Everybody dreams of the occasional escape. When work piles up and overtime at the office begins to kick in, our thoughts tend to fly to shimmering blue waters and supple palm treetops. It is as if these exact daydreams fluttered out of our minds and landed in the heart of Pacific to morph into New Caledonia.
Even though I count myself among the lucky ones when it comes to chances to visit new and exotic places, I will never forget how sold I was once I’d clicked on a few images of New Caledonia. It is truly as close to a tropical heaven as a place can be. If you feel its dazzling shores are calling you and you yearn to discover this paradise in the South Pacific, here’s what you should know.
The setting of a great escapade
Nouvelle-Calédonie is a small grouping of islands which became a French colony in 1853. A little over a century later, in 1956, the islands officially became an overseas territory of France. This is probably why New Caledonians celebrate Bastille Day as a national holiday. The official language is French and its official currency is the franc, or more specifically – Comptoirs Francais du Pacifique francs.
The territory is not particularly sprawling – it consists of Grand Terre, the main island and the biggest landmass in the grouping, a small archipelago known as the Loyalty Islands, the Isle of Pines and several other small islands.
Landing on Grand Terre
Grand Terre is not only the largest island of New Caledonia, it is also one of the largest islands in the entire Pacific. It is home to the territory’s capital city, Nouméa, and it is quite recognizable for its elongated shape. It is about 400 kilometers long and it sports a length of somewhere between 50 and 70 km. The only two viable airports on this entire territory are in the vicinity of Nouméa, and since you will most likely arrive via plane, this charming city is your ground zero.
The charms of Nouméa
With a population of over 100,000 people, Nouméa is not a particularly big city. However, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in sheer charisma. Most of this appeal is derived from the genuine and disarmingly pleasant disposition of its residents. However, you should be forewarned – New Caledonians hardly speak any English, so you’ll need at least some basic knowledge of French phrases. You should probably never leave your hotel room without bringing along a small and trusty dictionary for tourists.
With a small map, it is very easy to get around on foot, but if you want a unique experience befitting newcomers, jump on Le Petit Train for an adorable ride and see why Noumea is New Caledonia’s cultural gem. Head to the Museum of New Caledonia to enrich your knowledge about Melanesian culture and marvel at the well-preserved antiquities. There are also the Geological and Maritime History museum, and you should absolutely make sure you visit the Aquarium des Lagons and the Michel-Corbasson Zoological and Forest Park.
Inspect the colorful nature
Forest and parks are an inescapable part of the experience. New Caledonia is a proud home to a unique biosphere that will stagger you with its variety and magnificence. As far as flora goes, you’ll be surprised to know that nearly 80% of the species are endemic to this territory, and that is without even mentioning the several thousand species of animals that are native here.
Tjibaou Cultural Centre
This playful architectural landmark is one of the most iconic hotspots of New Caledonia and paying it a visit is an exceptional experience. You will not only have an opportunity to see the most impressive collection of contemporary artwork that came from Melanesian and Oceanic cultures, it is also an establishment where you can see a performance of traditional music and dance. You can also sit in a nearby cafeteria for a bit of rest and refreshment.
Marvel at the Barrier Reef
The New Caledonia Barrier Reef is an amazing natural wonder and you will hardly find anything else on the islands that is as awe-inspiring as this UNESCO World Heritage Site. In many ways, it appears as an extension of Grand Terre, as it stretches around the big island in colorful patches and azure lines. A boat ride around and above this wondrous formation is an idyllic experience, but nothing beats a bit of immersive aquatic activity to savor the colorful beauties of the reef. Luckily for you, snorkeling and swimming are an integral part of getting acquainted with the barrier reef, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Head to Duck Island
You have to see Duck Island in order to believe it. Just hop on a water taxi on Anse Vata beach and it will transport you to this amazing little paradise where you can sunbathe and snorkel for the entire day. You will be gob-smacked once you see how tiny Duck Island actually is and that you can easily walk around its sandy shores in fifteen minutes or even less. Thankfully, there is still enough green shade in the middle of the island and you can purchase a tea or a coffee in the only café on the island.
Walk the Isle of Pines
If you think Grand Terre and Duck Island are charming and beautiful in equal measure, than wait till you see the Isle of Pines. The soft white sand makes its shores appear like something out of a fantasy book and it gives a striking turquoise hue to the shallows of Kuto Beach. Its natural beauty is just as epic as the expanse of the Barrier Reef, so make sure to bring along your camera, so you can prove to your friends you have truly been to paradise and back.
What still amazes me about New Caledonia is how many people still haven’t heard of it. However, this is also where the strength of this locale lies. The nature beyond borders of urban areas is mostly intact and it extends confidently across the gargantuan Grand Terre and the surrounding islands. The range of colorful species, the unique charm of the locals and the easy-going way of life amount to an incredible experience you’ll carry with you forever and wish to return for more.