New Caledonia's main island, Grande Terre, is 400 kilometers long and the sixth largest island in the South Pacific (after New Guinea, the two islands of New Zealand, Tasmania, and New Britain). Known to the locals as 'Le Caillou' or 'Le Roche' (The Rock), this island's long mountain chain reaches 1,639 meters. The enthralling Isle of Pines is within Grande Terre's system of barrier reefs, but the Loyalty Islands are 100 kilometers east and separated by deep water. Ouvéa, Lifou, and Maré in the Loyalties are elevated atolls. Several inaccessible atolls north and west of Grande Terre are within the territory's boundaries.
Although 'discovered' by Captain James Cook in 1774, New Caledonia was annexed by order of Emperor Napoléon III of France in 1853. Wars of resistance mounted by the Melanesian Kanak inhabitants in 1878 and 1917 were brutally suppressed, and during the mid-1980s the Front de Libération Nationale Kanake et Socialiste (FLNKS) launched an intense political struggle which culminated in the assassination of most of the Kanak leadership. In 1988 a truce was signed giving the Kanaks self-rule in areas where they formed a large majority and this process was continued by a new accord signed in 1998. France has been pouring huge subsidies into the territory but these have benefited the French residents of the capital Nouméa far more than Kanaks living in remote areas. Real independence seems as remote as ever.
That would be enough to see the capital, Nouméa, with a sidetrip to the Isle of Pines or one of the Loyalty Islands thrown in. To travel around the north end of Grande Terre you'd need two weeks, unless you were willing to drive nonstop just to say you'd done it. To do Nouméa, Grande Terre, the Isle of Pines, and one or two of the Loyalties, you'd need three weeks.
There's a youth hostel in Nouméa and free municipal campgrounds all the way up Grande Terre's west coast. On the east coast, you can camp at small Kanak gîtes (inns). You'd need a car to reach them and a number of Nouméa agencies offer unlimited kilometer rentals. A high-speed ferry cruises between Nouméa and the Loyalties several times a week charging half the price of the plane. Hotels and restaurants are very expensive in New Caledonia, so plan on camping and picnicking a lot if you're on a low budget. Hitchhiking is possible.
No, New Caledonia is just outside the Melanesian malaria belt which includes northern Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. It's possible, however, that global warming could eventually lead to the southward spread of the malaria mosquitoes.