Ex­quis­ite Loy­alty

Time slows­down­for LIZ LIGHT on Li­fou in the Loy­alty Is­lands, part of the French ter­ri­tory ofnew­cale­do­nia.

The Press - Escape - - 6 ESCAPE -

Af­ter busy Noumea, step­ping off the plane at Li­fou is pleas­antly laid-back. The peo­ple all wear flip-flops, the women have bright, flo­ral neck-to­calf-to-el­bow mis­sion­ary dresses and hens with chicks con­fi­dently stroll around the air­port car park.

Our hired car is a lit­tle white Re­nault van but my hus­band, Sam, is re­lieved of driv­ing du­ties as we have a guide for the first of our three days in Li­fou. Paulette sets a se­date pace and doesn’t try any­thing as racy as fifth gear as we trun­dle the 76-kilo­me­tre length of the is­land.

Li­fou is mostly flat, the roads of­ten straight and an on­com­ing car is rare enough to wave at.

We pass vil­lages strag­gling around a church. Some have a pri­mary school, play­ing field and a store. The churches are stone and old, and are, along with the much-loved cover-all dresses that the women wear, and a pas­sion for cricket, part of the im­print of the Lon­don Mis­sion­ary So­ci­ety whose mis­sion­ar­ies ar­rived in 1840 to spread the gospel.

Hi­bis­cus hedges line the road and vil­lage gar­dens are enor­mous. Trim lawn is dot­ted with co­conut trees, fra­grant frangi­pani and daz­zling ole­an­der. Large veg­etable patches are lush with yams, cas­sava, sweet pota­toes, paw­paw, ba­nanas, av­o­cado and cit­rus.

Each prop­erty has a case, the tra­di­tional, con­i­cal, wood and straw houses that Kanaks have lived in for cen­turies, and many also have a west­ern-style cot­tage. Paulette ex­plains that a case is the first house a cou­ple has when they get mar­ried. They cost noth­ing to build as the bush pro­vides the ma­te­ri­als and ex­tended fam­ily get to­gether to con­struct them.

Paulette tells us that 10,000, or so, peo­ple be­long to Li­fou, but 5000 live here – the rest are out of the is­land for work or ed­u­ca­tion. Three district king­doms each have a high chief, and the 135 vil­lages each have a lit­tle chief. The chiefs have many roles: leader, po­lice­man, coun­cil­lor and me­di­a­tor. There are also a few gen­darmes – ‘‘real po­lice­men’’ – in the main town, We.

We strad­dles the point where the three king­doms meet. It’s big­ger than a vil­lage, with too many cars to wave at, a cou­ple of su­per­mar­kets, two churches, the district high school, ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre and port.

With baguettes and sand­wich­mak­ings we pic­nic un­der trees next to We’s trump card: a per­fect beach. It’s a three-kilo­me­tre half­cir­cle of fine white co­ral sand with co­conut palms and green­ish blue, per­fectly clear, sun­shine-filled sea. I want to swim, sleep in the sun, then swim again.

In­stead, as there’s only an af­ter­noon of Paulette left, we get back into the van and am­ble to­wards the south­ern end of the is­land. The road is close to the coast and there are tan­ta­lis­ing glimpses of sea through trees and, at the end, we peer down cliffs to the co­ral-filled ocean be­low.

The next stop is in the west. The 1898 chapel of Notre Dame de Lour­des is on the tip of Easo Penin­sula and has a sil­ver statue of the Vir­gin Mary stand­ing on the roof look­ing out to sea.

The ex­te­rior is French in am­bi­ence, but the pink and blue in­te­rior and abun­dance of bright plas­tic and real flow­ers, is pure Loy­alty.

Paulette leaves us, and Sam drives the van in the Li­fou man­ner: slowly, with his left hand rest­ing on the steer­ing wheel, al­ways ready for a low-key fin­gersspread wave.

The Drehu Vil­lage Ho­tel is beach­side in the mid­dle of We, and soon af­ter check­ing in I’m in the sea that has been teas­ing me all day. It’s divine.

In favour of thrift we forgo a meal at the ho­tel and head for the port, to the only restau­rant open this Satur­day night.

Thai Siam has faded Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, fans black with time and grime, pic­tures of pup­pies on the wall and an old fluffy dog shuf­fles be­tween rest­ing po­si­tions on the floor. It’s run by a po­lite, el­derly In­dochi­nese gen­tle­man, of French eth­nic­ity, who was forced to leave Saigon dur­ing the 60s, and his smil­ing, also el­derly, Thai wife.

There’s a ta­ble of seadogs drink­ing beer and telling yarns out­side; young, dread­locked men of mixed eth­nic­ity drink beer in­side and Kanak fam­i­lies dressed in their best en­joy steak and chips. The am­bi­ence is pure Som­er­set Maugham and the sweet and sour prawns are the world’s best.

On Sun­day, af­ter laz­ing away the morn­ing while ev­ery­one else is in church, we drive north to Jonkin to visit Chez Felix, the gar­den Felix and Jea­nine Bole have been cre­at­ing since 1978. In this beau­ti­fully groomed jun­gle a tree canopy fil­ters harsh sun turn­ing the air chloro­phyll green and prisms of light shine on palms, ferns, or­chids and dan­gling creep­ers. Walk­ing through the gar­den is an Ede­nesque ex­pe­ri­ence.

Jea­nine is in a glade, mak­ing us vanilla cof­fee, in an open-air din­ing room. The table­cloth is a flo­ral print, there are flow­ers in a vase and she is wear­ing a flo­ral, green dress. She tells us that the pods on most of the vines are vanilla pods which they grow com­mer­cially.

We snorkel in a marine re­serve be­low the Vir­gin Mary at Easo.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.