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