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Sally Pepermans moved from France to New Caledonia 15 years ago, and she likes to say the destination’s main island, Grand Terre, looks a little like a French baguette, as it measures 220 miles long but covers just 30 to 40 miles at its widest. Pepermans now works as New Caledonia Tourism’s sales and marketing manager for New Zealand, but she still spends a great deal of her time in the South Pacific nation, returning from her most recent New Caledonia visit earlier this month.
Only a 2.5-hour flight northeast of Sydney, New Caledonia often sails under the radar for many travelers considering a South Pacific vacation, but Pepermans insists overlooking the destination is a big mistake. We asked her to tell us more about the exotic tropical paradise.
What makes New Caledonia a destination that U.S. travelers would enjoy visiting?I think it’s the best-kept secret in the South Pacific to be honest with you. Our lagoons have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2008, so I can tell you that the ecosystem is just exceptional in New Caledonia.
We don’t have massive tourism, so we don’t have pollution. And it’s still this little piece of heaven, untouched and wild, but with a kind of sophistication because it’s a piece of land in the South Pacific that belongs to the French government, so we have this mix of Melanesian and French culture.
Are snorkeling and scuba diving popular options for travelers?Absolutely. Wherever you are in New Caledonia, you can enjoy fantastic snorkeling and fantastic diving, and you will see a lot of colorful coral and lots of fish. You can also see turtles very easily, and seeing dolphins is very common in New Caledonia.
Are there other tourism activities popular among travelers? Our deep-sea fishing is terrific, and sailing and yachting is very developed. Just about everywhere you can rent a boat and go out on the lagoon.
We also have a number of well-developed land activities, such as trekking. There are lots of options throughout the country from two-hour to two-day treks. We have four golf courses, and there is a lot of horse riding. You can actually go out and gather together the cattle at a ranch, or you can go for a very nice ride in the mountains.
Additionally, we can arrange for people to do a stay in tribal accommodations [with New Caledonia’s native Kanak people], where you might spend two or three nights and learn about their everyday life.
Are there other cultural activities travelers can do to learn more about the Kanak people? We have the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre [in the capital of Noumea], which is dedicated to the Kanak and Melanesian cultures, and there you can discover Melanesian art, culture and history. But Melanesians are everywhere, and you can still find many living in tribes up north.
You can, for example, have lunch with Melanesian people and be invited to cook with them and make bougna, which is the specialty of the island. It’s made with coconut leaves, and they put a lot of potatoes, crabs and lobster in it. It’s cooked for hours in a hole dug in the ground with hot stones. So, that’s definitely something we can definitely organize for visitor tours.
Is New Caledonia cuisine a mixture of Melanesian and French food?Oh, yes. The food and wine and cheese — a lot of these products are imported from France. But we do have a lot of fresh food from the islands, and then there’s wonderful seafood, obviously. We have fantastic tuna and big prawns. Our blue prawns are known as some of the best in the world.
We also have good meat, as cattle is raised in an organic way, and then there are many tropical fruits, such as lychee. And then we have things like avocados, pineapples, and grapefruits all year long.
Do you have a favorite restaurant? Noumea offers a really big range of options, from Asian food to the gourmet French experience, such as L’Hippocampe.
Hippocampe means “sea horse” in French, and the restaurant is definitely a gourmet French experience — very high-end, and the chef is French. But he tries to mix fresh products from New Caledonia with a little bit of flavor from France. L’Hippocampe is definitely my favorite, and it’s at the Le Meridien Noumea hotel, so it’s very easy for tourists to find.
Are there some must-see destinations in New Caledonia for U.S. travelers? They have to travel to the Isle of Pines, which is known as the Jewel of the Pacific. It is one of the best places I have ever seen in my life. The trees, the sea coast, the pristine water — it’s all absolutely incredible, and you get a very warm welcome from the people. It’s a mix of wild with the very authentic, and very private with great luxury.
Do you have some favorite hotels or resorts you would suggest for visitors?They just refurbished Le Meridien on the Isle of Pines. It has 49 bungalows. None of them are overwater, but they all face the lagoon, and it’s very close to what we call the Natural Swimming Pool, which is definitely in walking distance from the resort.
There are many fish and coral kept inside by rocks there, so it’s very safe, and it’s great for snorkeling. The hotel has a great location, and the food is superb because the chef is very good. You feel like Robinson Crusoe, but with all the luxury of the Meridien brand.
Another property I like is in Ouvea, which is part of the Loyalty Islands, so you have to fly there. It’s called Hotel Paradis d’Ouvea. You have a lot of privacy there with your own bungalow facing the lagoon, and you have your own swimming pool. It’s really the best for honeymooners. If you want to have a second honeymoon — or just your first — it’s absolutely superb.
What advice would you offer U.S. travelers wondering about the best way to actually get to New Caledonia? Well, you can fly twice a week on Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Tahiti, and then on to Auckland before flying from there to Noumea, but there are many nonstops to New Caledonia from either New Zealand or Australia.
I think Americans spending time in Australia and New Zealand who want to experience a quick stop in France or a tropical region should think about also going to Noumea, which is just two and a half hours from Sydney. It’s very easy to get to, and we have many flights.
Also, I think on top of a trip to Australia or New Zealand, a visit to New Caledonia would be like heaven. You get great food, a beautiful landscape and a chance to meet and mingle with the native Kanak people. It’s not that well-known, and nowadays it’s very hard to find a little piece of land that people don’t visit often. Those who visit can be proud of making the trip before their friends.
Travelers are always trying to find new secrets, and New Caledonia is definitely a secret to share.