January 26, 2010
I have to begin today by giving the French due credit for their colonial taste in islands. It is becoming abundantly clear that they got all the good ones while no one was looking. First Tahiti, then Seychelles – and now this?? Someone has got to start keeping tabs on these people.
Here’s just a rough list of current or former French colonial islands (many of whom are still speaking French to this day): Tahiti, New Caledonia, Mauritius, Martinique, St Croix, St Kitts, Vanuatu, St. Martin and Reunion. I have only been to two of these so far, but they are two of the most gorgeous islands I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. Well done, Frenchies.
Though most of these islands no longer fall under the French flag, the country’s cultural legacy often remains. When I first took up French in high school, I never thought it would be so useful in real life. When I began traveling overseas, I was excited to brush up on my language skills for trips to France. But I always thought that would be the only place I would use my remedial French language skills. Not so! You’d be amazed how often I’ve been able to use French in my travels. Morocco, Vietnam, Cambodia and, of course, some of the most beautiful islands the world has to offer. Not to mention 90% of Northern Africa. Yes, the French have been busy over the years.
When I spent a month in Paris several years ago, I was feeling almost fluent in the language by the time I left. Unfortunately, when you don’t converse in a language daily, you lose it rapidly. While I still have a mastery of the basics, my conversational skills take a little practice. I’m fairly adept at asking questions in French. Unfortunately, that’s a double-edged sword as asking a question in French often gets you a rapid-fire answer in French – which I likely can’t decipher.
But I’ll be getting a lot of practice as French is widely spoken in French Polynesia as well. So, that’s two weeks spent with native French speakers with limited English capabilities. It is a challenge I hope to rise to!
Where on Earth is New Caledonia?
Since I know many of you have probably never even heard of New Caledonia, a little history…
New Caledonia is home to the world’s 2nd largest reef (2nd only by a hair to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) and the world’s largest lagoon – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the 3rd largest archipelago in the Pacific after Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. The territory consists of the main island (or Mainland), the Isle of Pines to the southeast and the 4 Loyalty Islands (Mare, Lifou, Tiga and Ouvea) to the east; as well as a number of other smaller islands.
The Mainland is home to a spectacular central mountain range running the length of the island and the capital city of Noumea, where I stayed.
The islands were originally settled by Melanesian tribes. In 1853, under the reign of Napoleon, France took possession of the islands. During this time vast mineral deposits were discovered which eventually led to a burst in economic growth with the mining of copper, cobalt and especially, nickel. France utilized the island as a penal colony and shipped more than 22,000 convicts to its shores in the late 1800’s.
WWII marked a turning point in New Caledonian history. Its strategic location in the middle of the Pacific conflict opened it up to the rest of the world. In 1942, the Americans arrived taking over much of the unoccupied land for their military installations. During the occupation, the American GI’s built roads, troop housing and hospitals, drained marshes, laid water and electrical lines and made other numerous improvements to the infrastructure that remain to this day. Over the course of 4 years, more than a million American troops transited through New Caledonia.
The older locals have fond memories of the American GI’s and there is a lovely American memorial in downtown Noumea that honors the contributions of the Americans. Though still a French territory, since the signing of the 1998 Noumea Accords, New Caledonia has enjoyed more autonomy within the French Republic.
Noumea itself is a cosmopolitan city with all the modern conveniences. Most of the restaurants serve French food which I was excited about because I love French food! Not to mention the great snacks like crepes and paninis.
My hotel for this stop was the Le Meridien Noumea situated a few miles south of the capital on beautiful Anse Vata beach. Luckily for me, the town of Anse Vata – with all of its shops and restaurants – was a 10 minute stroll down the beach so I was able to dodge the exorbitant prices at the hotel restaurants.
Like Tahiti, New Caledonia is definitely not a budget destination. The currency is the French Pacific Franc which is pegged to the euro and no bargain for US dollars. The airport is located more than 40 miles from Noumea and the transportation options are limited and expensive. I opted for the airport shuttle which was $70 round trip and took about an hour each way.
When I arrived at the hotel, I was very pleased with the suite they upgraded me to. Though the furnishings were a bit dated, the suite had a spectacular balcony with a panoramic view of the sea. It was magnificent. From my balcony, I had a terrific view of the area’s #1 sporting activity – kite surfing. The kite surfers were at it from mid-morning until the sun set each day, sometimes dozens of them at a time, criss-crossing the bay doing tricks and flips. It was very entertaining to watch and I was even able to get a few great pictures with my zoom lens.
After settling into my room and unpacking a little (a luxury with 3 full nights in one place for the 1st time all trip), I headed down to the concierge desk to make some plans for the next day. I had decided to take a day trip to the southern island of Ile des Pins (Island of Pines). The pictures I’d seen of the island looked unbelievable so I was willing to splurge on the $120 round-trip ferry ticket. My plan was to take the ferry out in the morning, rent a bike to ride around the island for the day and then return on the evening ferry.
The concierge was very helpful in getting everything booked for me so I spent the rest of the afternoon poolside before walking into Anse Vata for dinner.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
The next morning I was up bright and early both working and getting ready to head to the ferry. The boat departed Noumea harbor at 6:45am and docked in Ile des Pins just over 2 hours later.
I could tell right away that the glowing reviews I’d read of the tiny island still didn’t do it proper justice. It was quite literally like a Garden of Eden in the middle of the South Pacific.
The water was so clear in some places it was colorless against the pure white sand of the beaches. The two most remarkable beaches were Kuto Bay and Kanumera Bay which were only about 200ft across a narrow road from each other.
Time seems to stand still on Ile des Pins with its turquoise lagoons, sparse Melanesian tribal population, swaying palms and soaring Araucaria pines. The island’s inhabitants are known as “Kunies” and they have kept their tribal traditions alive in their small villages scattered around the island. The Kunies are very friendly to tourists and every time I passed one I was greeted with a cheerfull, “Bonjour!”
In a moment of frugality, I ended up forgoing the bike rental after finding out the price was a good deal higher than I’d been told. The main village I wanted to visit was Vao and the sign said it was only 3 kilometers away, an easy walk. Plus, I was anxious to get back toward the ferry dock where I’d seen the first two gorgeous beaches. Those were certainly worthy of spending a little leisure time. So, I decided to start my day by making the walk to Vao and then head back toward the ferry to spend the afternoon at the beach.
One of the most fascinating things to see on Ile des Pins are the “pirogues.” The tradition of sailing these ancient craft from St Joseph’s Bay has been kept alive for centuries by the Kunies. They are quite a sight to see and I was lucky enough to stumble across them in St Maurice while looking for the seaside totem poles, even though I never made it to St Joseph. The solemn circle of totem poles are said to be guarding the nearby statue of Christ.
As I followed the path toward the shore to see the statue, I was passed by what had to be the entire population of the island (about 50 people) engaged in what seemed to be a walking church service. They were led by a man who was giving a sermon into a handheld loudspeaker and walking in sync while chanting verses. They were walking from the statue of Christ to the island’s only church in the village of Vao. It was quite a sight to see after not seeing another soul for my first hour or so on what was starting to seem like a deserted island.
One of the first things I learned about Ile des Pins was that just because an area on the map has a name, doesn’t make it a town. Vao appeared to be the main town on the island so I assumed there would be a few lunch options on the area. I was wrong. The only buildings in the small village were modest homes and huts, the church, and a single-room (each) post office, hospital and town hall. I finally came across a small market and was at least able to buy a Diet Coke and a bottle of water but their food options were limited to grocery staples that would require kitchen facilities. I was beginning to think I was going to have to settle for the granola bar in my backpack. Luckily, once I made it back to the beach, there was a little beachside grill (and by “grill” I mean just a guy with a grill) selling delicious chicken skewers for only about $3. I bought one and enjoyed it on the beach with a lagoon view better than any I’ve ever seen.
After spending the rest of my afternoon lounging under a palm tree on the beach and swimming in the lagoon the temperature of bath water, it was finally time to head back to the ferry. After the 2 hour trip home, I stopped in the town of Noumea for dinner and finally got back to my hotel around 9pm.
For my final day on the island, I decided to take a trip into Anse Vata for some shopping. I bought a few souvenirs and had a nice lunch by the sea, then spent the remainder of the afternoon enjoying the hotel’s pool and beach and watching the kite surfers play in the bay.
I thoroughly enjoyed my 4 days in New Caledonia, the islands are a true wonder. I would love to go back sometime to visit the Loyalty Islands. Rumor has it they are just as amazing as Ile des Pins. Can’t imagine doing the flight from the States (Noumea is just two hours from Sydney) but if I find myself in the neighborhood again (and I suspect that I will), I will definitely be back.
Next up on the itinerary…a long-anticipated return to Tahiti.