Palm trees, blue ocean and a lilting breeze … this is a little bit of France in the South Pacific.
New Caledonia is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn and is made up of a small archipelago of Grande Terre, Île des Pins, the Loyalty Islands and the tiny Îles Belep.
Grand Terre, home to the capital Noumea, is a cigar-shaped mountainous island 400km long and 50km wide. It is divided by mountain ranges with Mont Panié being the highest peak measuring 1628 metres. Many rivers run from the mountains to the sea and can be the cause of floods during the wet season.
The coasts of Grand Terre are remarkably different from each other. The east coast is wet, lush and mountainous with a shoreline cut by narrow, deep estuaries. The west coast is dry and windy with wide grassy coastal plains and large shallow bays lined with mangroves and beaches with lots of mosquitoes.
The influence of France is evident from the minute your aircraft touches down. You are greeted by gendarmes and the French tricolour flutters from buildings everywhere. Renault, Citröen and Peugeot are the predominant vehicles and baguettes, croissants, cafe au lait and pain au chocolat tempt the tastebuds. >
Noumea is the capital of New Caledonia which became part of France with convicts and early French settlers arriving in 1854. While just about everything in New Caledonia is Gaul influenced, the great majority of descendents of the first arrivals have never visited France and have evolved their culture into a mix of their forebears and island life. Very few speak English French is the predominant language and there are 27 indigenous languages spread over the islands.
The indigenous people, the Kanaks, have maintained their tribal customs and in recent times their culture has been going through a mini renaissance.
There is no denying Noumea is an expensive place and most visitors go there on all-inclusive package tours.
Most food has to be imported which of course adds to the end price. Self-catering at local markets is a way to save a few francs. The Noumea market opens daily and sells everything from fish, local vegetables and tropical fruit. Bread, cheese and coffee can be purchased and you can nibble as you wander through the handicraft stalls.
The best way to get around is on the public bus or the colourful petite train which calls on the main city sights and gives you the option of hopping on and off as you please.
The Hostelling International in Noumea is the only backpackers and it is definitely the cheapest option. It offers double rooms or dormitory sleeping and has a large kitchen with excellent cooking facilities. Be warned though, you need to climb 105 stairs to reach it!
One of the most popular beaches is Baie des Citrons Anse Vata which has free entertainment every Thursday evening.
You will also see locals playing petanque and they may invite you to join in.
Wherever you turn in New Caledonia, views are magnificent, with sunsets and sunrises being particularly spectacular.