Bonjour Nouméa!

When the opportunity presents itself to travel to a place where French is spoken, without the long haul to France, then who am I to resist? The islands of New Caledonia are only a relatively short flight from Australia, and Nouméa, its capital, is a place I have been very keen to visit since I studied French at school and later, University. The city stands on a promontory on the largest island in the group, Grand Terre, although it is commonly also referred to as (Greater) Nouméa. Visiting during the dry season (September – October) allowed us to experience a mild tropical climate very suitable for snorkelling, golf and sightseeing.

The main part of town is laid out in a rectangular grid which made getting around without getting lost very handy. The bus service in Nouméa is very good and cheap allowing us to do day trips without hiring a car. We stayed in a BnB apartment near where the big cruise ships dock, yet close to a wonderful patisserie, Les Petits Choux, where we took quite a few breakfasts or loaded up with provisions for the days’ outings.

At the heart of town is La Place des Cocotiers (Coconut trees); a green shady oasis in an otherwise urban landscape. Here the locals like to pass the time, particularly in the cool of the evenings, sitting in groups and socialising, and no doubt because free wifi is available here. At its centre is Fontaine Céleste, commenced in 1892 and finished four years later in part thanks to the work of convicts, and to the laborious efforts of the sculptor. He created the beautiful statue of young Céleste three times before it was complete, since he was not happy with the first one and the second was vandalised soon after completion! This fountain marks ground zero – the point from which all distances in New Caledonia are measured. Luckily for us, the twice monthly Jeudis du Centre Ville street market was held here during our stay.

The hilly terrain of the area during our walks gave us great views over Baie de la Moselle, with its marina, nearby craft market buildings to the right and the pavilions of the fresh food market beside the waterfront. In the foreground we overlooked the cross-shaped gables and the towers of the Nouméa Cathedral.

The Cathedral of St Joseph which stands on an elevated terrace between Moselle Bay and the town centre, is again the product of convict labour; built between 1888 and consecrated 1894, but not completed in 1909. It was originally designed to have tall spires added atop the towers, but that was rejected due to the prevalence of cyclones in the area! In the forecourt there is a statue of St Joan of Arc, a gift from the Bishop of Orléans, France.

Further down the coast is the beach of Baie des Citrons, a long gravelly stretch flanked by plenty of bars and restaurants, popular with tourists, though not up to Aussie standards! Further south again is Anse Vata beach, with its aquarium, casino and a couple of fancy hotels. This area was also our departure point for a short taxi boat ride out to Île aux Canards (Duck Island) to do some snorkelling.

Apart from the island being shaped like a duck’s webbed foot, we could see no reason for the name and certainly no ducks! It is a very low, flat island which can be walked around in about ten minutes, whose big claim to fame is the beautiful marine park with its snorkelling route which has received UNESCO recognition. There certainly was a lot of different colourful fish and species of coral, very much like ours in the Great Barrier Reef. The route is marked out with buoys and rope and all gear can be hired once on the island. There is also a restaurant serving breakfast and brunch, and take-away food and drink is also available. Umbrellas and sun lounges can be hired, even little private cabanas, but we simply spread out the towels we had brought with us, at the water’s edge.

Another opportunity for snorkelling and lounging with great food and drink, we found on Le Ponton, a floating pontoon about 10 minutes out from the Nouméa promontory, just past Île Ste.-Marie. A water taxi picked us up from the beach and returned us at the end of the day. Again, all equipment was provided and there were some buoys to indicate the best places to snorkel. Back on board we ordered some bouillabaisse for lunch which was delicious. After a little lounging in the sun with a refreshing libation, it was time to return to shore.

On another day we took a boat out to Îlot Maître, the location of the Hilton by Doubletree Resort. Day trippers are welcome to come to the island and hire water-sports equipment, but not to swim in their pools. We hired a kayak and spent some time paddling up and down on the lee side of the island and lazing on the beach. The weather had started to turn and dark clouds were looming in the distance, making it too rough on the side where the overwater bungalows were positioned. Luckily our water transport collected us to return to the main island before the rain hit. Nevertheless, it was a enjoyable way to spend the day.

Looking for something to do in the evenings apart from a restaurant or walks in the park, we discovered the Chateau Royal Resort at the southern end of Anse Vata was holding a cheese expo. The French do love their cheeses, and so do we, so it was a foregone conclusion that we would attend. The entry fee allowed us to sample as many cheeses as we liked, buffet style, balanced by several types of seafood and other delicacies. Naturally a red wine from the Médoc washed it all down. Quel repas!

The extensive bus routes allowed us to sightsee north of the city at the Parc Provincial Zoologique et Forestier – basically a bird zoo with a few other animals. Amongst the exotic aviary birds and wandering peacocks is a bird unique to the island: the Cagou. As such, it is the emblem of New Caledonia – a pale blue-grey coloured bird, with a long white crest which it raises when alarmed. Males and females look alike and pair for life. A distinguishing feature is its call – like the bark of a dog! Ironically, dogs are its main menace, for having had no predators until dogs arrived on the island, the bird has lost the ability to fly and is now in danger of extinction.

From the park we had a great view across to the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, with its unusual tall, conical, wooden pavilions, and beyond to the summit of Mont-Dore, a popular hiking location. Since the Cultural Centre is easily accessible by bus, 8km north-east of the city, this visit was next on my to do list.

The Centre is a tribute to a pro-independence Kanak leader, Jean-Mari Tjibaou who was assassinated in 1989. The Centre was designed based on the traditional Kanak huts, providing space for exhibitions, an auditorium, an open-air theatre for cultural performances, a library, studios for creative activities and a school, as well as administrative areas. Displays include sculpture, paintings and photographs representing Kanak culture, as well as other cultures from around the Pacific.

While I wandered through the Centre, Hubby took the opportunity to alight from the bus a few stops earlier to visit the Tina Golf Club to play a round. This par 72, 18 hole course combines hilly, dry forest terrain with other holes skirting mangroves and the lagoon. Hubby found the course well maintained and not too difficult, with great views of varied landscapes making the day very enjoyable.

All too soon our week came to an end and we were back on the flight back home. We had seen and experienced so much, practiced my French language skills and learned so much about this French overseas territory and its people, both French and Kanak. Maybe a Pacific cruise is now in order!

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