South Pacific Organizer
New Caledonia travel with author David Stanley
|Destinations: travel to New Caledonia|
FINDING NEW CALEDONIA
New Caledonia--or Kanaky, as the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants call it--is unique. In Noumea, the capital, the fine French restaurants, designer boutiques, and cosmopolitan crowds all proclaim that this is the Paris of the Pacific. Yet over on the east coast of the main island and on all of the outliers, the Kanaks (from kanaka, the Hawaiian word for "human") and la Coutume (native custom) have survived a century and a half of colonial domination.
Though many tourists visit Noumea, surprisingly few cross the Chaîne Centrale to Grande Terre's exotic east coast, or travel by sea or air to the charming outer islands. Yet this is something you really must do to see the true New Caledonia. The possibilities are limitless, and it's a lot easier to travel around New Caledonia than it is to tour rural Vanuatu or Solomon Islands. This enigmatic French colony just north of the tropic of Capricorn, midway between Fiji and Australia, is quite unlike any of its neighbors and will surprise you in every respect.
New Caledonia consists of a cigar-shaped mainland (Grande Terre), the Isle of Pines, the Loyalty Group, and the small uninhabited dependencies of Walpole Island (125 hectares), the d'Entrecasteaux Reefs (64 hectares), and the more distant Chesterfield Islands (101 hectares). The d'Entrecasteaux Reefs consist of two separate lagoons centered on tiny Huon and Surprise Islands, with a deep strait 10 km wide between.
Locals refer to Grande Terre as "Le Caillou" or "La Roche" (The Rock). The interior is made up of row upon row of craggy mountains throughout its length. The verdant northeast coast of this island is broken and narrow, cut by tortuous rivers and jagged peaks falling directly into the lagoon. The drier southwest coast is low, swampy, and mosquito-ridden, with wide coastal plains and alluvial lowlands.
The Loyalty Islands, on the other hand, are uplifted atolls with no rivers but many limestone caves. Maré, Tiga, Lifou, and Ouvéa form a chain 100 km east of Grande Terre. The Belep Islands and Isle of Pines are geological extensions of the main island. (View a map of New Caledonia.)
New Caledonia is farther south than most other South Pacific islands; this, combined with the refreshing southeast trade winds, accounts for its sunny, moderate climate, similar to that of the south of France. It can even be cool and windy from June to September, and campers will need sleeping bags. The ocean is warm enough for bathing year-round.
December to March is warmer and rainier; it's also the hurricane season. The cyclonic depressions can bring heavy downpours and cause serious flooding. The windward northeast coast of Grande Terre catches the prevailing winds and experiences as much as 3,000 mm of precipitation a year, while the leeward southwest coast is a rain shadow with only 800 to 1,200 mm. (Check the weather today in Noumea.)
New Caledonia's vegetation has more in common with Australia's than it does with that of its closer tropical neighbor, Vanuatu. Seventy-five percent of the 3,250 botanic species are endemic. There are extensive areas of mangrove swamp and savanna grassland along the west coast. The only sizable forests are in the mountains. The territory's most distinctive tree is a pine known as the Araucaria columnaris, which towers 30-45 meters high, with branches only two meters long. The most characteristic tree of the savannas of the northern and western of Grande Terre is the niaouli, a relative of the eucalyptus.
The only native mammals are the flying fox, a bat, and the rat. Eighty-eight species of birds are found in New Caledonia, 18 of them endemic. The national bird is the flightless cagou (Rhynochetos jubatus), or kagu, about the size of a small rooster. Since it hatches only one egg a year and is slow on the ground, the cagou is threatened with extinction: dogs often outrun and kill it.
The extreme richness of life on the reefs compensates for the lack of variety on land. New Caledonia's 1,600 km of barrier reefs are home to 350 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish, and 20,000 species of invertebrates. The territory's protected lagoons total 23,000 square km, with an average depth of 20 meters--the largest lagoon complex in the world.
1000 BC—Austronesian-speaking humans arrive in New Caledonia
New Caledonia's greatest attractions are undoubtedly its glamorous capital, the scenic northeast coast of the main island, and the colorful neighbor islands. Noumea combines the ambience of a French provincial town with the excitement of a Côte d'Azure resort. The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center, designed by famous Italian architect Renzo Piano and built between 1994 and 1998 at a cost of over US$50 million, is a world class site.
Hienghène on Grande Terre's east coast is a place of remarkable natural beauty, with high mountains dropping dramatically to the sea. The Isle of Pines's Kuto/Kanuméra area is postcard perfect with exquisite white beaches backed by towering pines. New Caledonia's finest beach runs right up one side of Ouvéa.
The sheltered waters from Noumea to Prony Bay and the Isle of Pines are a prime cruising area and yacht charters are very popular here. Windsurfers ply the waters off Noumea's Anse Vata and the Isle of Pines's Kuto Bay. The Isle of Pines is also ideal for sea kayaking, and both canoeing and kayaking are offered on the Nera River at Bourail.
Several companies offer scuba diving, but it's also possible to rent tanks and head off on your own. There are few places to snorkel on Grande Terre, where you really do need a boat to get out to the barrier reef. To see coral from shore, you must go to the Loyalty Islands or the Isle of Pines.
Horseback riding is the favorite terrestrial recreational activity among the local French and several well established ranches are near Koné. There are numerous hiking opportunities around these large islands. The best-known long-distance hike is across the mountains from the Hienghène valley to Voh.
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Bastille Day (July 14) features a military parade and aerial show at Anse Vata in Noumea. Lots of free performances are staged during the August jazz festival in Noumea. The parade on New Caledonia Day (September 24) recalls the day in 1853 when Admiral Despointes took possession of New Caledonia for France. The Agricultural Fair at Bourail in mid-August features rodeos and other colorful activities. Don't miss it. Koné's rodeo is in April.
Citizens of the European Union, Canada, the U.S., Japan, Australia, and New Zealand do not require a visa. Others should check with their airline a few weeks ahead. Everyone must have an onward ticket. This requirement is strictly enforced and there's no chance of slipping through without one. Noumea is the only port of entry for cruising yachts.
The currency is the French Pacific franc or CFP (pronounced "say eff pay"). The CFP is linked to the Euro (worth CFP 119.25). As an approximate rule of thumb, US$1 = CFP 100. New Caledonia's banks high commissions to change anything other than Euros in cash. The American Express office in Noumea, Center Voyages, changes traveler's checks without commission.
Aircalin links New Caledonia to Auckland, Brisbane, Japan, Melbourne, Nadi, Papeete, Port Vila, Sydney, and Wallis Island. The most direct access to New Caledonia from North America is via Aircalin's twice weekly flight to/from Nadi, Fiji, although connections through Australia are more frequent. It's often difficult to get a booking on flights between Fiji and Noumea because the planes arrive full from Wallis Island. All airlines flying to New Caledonia and their routes are listed on our Airlines page. The airport tax is included in the ticket price.
Air Calédonie, the domestic commuter airline, flies to the Loyalty Islands (Maré, Lifou, and Ouvéa) several times a day. There are two or more flights a day to the Isle of Pines. The free baggage allowance is 10 kilograms.
The high-speed 360-passenger catamaran Betico (pronounced be-ti-CHU) connects Noumea to the Isle of Pines and the Loyalty Islands several times a week. This sleek catamaran cruises at 35 knots and costs about half what Air Calédonie charges on the same routes. Twenty kilograms of free luggage are allowed. It's a relaxing trip with comfortable airline-style seating.
Buses link most Grande Terre towns at least once a day, and the fares are reasonable. Noumea has an excellent city bus system. Hitchhiking is a snap (when there's traffic) and you'll have some very interesting conversations, if you speak French. Payment is never expected. Renting a car is an easy way to go, and it allows you to save money by car camping and eating picnic fare.
abridged from the 8th edition of
Moon Handbooks South Pacific
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