Quel good clean fun

By Alan Perrott

No offence to New Caledonia, but it's likely most New Zealanders landing at Tontouta Airport climb out of their seats with a faint air of disappointment.

It's not that the welcome blast of just-the-right-side-of-tropical heat and postcard palm trees is anything less than perfect, it's just that the flight from New Zealand is about 10 to 15 minutes shorter than your stock standard Hollywood flick.

No doubt Tom Cruise eventually saves the world for Scientologists everywhere by the end of Mission Impossible 3, but the filmus interruptus rather clouded those vital first impressions.

For what they're worth, my notes claim there was considerable queuing, bonjour-ing, anticipation of sun and shorts, and satisfaction over the impressive girth of my wallet.

My paltry $300 had been swapped for 17,000 Pacific francs. I've never had 17,000 anythings in my wallet before and briefly considered lighting one up in true Daddy Warbucks style. Now, where's them casinos at?

Fortunately for the balance of payments our planned mission didn't involve splashing out on the tables.

This would be four days of action - none of your namby pamby lounging on the beaches looking at the peaches.

Oh no, we were committed to a beach-free sweaty adventure. Tom Cruise would have quaked in his elevator shoes.

What? You don't think of New Caledonia as an adventurous destination? Have we got scary news for you.

In fact the adventure began immediately after securing our dapper wee hired Citroen, when we had to swap seats after the driver found his side strangely lacking in steering wheels. Then we set off to the adventure-laden northern reaches.

First stop, the charming Paillottes de la Ouenghi golf course in Boulouparis, about 30 minutes from the airport. Judging from the exterior party lights, mirror ball over the bar and hefty sound system it's not one of your more staid golf clubs.

The accommodation area was laden with happy Gauls, a pool and a fine line in seafood.

My colleague opted for a biggie-sized crab for 1900PF ($32) while I went for the garlic prawns (1800PF).

For a bit more adventure, Dimo, the jolly owner, recommended the profiteroles (500PF) - a mountainous arrangement of pastry, ice cream and whipped cream.

We then waddled on to the course - adventure quotient courtesy of a pig lurking in the bush - and excavated our way through three holes. Not sure about the balls, but divots flew straight and true.

Then we headed for the brand new Evasion Hotel in Sarramea.

There's still work to be done on the hotel, but it enjoys a prime spot at the base of bushy hills with a babbling brook doing its thing alongside.

Our humble rooms were in upmarket backpacker mode with bed, telly and spacious bathroom. She'll do.

The big money has gone into the hotel's restaurant and pool area, a stylish common space. She'll more than do.

Our meal - assorted Gallic delicacies selected by our urbane host, Christof - came to 11,710PF, eek, but any concerns disappeared in a haze of cigar smoke (2500PF) and red wine as we perched in flash leather chairs and tended the fire. We don't smoke, but we could, so we did.

The prospect of some sun the next morning lured us over the road to Sarramea Randonnees for an adventurous horsey ride up yonder lofty crag, a journey punctuated by the chatter and chainsmoking of Gil - "I think to you it is a girl's name?" - the Valencian co-owner, world-weary jockey and chaser of local maidens.

After an hour or so of clip-clopping up a hill, we were checking out a splendidly panoramic vista. A cool, yet hot, way to experience the local environs (4000PF-5000PF).

Then it was off to the even more isolated le Refuge de Farino for a spot of quad biking. Our instructor, Laurent Hennebelle, bounded over exuding an Allo Allo accent and blood'n'guts enthusiasm, and after a quick test it was straight up an apparently vertical, boulder-strewn almost-track. Aaargh.

Having never ridden a quad bike, I spasmed up the cliff with an eye-popping death grip that seemed destined to end in a spectacular demise.

Reaching the top was celebrated with a quick limb count and confirmation I hadn't soiled my underclothing before we were off again.

Three hours of over, around and through rocks, streams, trees, crevasses and each other, broken only by another brief stop to sample the local fruits, endure a few heckles and recheck the undergarments. Finally, almost home, a gentle left turn ended in a face full of branch and a wee flesh wound to show off to the ladies.

An hour or so later and we finally dragged our sorry asses around the faded glories of Noumea, a nicely rundown slice of ersatz France: flags, singsong accents, garlic and croissants everywhere.

After umpteen wrong turns we stumbled across the Ramada Hotel, best in town, according to locals. Next morning we took a ride on le Petit Train, a bright purple wagon dragging waving tourists around a dead slow tiki tour of the city.

The afternoon was spent at the impressive Tjibaou Cultural Centre, an avant-garde, multimillion-franc tribute to the Kanak people.

Adventurous only in architectural terms, but it's a touristy must-see.

All pretence at adventure was abandoned for our last day, with a sightseeing flight to Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines), a right purdy island off New Caledonia's eastern tip.

Not only chocka des pins, the isle also has more than its fair share des stinkbomb trees, des beaches and des mangy dogs. It once boasted plenty des resorts as well, but Kanak unhappiness with the increasing commercialisation was eventually solved by a series des arsons which thinned out the hotel numbers.

Now, there's no argument New Caledonia is a fine-looking destination, but it took a visit to the Government-run Oure Lodge Hotel for our jaws to finally drop.

Gobsmacking doesn't come close to describing that beach. Even so we refused to succumb to its sandy pleasures and zoomed off to go oo-ahh over the clearly popular Oro natural pool on the north eastern coast. Finally, with a spare 20 minutes before our return flight, the lure of the sifted flour they consider sand became too much.

Then waddaya know, a bloody great rain cloud comes from nowhere and blots out the sun for the first time since we'd arrived.

So, that was New Caledonia. Beautiful, gaudy, tasty, surprisingly adventurous and expensive with a underlying love/hate relationship toward the local Kanak. A real live taste of France off our port bow.

But the best summation came from our favourite drinking buddy and All Black critic, the local Singer dealer Jean-Loup Mouledous.

"For certain, there's lots of things to see, lots of places to go, but all these things, they are insignificant. It's about the people. It's always about the people. Oui?"

Checklist

Getting there

Air New Zealand/Aircalin operates four flights a week from Auckland to Tontouta Airport. Return fares from $550.

Where to stay

Evasion Hotel offers a secluded, nature-packed vibe, and its phone number is (00687)44 55 77.

The Ramada Plaza in Noumea is on the web (see link below).

For details of Oure Lodge or the five-star Le Meridian Ile des Pins see website links below.

Things to do

For a round of golf (and a meal) try Les Paillottes de la Ouenghi, phone (00687) 35 17 35.

To find out about horse trekking with Sarramea Randonnees ring (00687) 76 60 45 or see website link below.

Quadbiking (6300PF an hour) in the rainforests of La Foa is via web link or ring (00 687) 44 37 61.

For information on the Tjibaou Cultural Centre visit link below.

Further information

Check out the New Caledonian tourist bureau's website (see link below).

* Alan Perrott and Greg Bowker travelled as guests of Tourism New Caledonia.

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