Noumea, ca c'est bon!

By Lindy Laird

It was our first day in New Caledonia and we'd already come a cropper because of champagne.

It looked like we'd have to abandon Plan No1: bottomless French bubbles. A glass had cost us the equivalent of $40 each at our hotel bar when we'd arrived the night before. And we were on a budget holiday package.

On day one we also learned not to expect cute Parisian-style cafes around every corner in Noumea. That cast a shadow over Plan No2: feasting on Pasifika-flavoured French fare morning, noon and night. Before breakfast, and via the reliable, entertaining No1 bus, we headed into the town centre to experience Noumea's morning markets. We expected a scrum of buyers and sellers, stalls heaving with fresh produce, piles of pawpaw and pineapples, great fists of bananas, oceans of seafood, bins of vegetables freshly tugged from the good earth only hours earlier. We were on the hunt for fresh, juicy, sexy food.

Instead, we found the market's large, cone-roofed pavilions nearly empty already. We did see a pawpaw (yes, only one), cartons of tiny, unripe Dole pineapples, limp bananas from the Philippines, apples from New Zealand, and locally grown, flaccid, warty, root vegetables. Decidedly unsexy.

A slab of pulsing fish of a type we didn't recognise and a bucket of crabs didn't do it for us either.

Nonplussed, we headed for another promised land, the proverbial pavement cafe with its pains au chocolat, croissants, baguettes ... which was how we came to walk most of Noumea's central city blocks on our first morning there.

Apparently, we had started in the wrong place - in the delightfully shabby, colourful, unhurried, personable, palm-fringed, low end of the Pacific frontier town. It was seething with hole-in-the-wall fast-food joints, their streetfront warming cabinets full of deep-fried bread rolls stuffed with potato chips and other unappealing oddities.

The good-humoured day sped on - as much as anything in hot, slow-paced Noumea speeds. We stumbled through numerous ... umm ... conversations using our parle Francais gleaned 40 years earlier in New Zealand schools.

In our newly invented language, we shared many a laughing exchange with friendly Kanaks. By midday, we had found the slightly more polished Latin Quarter - all two or three streets of it - and settled in a leafy courtyard for an expensive green salad (my friend) and an expensive toasted sandwich (moi). A shade apart in style and setting from downtown's relaxed, tree-rich central park, gorgeous little kids and smiling women in bright, loose-fitting Mother Hubbard frocks, uptown seemed tres same-climate; different-culture.

Uptown were Pacific colonial-chic shop, insurance companies, banks, business houses, French clothing boutiques, pearl stores, austere and dark-doored clubs and bars. This was Pacifique a la France, where elegant French women asked if we were from "the sheep". (The city-sized Sea Princess making a quick stopover in Noumea. We had seen its super-structure at the end of a long city street and at first thought it was a highrise, boat-ish apartment block blocking the harbour view.)

Lunched and watered, we headed back downtown on Plan No3. Actioning it consisted of another round of cross-cultural, largely fruitless exchanges, based on our appalling renditions of "excusez moi, ou est la supermarche?"

One woman told us she didn't speak English. English? We were speaking French, we thought.

Eventually, someone pointed us in the direction of this oasis and after a few minutes' walk we triumphantly strode into the supermarket's air-conditioned comfort. We filled our shopping cart - and subsequently our hotel room's tiny fridge - with baguettes, French cheese made from unpasteurised milk, preservative-free pate and old-fashioned tasty tomatoes.

And, voila! Here, too, were rows and rows of champagne ... at supermarche prices. We stocked up on supplies.

Despite the morning's downtown-uptown quest for the early markets then brunch, on that first night - and every night we were in Noumea - we dined richly in restaurants where locals also ate, where the staff were charming, where we ate exceptional meals for which we happily paid outlandish prices. We savoured each day's catches of parrotfish, tuna, fat pink crevettes (prawns), shied away from the ubiquitous Kiwi beef and lamb, refreshed our palates with crisp salads and tangy sorbets.

Very early on we decided oh-what-the-hell and ordered Taittinger, Laurent Perrier, Charles Heidsieck...

For the rest of our week in charming, slightly scruffy, luscious Noumea, we smugly congratulated ourselves on being there and cheerfully toasted our jolly good decision not to give up Plan No1.

- The Aucklander

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