Notable French restaurants like to boast of the number of Michelin chefs’ hats for their rating. But at the Le Banu hotel restaurant in La Foa, New Caledonia, they point not to chefs’ hats but to caps - 4672 at last count.
Satisfied customers from all over the world left them there and they decorate the ceiling and walls of the bar area. The hotel’s French-born owner Jean Tisiot, 72, pointed to one with the name of France’s President Jacques Chirac, who dined at the hotel in 1986 when he was prime minister.
American soldiers by the thousands ate, drank and stayed at Le Banu during World War II, when New Caledonia was an American base.
Many citizens of Noumea, 110km to the southeast, sometimes like to drive to La Foa for lunch. They are joined by adventurous tourists who like to break away from the capital’s beaches, cultural centres, eateries and shops to explore rural New Caledonia.
Behind the restaurant is a two-storey hotel with nine bungalows. It’s an agreeable drive from Noumea to La Foa on Route 1, a good road with the coast visible at times on the left and rugged mountains on the right.
La Foa, with a population of about 3200, has an interesting history which is on display at Georges Guillermet Place in the centre of town.
The park, named after a prominent town leader and racehorse owner, contains 14 sculptured monuments, including one for the district’s 19th-century pioneers, and one for a colonel killed in a native Kanak insurrection in 1878.
The Kanaks, who lived in the Uarai region for thousands of years, were forced off their land after France took over in 1853 and 11 years later established a penal colony there.
Revolting against French rule, the Kanaks stormed Fort Teremba which had been built with the help of convict labour starting in 1871, at Moindu near the mouth of the La Foa river.
The uprising lasted seven months, and 1200 Kanaks died along with 200 French.
Convicts transported from France to Uarai and to the Isle of Pines, southeast of New Caledonia’s main island, endured harrowing voyages of up to seven months. Many died, and were buried at sea.
Most buildings of the fort remain today and are open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am and 4pm, with guided tours every second Sunday. I suggest you accept the reception desk’s offer of mosquito-repellent spray before you walk around the site.
A restored cell block has a display of models of convicts with recorded stories of their confinement.
Sound-and-light shows are staged at the fort in November.
Admission and a guided tour cost 300 Pacific francs, less than $5, for adults, and 100 francs, or less than $2, for children.
Tourism and farming are the main industries in the La Foa area.
For visitors there are bush and cliff walks, horse riding, quad cars, canyoning, surfing, fishing, boating, kayaking, parachuting and other activities.
Worth a visit on Route 1 is the Niaouli distillery near the town of Boulouparis, 28km northwest of Tontouta International Airport.
You can sample (and buy) the various liqueurs and fragrances between 8am-noon and 1pm-6pm daily except Sundays.
* James Shrimpton visited New Caledonia as a guest of P&O Cruises and New Caledonia Tourism (South).