Is­land idyll a French af­fair

New Cale­do­nia is a feast for Fran­cophiles and tur­tle lovers, writes Mal Chenu.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

If you take a cruise to the South Pa­cific, there’s a good chance you’ll make port in New Cale­do­nia. And prob­a­bly more than one. Many cruise ships drop by the idyl­lic French over­seas ter­ri­tory on their oceanic laps from Aus­tralia and New Zea­land to take ad­van­tage of the lan­guid la­goons, su­perb snorkelling and fab­u­lous French-ness.

An over­seas ter­ri­tory of France, Nou­velle-Cale­donie is a Me­lane­sian ar­chi­pel­ago, dom­i­nated by the main is­land Grande Terre. It is 6000 kilo­me­tres from France but the cul­ture, lan­guage and cui­sine are very much French, with a soup­con of Kanak in­flu­ences.

Most of the shore ex­cur­sions fo­cus on the is­lands and the most beau­ti­ful is Isle of Pines (Ile des Pins) on the south­ern tip of the ar­chi­pel­ago. Isle of Pines is sur­rounded by the New Cale­do­nia Bar­rier Reef and our ex­cur­sion be­gins in Kanu­mera Bay, where we board high-pow­ered speed­boats and zoom across the la­goon to Tur­tle Bay. Be­tween iri­des­cent smiles, our guide Jerome points out a few no­table land­marks but most are par­tially hid­den by palm trees and it’s hard to look away from the im­pos­si­bly blue wa­ter. We reach Tur­tle Bay and slow to a crawl as Jerome and his mates stand and stare into the wa­ter.

Af­ter a cou­ple of min­utes Jerome dives in and fetches up a log­ger­head. His name is Star and he han­dles this in­tru­sion with ap­pro­pri­ate savoir faire. As Jerome gen­tly sup­ports him on the sur­face, he tells us Star is about 50 years old and is one of 20 tur­tles in the bay. He is used to be­ing han­dled, says Jerome, and we are in­vited in to join them in the shal­lows. Ev­ery­one gets a tur­tle selfie. The chil­dren are es­pe­cially de­lighted and hap­pily wave good­bye to Star as the placid rep­tile bids us adieu.

The speed­boats then carve their way to Brush Is­land and we spot a reef shark and a pod of dol­phins along the way. There are pine trees at one end of the is­land and from a dis­tance it looks just like a hair­brush sit­ting in the ocean. We land on a beach of such pris­tine beauty it’s hard to be­lieve the is­land is un­in­hab­ited. We snorkel, loll in the warm wa­ter and walk along the beach while avoid­ing the snakes, and make the first foot­prints of the day.

We re­turn to Kanu­mera Bay and find a bar/cafe a short so­journ up the road. A sun-drenched bal­cony hangs over yet an­other per­fect beach and cock­tails, pomme frites and swim­ming fill the bal­ance of a per­fect day. The toi­let is guarded by a for­mi­da­ble woman who is charg­ing 100 South Pa­cific Francs for admission for non­cus­tomers, s’il vous plait.

At our stop in Noumea we opt for an­other is­land ad­ven­ture, this time a trip to Amedee Is­land, or Phare Amedee if you’re start­ing to get into the lingo Franca. Fol­low­ing a bumpy 45-minute ferry ride, we are wel­comed onto the tiny is­land by a sign which pro­claims Prof­itez d’une journee in­ou­bli­able (En­joy an un­for­get­table day, ac­cord­ing to my wife’s high school French). Bien. Among the palm and banyan trees and the bird­song and breezes are a col­lec­tion of beach lounges and large um­brel­las and these are quickly staked out.

Amadee is an­other tur­tle habi­tat and we see a few on the glass-bot­tom boat tour and more when we snorkel over the sea grass and coral reef. One par­tic­u­larly friendly green tur­tle lets us tag along with him for about 20 min­utes. We swim, pad­dle­board, jump off the jetty and climb the light­house, build­ing up a healthy ap­petite. Our buf­fet lunch is a sump­tu­ous af­fair, French-themed with a trop­i­cal twist and comes with song and dance from a tal­ented bunch of lo­cals. Af­ter lunch the kids dive in for some more watery fun while the adults take to the lounges.

An­other reg­u­lar port-of-call is Mare, where the only op­tion is a bus trans­fer to Ye­jele Beach. Once the bus driv­ers fi­nally get their act to­gether, a wind­ing trip de­liv­ers us to white, grainy sand, ex­cel­lent snorkelling and lash­ings of trop­i­cal sun­shine. It gets a bit crowded as bus af­ter bus dis­gorges its pas­sen­gers but, hey, you’re on a cruise ship and used to the esprit de corps. Seclu­sion is pos­si­ble if you’re pre­pared to walk a few hun­dred me­tres. The lo­cals do a roar­ing trade from their lean-to shops lin­ing the road along the beach. It’s mostly fast food, drinks and stuff from the su­per­mar­ket but a cou­ple of stalls are knock­ing out clever leather, wood and me­tal crafts.

Some cruise ships also put in at Li­fou, a coral atoll in the Loy­alty Is­lands. Ex­cur­sions here fo­cus on the coves, lime­stone caves, grot­tos and com­pressed coral cliffs, as well as Me­lane­sian cul­tural en­coun­ters, the vanilla plan­ta­tion and, of course, more beaches. Jinek Bay Ma­rine Re­serve is so pop­u­lar num­bers are now re­stricted to pre­serve the del­i­cate ecol­ogy. – Trav­eller

The writer was a guest of Car­ni­val Cruises.


You can swim, pad­dle­board, jump off the jetty and climb the light­house on a visit to Amedee Is­land.


Great op­por­tu­ni­ties to pad­dle­board in the wa­ters off New Cale­do­nia.


New Cale­do­nia is an over­seas ter­ri­tory of France.


En­joy su­perb snorkelling off the coast of New Cale­do­nia.

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