France is closer than you think
Less than a thousand miles from the East Coast of Australia or just two and a half hours from Sydney and you could be in France.
The South Pacific’s best kept secret, New Caledonia (Nouvelle Caledonie), is a French Overseas Territory – the Tricolour and European Union stars flutter in the brisk tropical wind above the Hotel de Ville alongside the New Caledonian flag. Anyone with travel rights within the EU can come here without a visitor’s visa. It’s France but with a South Pacific ambience.
Were it not for the colourfully attired Kanak locals picnicking and playing in the charmingly named and elegant Place des Cocotiers (Coconut Tree Square) and the fecundity of tropical vegetation, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the South of France. The road signs are French, the principal shops are French, selling French brands; boulangeries and patisseries nestle together with shops selling vibrant local fabrics and attire.
Like most tourists we stayed in Anse Vata, on the southernmost tip of the Noumea peninsula. Dawn to dusk the bay is awash with water sports – windsurfers, swimmers, yachts, and the more spectacular, gravity-defying kite surfers. Water taxis and speedboats criss-cross the perfect aquamarine surface transporting day trippers to the Ile aux Canards and beyond. Round the headland at the Baie de Citrons the water is calmer, perfect for swimming and snorkelling. This being the Coral Sea, there is plenty in the water for scuba divers and their more superficial cousins alike. Even a casual beach stroll yields a bountiful harvest of coral and interesting marine detritus.
The world’s most scenic bus route?
There are a number of tours tailor-made for the hordes of cruise ship inmates dazedly swarming the streets of Noumea, under the misconception they had booked a South Pacific holiday only to find themselves not only in France, but paying eye-watering amounts for the privilege. You could exchange your South Pacific Francs (XPF) for a ride on the ubiquitous little train (Le Chou Chou Train), or you could just hop in the number 11 bus (arguably the most scenic and surely the most fun city bus in the world) to town for 210 XPF, a fraction the cost of Le Train. You don’t get the commentary in three languages but you do get exuberant Pacific pop and reggae blasting out through the bus’s loudspeakers as it meanders en route through beaches, bays, headlands and marinas, past the Noumea Market to the centre ville. Everyone seems chilled and contented. How could you not be?
Yes, New Caledonia is expensive, but if, as an Australasian, you are wanting to exercise your inner Francophile, it’s a lot cheaper – and closer- than a ticket to Paris. You also get to fly on the charming Air Calin.
Vive la Nouvelle Caledonie.
Read more about food and wine in New Caledonia in Haut cuisine et haut drama.