Lifou: Dropping in on paradise

By Donna Fleming

I'm watching a small boy as he crouches under a stall in Lifou's covered market and wondering what the world looks like through his eyes. This morning a gigantic cruise ship anchored in nearby Santal Bay and now hordes of noisy strangers laden down with cameras and bags stuffed full of towels, snorkels and flippers have invaded the quiet island he calls home.

Many of the visitors - and there are hundreds of them - have headed straight for the beach next to the wharf and are splashing about in the water or sunning themselves on the sand. Others, me included, have walked 50m or so to the village of Easo, where they are getting their hair braided or their shoulders massaged by his fellow villagers; or else they are wandering through the large open-sided shed that houses the market, fingering shell necklaces and brightly-coloured sarongs. Some are buying skewered meat cooked island-style; others have gone straight to a portable cart and are devouring Magnum icecreams.

This boy, who is probably about four or five, is watching them, wide-eyed, from the safety of his spot under a trestle table. The foreigners, especially the children, appear to fascinate him, but he's less interested in what else is going on. When a group of village women perform a traditional dance for the tourists, he yawns. Later, when New Caledonian pop music blares out of loud speakers in the market building, he jams his fingers in his ears and pulls a face.

What must he make of all of this? The invasion of cruise ship passengers is a relatively new thing for Lifou, one of three islands that make up the Loyalty Islands, which are a part of New Caledonia. Foreigners have been coming to New Caledonia for many years and while some - mostly French - visitors have made the journey across to Lifou, tourism on this kind of scale is a whole new ballgame.

Being overrun by nearly 2000 people in one day must be pretty daunting for some of the people of Lifou but from what I can see, most, unlike the young boy, appear to take it in their stride.

Their welcome seems genuine and they are gracious and friendly. One local tells me, "The tourists are good for Lifou."

I have to admit I'd never heard of Lifou until I learned it was one of the places I'd be visiting during my cruise on P&O's Pacific Sun. It is our second port of call during a seven-day trip from Brisbane, and when the ship drops anchor in Santal Bay it seems most of the 1950 passengers on board have gathered on the back decks to photograph the scenic view. Lifou has everything a tropical island should have: sparkling azure waters, white sand beaches and glimpses of thatched roofs among the palm trees and other lush vegetation.

We are efficiently tendered ashore and warned to be back on board the ship no later than 4pm. That gives us just six hours to enjoy the island, so after a quick look around the market we head to Easo beach.

Thanks to a handout distributed on the ship, I know that Lifou is a coral atoll made up of limestone. Along the coast are limestone caves, grottos and dramatic-looking cliffs, while the hinterland is covered in thick forest. Meanwhile under the water is some pretty spectacular coral, which my husband and I discover when we snorkel. The fish life here is colourful and varied but it's apparently even more amazing in the next bay along, other passengers tell us later.

However, there's no time to check that out - we're going on a bus tour that leaves from near the market at 12.30pm, and if we're not there in time we'll be left behind. Cruise passengers are given the options of going on tours or doing their own thing in each port. We've chosen a trip across the island to a beach reputed to be one of the most stunning in the Loyalty Islands, but if we'd realised we'd get the chance to spend time at Easo beach in the morning we'd have probably booked something different, like the excursion to the imposing limestone cliffs at Jokin or the walk through the forest and secret grotto.

Never mind. The 35-minute journey to the east coast in an immaculate old 1970s bus is an adventure in itself as we bounce along past vanilla plantations and small villages. We pass a concrete church which dates back to 1898, according to the raised numbers on the front. It is painted a fresh lemon yellow colour, which has also been used to paint many of the gravestones in the cemetery next door. It appears they get paint in job lots here - further down the road most of the buildings and houses in another village are all a bright shade of blue.

Most of the houses have a round hut made of palm fronds in the garden. Our tour guide, Emmanuella Hnanyine, explains that these are called meitro, and are communal bedrooms. "The family all sleep on mattresses on the floor," she says.

She adds that many families will rent out their meitro to tourists who want to experience traditional life on Lifou.

We make a quick detour through We (pronounced whey), the capital of Lifou, which is home to the post office, a large hotel, gas station and other businesses. A few minutes later we pull up at Luecila Beach and immediately any doubts I had about coming to another beach are gone.

The sea is such a vivid turquoise colour it looks unreal, like someone has dumped leftover pots of that bright blue paint in the water. The same person appears to have tampered with the sand. It is so white, so pristine, so sparkly, it looks like sugar. When I lower my sunglasses the colours are so bright my eyes hurt.

There is enough time for a cheese and ham baguette at the beachside café, a quick swim in the warm, clear sea and a stroll along the water's edge to dry off. Before we leave Luecila, Emmanuella deftly uses a vicious-looking machete to hack the tops off young green coconuts and hands one to each of us. The milk is sweet and light and utterly delicious.

Back at Easo we catch a farewell performance put on by the local dancers before we have to head to the wharf. I keep my eyes open for the small boy who captured my attention this morning and eventually spot him with a couple of other children. I smile and say a tentative, "Au revoir," and when he stares blankly at me I recall Emmanuella telling me people in Lifou speak a Kanak language called Drehu - they don't learn French until they go to school.

There's so much to discover about this place and six hours hasn't been enough. I've enjoyed the brief taste of Lifou the cruise has given us and promise myself I'll be back for more.

Donna Fleming and Martin Sykes travelled to Lifou on the Pacific Sun courtesy of P&O Australia.

GETTING THERE

Lifou is one of the ports of call on Week Fantastique cruises on board P&O's Pacific Sun. The seven-night cruises depart from Brisbane in September to November this year, January to May and August to November next year, and January 2010. Prices start from $1475 per person for a twin-share cabin. See www.pocruises.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION

See www.loyalty-islands.com for information including where to stay and how to get around.

* The people of Lifou are Melanesian Kanaks. They call Lifou Drehu, which is also the name of their language.
* Lifou is approximately 1140sq km in size and has a population of around 10,000.
* Accommodation on Lifou ranges from a handful of hotels to traditional island huts.

- NZ Herald

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