Hidden Treasures

Part French Riviera, part tropical paradise, New Caledonia belongs on travelers’ radars

By: By Dawna L. Robertson

Where to Stay in New Caledonia

Hotel Kou Bugny, Isle of Pines

Le Meridien Isle Des Pines

Le Meridien Noumea

NC Hotels & Resorts: NC Coral Palms Island Resort, NC Casa Del Sole and NC Nouvata Park Hotel

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Scroll down for a list of places to stay in New Caledonia

When New Caledonia first blipped on my travel radar, I wasn’t exactly certain where it was. By the time I returned from this South Pacific sojourn, however, I realized I was not alone in my confusion.

For years, New Caledonians have lured international travelers — mostly Aussies, New Zealanders, French and Japanese — by touting their territory as "France in the Pacific." It is certainly that, with locals munching on croissants and lunching in sidewalk cafes.

New Caledonia is often known as “The Jewel of the Pacific.” // (c) New Caledonia Tourism
New Caledonia is often known as "The Jewel of the Pacific."

Yet, it is also softened with an exotic Pacific attitude that makes it even more appealing, especially with travelers yearning for tropical pleasures and captivating culture.

For perspective, New Caledonia is composed principally of the Isle of Pines, Loyalty Islands and a mainland that is divided into Northern and Southern provinces. The archipelago is tucked amid Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, making it a perfect fit for your clients heading to any of these more prominent destinations.

For those into diving, there’s little need to go elsewhere. The mainland is cocooned within the world’s largest lagoon, with water temperatures that range from an inviting 70 to 82 degrees.

This magnificent marine environment bursts with fluorescent corals, sea cows, starfish, sea sponges, turtles, sea urchins and even humpback whales. To tag it as an aquatic wonder is simply an understatement.

Upon arriving at La Tontouta International Airport, I hit the ground running. Prior to checking in at Le Meridien Noumea (www.lemeridien.com/noumea), I took in the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center (www.adck.nc). This move paid off in trumps since it provided me with a solid background on New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak culture and what I’d be exposed to during my adventures.

Home to a collection of art and craftwork, the museum’s distinctive "Great Houses" reflect traditional house forms of varying height and surface treatments. With a deliberately unfinished look, they are a reminder that Kanak culture is still evolving.

After a healthy dose of local insight, I headed back to the colorful capital of Noumea. In 1854, a French naval officer was so charmed by the natural port that he laid claim to the site. Since then, it has been fashioned by sailors and missionaries, governed by the French military and claimed as a U.S. Army base during World War II.

Today, this peninsula city evokes a distinctive European feel with its colonial buildings, town square, gardens, markets, designer boutiques and French cafes. For handy sightseeing, a small train makes a scenic circuit with stops at key sites between the city center and the main tourist area of Anse Vata in downtown Noumea.

Tight on time but determined to explore the Southern Province’s interior landscapes, I opted for a highly recommended Caledonia Tours (caledoniatours@lagoon.nc) excursion to the vast Blue River Park.

Our guide, Francois Tran, was perhaps the most well-versed naturalist I have ever encountered. While I could have rented a car to venture through the 22,350-acre nature preserve on my own, I would have missed so much of the magic that could only be shared by a native. And I would have never spotted the elusive kagu, an endangered flightless bird coveted by the locals.

Missing out on the Northern Province or Loyalty Islands, I opted instead for a day trip to the Isle of Pines. This sliver of heaven that measures a mere 5½ miles wide and 11 miles long proves, once again, that good things come in small packages. Etched with towering Araucaria pines, aquamarine lagoons and powdery white-sand beaches, this beauty definitely lives up to its moniker "The Jewel of the Pacific."

Here, I finally basked in the warm-water world surrounding this remote destination. After an island tour, I sailed on a traditional Melanesian pirogue (outrigger), kayaked and snorkeled in a natural swimming pool at Oro Bay. The Isle of Pines is one of those dreamy places you never want to leave. The only consolation is in knowing you can return.