Life Travel The hidden paradise that’s on our doorstep
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The hidden paradise that’s on our doorstep

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I remember drooling over posters for Club Med Noumea  in the late ’80s. The clear blue water, the swim-up bars and the dazzling white sand. Twenty years later I’m in the pool sipping a pina colada at the original Club Med Noumea – now called the Château Royal – wondering why it took me so long to get to New Caledonia.

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This vibrant French territory in the South Pacific is naturally gorgeous, multicultural and super easy to get around. With a population of just 250,000, it feels relatively untouched, and it’s surprising that it’s not more popular with young Aussie backpackers, honeymooners and families.

The glass-clear water is teeming with tropical fish and fringed by towering pines – the perfect place to don a snorkel and explore.

Admittedly it is ‘winter’ when I visit – around 25 degrees and sunny in June, the locals are wearing jumpers – but Noumea seems unjustly quiet. With its lush green foliage, dazzling marine life and some of the clearest water on the planet, it may not stay a secret for long.

New Caledonia deserves to be the next Bali (if it wants to be). Here’s why.

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NEED TO KNOW

They speak French … really. The locals have a few words of English but if you barge in using honking English the reaction is likely to be chilly. Learn a few phrases and make an effort.

pastriesThe cheese is off the hook … the number of French nationals living on New Caledonia means a trip to the Géant supermarche is quite an experience, with a dazzling array of French fromage, charcuterie and bakery goods (“Un baguette, s’il vous plait?”).

There’s a female president …  Cynthia Ligeard. She’s a fierce French nationalist.

They have McDonald’s … but French fast food chain Quick is better, if you must.

The economy is strong … even stronger than New Zealand thanks to its rich nickel sector – New Caledonian soil contains a whopping 25 per cent of the world’s nickel resources.

The airport is a bit of a hike … be prepared – La Tontouta International Airport is almost an hour away from downtown Noumea.

NOT TO MISS

Isle of Pines

pines-signNoumea is the heart of New Caledonia but the Isle of Pines is the soul. Just a 20 minute flight south of the capital, it’s listed among the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO for its astounding blue water, island culture and untouched beauty. It really is like washing up on the set of Lost.

The island is covered in signature araucaria pines, and the place to stay is the five-star Le Meridien Ile des Pins. It’s got all the trimmings: private villas, a horizon pool, a private beach, spa facilities and more. The La Pirogue restaurant serves modern local Melanesian and French cuisine with a leaning towards fresh seafood and even snails if you’re feeling adventurous.

The Oro Natural Swimming Pool is a storybook lagoon about 15 minutes walk from Le Meridien. The glass-clear water is teeming with tropical fish and fringed by towering pines – the perfect place to don a snorkel and explore.

WHERE TO STAY

Château Royal Beach Resort and Spa

lescapade-pierPerched on the edge of Anse Vata Bay, about 10 minutes from downtown Noumea, this chic, renovated hotel has 108 suites, a pool with floating bar and full spa with aquatonic pool. Be warned, if you want to try the Aquatonic pool, you’ll need the appropriate swimwear (that’s Speedos for men), or you won’t be able to swim. There are several restaurants and bars and friendly staff to sort out anything you might need.

L’Escapade Island Resort

For the full beach paradise experience, you can’t beat this small island 20 minutes by boat from Noumea. There are 44 island bungalows and 25 luxury overwater bungalows hanging over the pristine water and looking out over endless reefs, white sand beaches and blue water. You’ll find loads of water activities to keep you occupied, and it’s worth doing a day trip even if you aren’t staying.

Hilton Noumea La Promenade Residences

Ideal for families, this slightly older, sprawling hotel in the main tourist drag of Noumea has huge rooms with kitchen facilities and big balconies overlooking the Anse Vista Bay. There’s the usual pool, gym and spa facilities and an array of French fashion in the grassy forecourt.

WHERE TO EAT

Le Roof Restaurant

local-beerPerched on stilts over the water near Chateau Royale, Le Roof is a fun spot to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner directly over the water – there’s a big hole cut out of the middle of the venue where gummy sharks come nightly to feed. The food is a bit hit and miss but the location is unbeatable.

WHERE TO PARTY

La Bodega del Mar

On the same pier as Le Roof, this jumping bar is predominantly French-speaking locals dancing to Rihanna, throwing back cocktails and having a great time. When it shuts up, things move to Pop further up the pier for more heavy techno and dancing on the bar. Noumeans definitely know how to party.

WHAT TO DO

cultural-centerThe Tjibaou Cultural Centre

Designed by legendary Italian architect Renzo Piano (the brains behind the Pompidou Centre in Paris), this impressive complex (right) is inspired by Kanak architecture and displays indigenous culture in a variety of exhibitions.

The Port Moselle Market

This is where the locals do their shopping for fresh produce and you can find an array of souvenirs or arrange a boat ride from the port. There are plenty of tourists, the coffee is terrible, but it’s a bit of a must-do.

HOW TO GET THERE

Aircalin now flies direct to Noumea from Melbourne twice weekly, as well as Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide, with flights from $499 return.

For more information on New Caledonia visit www.haveitall.com.au.

The writer travelled to Noumea courtesy of Aircalin and New Caledonia Tourism. 

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