A holiday spiced with French flair is something most of us only ever daydream of experiencing. Unlike the British, we New Zealanders can't just pop across to Paris for the weekend. And walking home from Pak'nSave with a bottle of Bordeaux and a baguette under your arm is more Wally than worldly.
The experience, my family and I agreed, would have to be sought at a destination closer than Paris but further than Mt Albert. Nouvelle Caledonie it was to be, then.
New Caledonia is ridiculously close - flying Aircalin from Auckland, the four of us arrived in less than three hours, barely enough time to get to grips with such essential phrases as "une biere", "le vin rouge" and "J'ai soif"(I'm thirsty).
As a holiday destination, it offers the advantage of fares a family can afford - return flights for two winter-weary adults and two children cost $1506, plus taxes. And there was the very real attraction of heading for a Pacific island - "Kids, pack your snorkels, next stop is the world's largest lagoon".
The reef around New Caledonia's Grande Terre (main island) is more than 1600km in circumference and varies in width from 200m to 1km. Beyond the reef, the Pacific Ocean drops to 1000m; inside, this massive lagoon averages 25m in depth. This is one of the world's premiere water playgrounds and includes a marine park protecting thousands of species of reef fish. As your plane descends, the view of vast stretches of turquoise water surrounding the deep green interior of a long, thin land of mountains and tropical valleys is something to behold. Photographs can't truly capture this kind of beauty.
I wondered why, like most New Zealanders, I'd never previously considered a short holiday in such an exotic setting so close to home. (Do we really prefer The Gold Coast?) So here's a few of the reasons why New Caledonia deserves to be near the top of any Kiwi family's holiday hotlist.
Let's get this clear - New Caledonia is not a banana republic where you can feed yourself three times a day for $10. But neither is it the rip-off some would have you believe. The French protectorate enjoys a good level of prosperity off the back of an economy based on nickel extraction, so expect to pay at least what you would in Auckland when dining out in Noumea.
The good news is, you get what you pay for - there are excellent restaurants in this French-flavoured gastronomic capital of the Pacific. In addition, this is one Pacific nation where services such as buses and taxis are modern and reliable and where well-stocked supermarkets exist.
With hungry kids demanding to be fed, and our accommodation including a kitchen, the Super U supermarket was our food destination of choice. As elsewhere in New Caledonia, the staff either excused my limited French with a smile, spoke English themselves, or we all resorted to pointing. Be prepared to drool at the vast array of fine food on offer. The cheeses, breads, meats, vegetables and wine were all the proof any visitor needs that this is indeed a far-flung island of French culture. With my backpack stuffed with supplies, including a wedge of French brie, pasta, Parma ham and fresh vegetables, I strolled home with a bottle of Bordeaux under one arm and a baguette under the other. And no one called me Wally. Well, not that I could understand.
When dining out at good restaurants such as Le Miretti Gascon (French cuisine) or May Flowers (Chinese), both in Noumea's main accommodation area, Anse Vata Bay, meals start at around 1200 Pacific francs (CFP), around NZ$20. A burger at a beachside cafe such as Le Fare will set you back CFP460 ($7.90). If you want to really keep costs down, bring your own duty-free drinks and forage for food at the daily markets.
TJIBAOU ARTS AND CULTURAL CENTRE
Tjibaou Cultural Centre should top your list of must-sees in Noumea. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, who was also responsible for Japan's Kensai Airport and the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Tjibaou centre (named after Kanak revivalist leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou) has a lightness of touch which can't fail to impress. A "memory of a hut" is how Piano described this exceptional project, and the high-reaching exposed bones of the 10 spectacular sail-shaped houses do evoke the look of a Kanak hut still under construction. This reflects the indigenous Kanak world view that "doing" or "constructing" is just as important as the final result. Opened eight years ago, the Tjibaou Centre is a direct descendent of the sometimes violent troubles which blighted New Caledonia, taking it to the brink of civil war in 1984.
Pro-independence Kanaks and anti-independence Caldoche (of European origin) signed the Matignon Accords in 1988, which recognised the legitimacy of the Kanak people's aspirations. The accords established the Agence de Developpement de la Culture Kanak to champion Kanak culture and establish and run the cultural centre.
Inside, there is a wealth of traditional and contemporary art from the Kanak homelands of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, photo exhibitions, performing arts, Kanak huts and displays from all the major cultures of the Pacific, including the carved pole Poutokomanawa by Lionel Grant of Rotorua. Take the Kanak Path, a guided walk around the exterior of the centre which uses tribal actors to explain the very close contact between the Kanak and nature, particularly the plants of the rainforest. Set aside at least half a day to explore one of the South Pacific's top cultural experiences.
With less than a week, we confined ourselves to exploring Noumea and its offshore islands. This is a place best experienced in a relaxed frame of mind, so the biggest events of the day might be a simple afternoon swim at Baie des Citroen (golden sand, warm water, but watch out for the leathered old French guys parading around in budgie-smugglers), followed by a stroll around the lanes of bougainvillea-draped villas in the hills behind Orphelinat Bay. From here you get a great perspective of Noumea's layout around seven valleys, and views out to sea and into the mountainous interior. A beachside sundowner of wine and nibbles of French bread and cheese is highly recommended. As the sun sets, you'll see groups of locals playing boules while puffing on Gallic quantities of tobacco. If you've got kids, it won't be long before they're running around yelling "Bonsoir", revelling in their new-found Frenchiness.
Anse Vata Bay offers some of the world's best windsurfing, so grab a board from a beachside rental and scream out to Duck Island (Ile aux Canards), a few hundred metres offshore, if that's your thing. There are also regular boat trips to the island, where you can swim and take a unique underwater walk around the coral.
For the more sedate, there's Le Petit Train, the tourist train which trundles around the city with stops at Coconut Square (look out for the Celestial Fountain built in 1893), the impressive hilltop cathedral, and the Botanical Gardens. It's worth exploring the shops, cafes and beautiful old buildings around both the Quartier Latin and Faubourg Blanchot neighbourhood.
The Museum of New Caledonia on Avenue Marechal Foch is also worthy of a visit, as it has a floor dedicated to Kanak culture, including some downright scary ceremonial masks.
The jewel in the crown of Noumea's offshore islands is Amedee Lighthouse, a one-hour boat trip from Port Moselle on the launch Mary D.
The majestic white lighthouse, which towers 56m over tiny Amedee Island, was designed and built in Paris and looked over the French capital for two years until completion in 1862. It was then disassembled into 1265 pieces and shipped to New Caledonia, where it took 10 months to erect as a guide to the Boulari channel through the reef. The lighthouse lantern was lit on November 15, 1865. It's worth the dizzying climb of 247 steps for the breathtaking view of the reef and Pacific Ocean from this exceptional example of 19th century engineering and design.
Because of its location on the coral reef, Amedee can be up to 10 degrees warmer than Noumea. It is surrounded by marine reserve, so the snorkling and glass-bottom boat tours here are second-to-none. Day tickets include the return boat trip, glass-bottom boat tour and a buffet lunch including drinks and cultural show.
Noumea's daily market, next to busy Port Moselle near the town centre, is not to be missed. We were frequent visitors, to experience the colour and action of locals buying and selling food, but also to cut costs for ourselves. This thriving market begins while you're still sleeping off last night's vin rouge and runs until midday. Go there for delicious fruit, including papaya, watermelon and pineapple; a bewildering array of vegetables; fresh seafood such as kahon (tuna) and prawns; bread; and cheap souvenirs. To get there from Anse Vata, take the No 1 bus (CFP200 adults, CFP100 children) opposite the beach on Rue Laroque. The bus ride alone is worth the money.
Every Thursday there is a night market with a different theme at Coconut Square. It's a fun way to mix with the locals.
We visited on the Father's Day-themed market, which seemed to attract anyone in town who had a motorbike to show off or hunting knife to sell, and the live music, food stalls and crafts provided plenty of entertainment and food for the night.
An array of new hotels and apartments have sprung up in Noumea. We stayed at the Ramada Plaza, near the water at Anse Vata Bay and offering suites with kitchen and laundry, so we could fend for ourselves.
Opened in November last year, the Ramada Plaza has been brave enough to go with a strongly Melanesian theme for its decor and has spacious rooms, a pool and (if you feel like a splurge), a fancy revolving restaurant.
Noumea does not have much in the way of mid-range accommodation, but there is increasing competition at the better end of the market, so shop around for a deal.
In addition to watersports, adventure activities such as tramping, camping, sky-diving, mountain biking and quad biking are well-established in New Caledonia - we just ran out of time to give them a go.
Which seems to me like the perfect excuse to go back.
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there: Aircalin offers Auckland-Noumea flights Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and has a special adult return fare of $430, child $323 (plus taxes of $178 pp). Fares sale ends August 12. www.aircalin.com
New Caledonia Tourism: Go to www.newcaledonia.co.nz
Tjibaou Cultural Centre: Rue des accords des Matignon. Entrance CFP 500 ($8.50). www.adck.nc
Museum of New Caledonia: Avenue Marechal Foch. Entrance CFP200 ($3.40).
Daily market: Port Moselle until midday. Take the No 1 bus.
Amedee Lighthouse day trip: Adults CFP12,120 ($205) children CFP7020 ($119). Book at your hotel or email email@example.com www.amedee.ws
Ramada Plaza Hotel: Rooms start at NZ$288 a night, but cheaper package deals including flights are available through NZ travel agents. www.ramadaplaza-noumea.nc