New Caledonia little Paris of the South Pacific

By Liz Dobson

Dreaming of romantic France for a getaway with your beloved, but the most you can afford is a bottle of Paris perfume? Don't panic, the answer is New Caledonia, just two-and-a-half hours from Auckland.

The capital of New Caledonia, Noumea, is nicknamed the Paris of the Pacific due to its cosmopolitan atmosphere, chic boutiques and restaurants serving French cuisine. You'll find more varieties of brie and camembert than you can poke a baguette at, everyone seems to drive a French car, and sundown mean boules on the beach.

New Caledonia is gaining popularity due to its proximity to New Zealand, amazing deals and pristine waters in the world's largest lagoon.

Noumea lies on a peninsula at the island's southern tip, sandwiched between low hills and a protected deep water harbour. Founded in 1854, Noumea remains dominated by French language and culture. Tourists come here to visit the city's many beaches, and to windsurf and sail. Between the two main tourism areas of the town, Ansa Vata Beach and Baie des Citron, a cigar-shaped peninsula juts out.

New Caledonia makes an ideal couple's getaway, with abundant activities. You can be an action man (or woman) and take your pick of water sports, including surfing and kite surfing, plus mountain biking, horse riding, camping and hiking tracks in the beautiful north.

If you want to relax, you can have a cheaper, laid-back holiday by checking out the local markets, buying brie, a baguette, a bottle of French wine and heading to the nearest beach.

Here's a fun way to replace a pricey Paris holiday with New Caledonia.

Instead of the Chateau de Versailles... Visit New Caledonia's own chateau, the Hagen Castle, in the heart of the Settlers Valley. This fine colonial-style property once belonged to a wealthy settler family. It has been restored by the Southern Province and is now open to the public for exhibitions. Instead of the Louvre... Try the Museum of New Caledonia, one of the best museums in the South Pacific, with the first floor housing a comprehensive array of Kanak (the indigenous people) artefacts, complete with intact traditional houses and boats. The second floor has collections from the wider South Pacific region. It's a great place to spend a few hours exploring or walking around to work up at appetite.

Instead of the Eiffel Tower... Take a boat to Amedee Lighthouse, found on a small island, an hour from Noumea. The lighthouse on Amedee Island was constructed in Paris in 1862 and first lit in 1865. After climbing the 247 steps inside the lighthouse, you have amazing views over the lagoon. You can get to Amedee lighthouse with the tour boat Mary D, and the trip includes lunch, wine, a glass-bottom boat tour and snorkeling, plus free boules on the island. Instead of the Seine... Take a stroll along the Pierre Vernier walk, fringed with coconut trees, at St Marie bay. This is a popular meeting point in Noumea for a family walk or a mountain bike ride with friends. The sailing school, which hosted the AOM windsurfing world championship in 1999, is halfway down. Instead of the Latin Quarter... Go to the Place des Cocotiers, a popular gathering place in the heart of the city. Four areas have been designed to provide a soothing environment for city dwellers. The oldest area, the Place Feuillet, has been landscaped around an authentic old time music kiosk. Then there's the Place Courbet and its monumental Celeste fountain, the Place de la Marne with its open market and live entertainment, and Olry Square, where sitting at a cafe terrace overlooking a refreshing ornamental lake is a real pleasure.

If you are after local produce, head to the Noumea Market, held daily at the Baie de la Moselle, a few minutes out of the city centre. You can buy fresh vegetables and local fruit, plus a range of fresh fish and shellfish, from the covered stalls.

Instead of Saint-Germain-des-Pres... Dine at Baie des Citrons, the location of many hotels. One of the oldest French restaurants in New Caledonia is Le Miretti-Gascon. Opened in 1970, this restaurant has such classic dishes as foie gras and duck, plus a seafood platter, for about NZ$70.

Reservations are a must, so get the reception at your hotel to book if your French is non-existent. L'Absinthe is a fabulous restaurant on the beachfront at Baie des Citrons. As the name suggests, it specialises in that fabulously lethal drink absinthe.

The cuisine is international and includes vegetarian options, but the food is pricey. For a cheaper option, try Chez Alban, where many locals eat. Grab a pizza and a bottle of wine or sample more traditional food. Instead of Notre Dame Cathedral... Visit gorgeous St Joseph's Cathedral, a tranquil retreat with stunning views over Noumea.

Built by convict labourers in 1888 the cathedral has beautiful stained-glass windows. It sits high on a hill overlooking the city, and it can be reached by walking, catching a bus or taking a taxi.

Need To Know

* Two for one deal

There is a great two-for-one deal currently being run by New Caledonia Tourism South. Pay $1299 and you get four nights' accommodation in Noumea, return airfares and transfers for two people - that means one person flies and stays for free. Go to www.2for1.co.nz or contact your travel agent.

* Getting there

Air Calin flies to Noumea from Auckland every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. www.aircalin.co.nz

* Amedee Lighthouse

For more information, go to www.amedee.ws. It's advisable to book online if you are going in peak season (our summer).

* Museum of New Caledonia

On the corner of Avenue Marchal Foch and Rue Eugene-Porcheron in the city centre, it is open from 9-11.30am and 12.15-4.30pm daily except Tuesdays and public holidays. Cost: $3 adults.

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