims of colonisation, but still represent around 40% of the population.

One prominent Kanak (an indigenous Melanesian inhabitant of New Caledonia), Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a leader of the Kanak independence movement who was assassinated in 1989, is immortalised at the eponymous cultural centre in the capital Nouméa. The building was designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano and features ten conical pavilions based on traditional Kanak huts. It houses artefacts, working art studios, exhibitions and performances, and is a must-see.

Other notable landmarks in Nouméa include Place des Cocotiers (Coconut Square), which is home to old flame trees and lush tropical gardens, Parc Forestier zoological and botanical gardens, Anse Vata beach and Mount Ouen Toro lookout, which is the place to be at sunset.

Cruise ships typically offer a range of shore excursions for each port-of-call and most New Caledonian outings showcase the enchanting islands. Each tropical sandy or coral isle has its own characteristics and charms, and many come with turtles.

From Kanumera Bay on the Isle of Pines we board a high-powered speedboat and zoom along the coast to Turtle Bay. The thrust of the speedboat’s dual outboards is the first thrill of the day and the boat slows as we enter Turtle Bay. One of our guides stands at the bow surveying the calm blue like a monarch. He knows this area like the inside of his Oakley sunglasses. With a flash of electric blue board shorts he dives into the pellucid water and gently fetches up a large sea turtle. The kids go nuts and cameras click furiously. Once the turtle is settled in his gentle embrace, the guide invites us to join him and his friend in the warm water. He assures us the reptile is comfortable with the attention. He’s about 50 years old and has done this many times before. We bob around with our turtle for about half an hour, taking selfies and enjoying his slimy sleekness. The excursion then heads to the pristine and deserted Brush Island, where we spend an hour swimming, walking hand-in-hand and sipping Champagne.

Another turtle treat is Amedee Island, 18 kilometres south of Noumea. A bumpy ferry ride is rewarded with a glass-bottom boat tour across the seagrass, where turtles like to hang out. We snorkel over the coral reef and find yet more turtles, following a particularly sociable one for twenty minutes as he glides and swoops through the impossibly clear shallows. Amadee also has an old lighthouse to explore and puts on an excellent buffet lunch, accompanied by a band and dancers.

Our outing to the island of Maré is a simple bus transfer to Yejele Beach, an unspoilt stretch of coastline. Unspoilt, that is, until it is invaded by cruise ship passengers. It’s still very nice, mind you, and the kids love it because there’s loads of other kid to play with. Seclusion is still possible if you are prepared to walk a bit, and the snorkelling is excellent. Shops lining the road along the beach do a roaring trade, mostly knocking out fast food, drinks and stuff they bought earlier at the supermarket, although there are a few interesting crafts stalls.

Lifou, the largest of the coral atolls known as the Loyalty Islands, features coves, limestone caves, grottos and compressed coral cliffs. Excursions often take in a range of this stunning scenery, as well as a Melanesian cultural encounter, the vanilla plantation and of course, more beaches. Jinek Bay Marine Reserve is so popular numbers are now restricted to preserve the delicate ecology.