New Caledonia: The French connection

By Rebecca Milne

There's just one down-side to a holiday in Noumea - arriving home 2kg heavier.

A girl doesn't need much persuading to go nuts on the French-flavoured delicacies found in the New Caledonian capital. The cheese, wine and freshly-baked croissants, baguettes and patisseries are mouth-watering, as is the espresso, tropical fruit and freshly-caught seafood.

New Caledonia, or Kanaky as the Melanesian locals call it, lies between the Queensland coast of Australia and Vanuatu. Captain Cook discovered the main island, Grande Terre, in 1774, and since then, thanks to French colonisation in the 1850s, it has become a sophisticated blend of cosmopolitan Europe and South Pacific tropicana.

It is the third largest island in the Pacific region, surrounded by the world's largest lagoon and second largest coral reef.

New Caledonia caters for those who want to lose themselves on a quiet tropical island, as well as families with kids to keep busy, or heritage junkies wanting to experience the 1000-year-old Kanak culture. And while it has a reputation as an expensive destination, there are still plenty of sights, places to stay and experiences that won't burn a hole in your pocket.

The La Promenade apartments, located ten minutes from the city centre and right across the road from the famous Anse Vata beach, are a great accommodation option for families.

As well as the amazing view there's also a self-contained kitchen, and cooking for yourself now and then is a great way to the beat the expense of eating out at every meal. The local markets and supermarkets, filled with seafood, fresh produce and French culinary staples, are just a short walk away.

If money is less of an issue, Le Meridien Noumea, on the tip of Pointe Magnin, is a good spot to luxuriate. The beach-side bar looks out over Anse Vata Bay and cocktail party venue Duck Island. And if you get really carried away with the beauty and romance of it all, there's even a wedding dress shop inside the hotel.

Just a 10-minute stroll away from Le Meridian lies the postcard-perfect Baie des Citrons, where you can join the throngs sunbathing or swimming, or stop for a bite to eat in one of the many funky eateries.

But should you feel the need to drag yourself away from the water and out of the sun, there are other things in Noumea to keep you occupied.

The best place to find out a more about the native Kanak people is the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre where you'll find everything from exhibitions and performances to cooking workshops and guided tours. The Museum of New Caledonia, filled with ancient Melanesian sculptures, and archeological treasures such as pottery, jewellery and weapons of times past, is also worth a visit.

And, if snorkelling is not your thing you can still appreciate the vibrant local tropical sealife at the impressive Aquarium de Lagons.

Once you've had your fill of the many attractions of Noumea and Grande Terre, you should not leave New Caledonia without a visit to the Isle of Pines. It can be reached via a three-hour catamaran ride across the water, but I recommend you try the spectacular 20-minute Air Caledonie flight over the coral reefs. Seeing the reefs from the air is hard to beat.

The tiny isle, just 14km wide and 18km long, is covered with soaring Araucaria pines and white beaches.

It has accommodation to suit all budgets and it can be explored via canoe, glass-bottom boat, yacht or bicycle.

Rebecca Milne travelled to New Caledonia courtesy of New Caledonia Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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