New Caledonia has much more to offer than top shopping and French food - as a fascinating drive around its largest island proves. Sue Baxalle reports.
If you're stopping for lunch on the relatively unexplored east coast of New Caledonia's main island, don't expect Michelin-starred French cuisine.
Instead, the Melanesian meal offered by the Gites Ka Waboana is a typical local concoction of fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables. We start with a "salade de trocas", a shellfish with the texture of squid chopped finely and combined with carrot, tomato and avocado, followed by mullet baked in a banana leaf with cassava and rice cooked in coconut milk.
It's this combination of Melanesian ingredients with French flair - especially when you get outside the main city of Noumea - that makes this tropical paradise so special.
Many tourists don't get to see the country outside the main tourist areas, but Tourism New Caledonia had concocted a plan for me to head north and discover the "true" country.
So, from Tontouta Airport, guide Gilles Defaut whisked me off along the western coastal road, explaining that if we kept going all the way, we could do a circuit of the island, which is 400km long and 50km wide.
The driving distances are surprising for what appears to be a sliver of an island on the map. But it turns out that this island, named the "Grande Terre", is the third-largest in the Pacific after Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
Just past the first town, Boulouparis, we stop at the Distillerie de Boulouparis, an artisanal operation established in 1988 in Noumea by Jean-Luc and Anne-Marie Delubriat with just two 100-litre barrels to make essential oil from the leaves of the niaouli tree.
They moved to the Boulouparis site in 1992 and increased their operation to include beauty products, herbal teas, spirits and liqueurs from niaouli and other local plants and trees, whose leaves were gathered for them by local tribespeople.
The Delubriats tell me niaouli essence is a truly New Caledonian product, particularly sought-after for its myriad uses, including soothing insect bites, healing cuts and as a massage oil.
Back on the road, we reach Kone about two hours later. The administrative capital of the northern province, Kone is 274km from Noumea and is a town on the move.
With New Caledonia's third nickel mine under construction at Koniambo in the nearby mountains and set to open in two years, the town is growing fast, making it second in size to Noumea.
In preparation for this, much of what the visitor to Kone sees is new development and, as a result, many old houses have been knocked down.
Another casualty of the modernisation of Kone is the town's old bakery. Among the few scattered bricks remain the chimney and the dough mixer. Defaut tells me the bricks were made by "bagnards", the prisoners sent from France when New Caledonia served as a penal colony between 1864 and 1922.
The impact on the northern town is huge and new schools will have to be built to accommodate the population rise.
Defaut says this in itself is a problem, as the French administration works on a five-year budget plan and the decision to go ahead with the mine and the speed of the development means there may be a time lapse before new schools are operational.
The main road to Kone along the west coast is indicative of the rapid change, says Defaut. Once a major route in good condition, it is now pitted in many parts with potholes caused by the daily influx of heavy trucks and equipment heading to and from Koniambo - road signs reading "nid de poule" (nothing to do with hens, I discover, after my initial surprise) periodically mark the way.
Kone is not so much a tourist destination as a stopover on the way north to places such as Koumac and Poum. And in a link to New Zealand, one of the newer eateries, just out of Kone, is called Kiwi Table d'Hote and sports a large kiwi bird made of corrugated iron.
Three major hotels have set up at Kone, among them the Hotel Hibiscus, where we spend the first night. Its bungalow-style units are comfortable, set around a water garden with a central gazebo, tropical plants, wood sculptures (sadly, generic Pacifica rather than typical of the area) and a pond with goldfish.
The next morning, we visit Georges Gibert, another boutique niaouli distiller whose garden is something to envy, with mango and papaya trees and banana and coconut palms among the hibiscus and other beautiful flora.
Heading across to the east coast on the Kone-Tiwaka road, hibiscus and pampas grasses grow wild on the roadside. Many locals take advantage of the copious exotic fruits growing on their properties by offering all sorts of fruit, pot plants and shells for sale at roadside stands.
Defaut has a word of warning about buying from these tables: avoid the fruit, as you never know how long it has been sitting in the sun. It is better to buy from a market in a township.
The hour-long drive along the Kone-Tiwaka road is picturesque, passing through dense forestry and with numerous scenic points overlooking rivers and valleys. We stop off to see a plaque explaining the origins of the route.
The most recent of New Caledonia's five east-west routes, and of which the locals are proud, was instigated by Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou in 1990 and completed 10 years later, after 2.7 million cubic metres of earth had been moved and 30,000 cubic metres of concrete used.
Hienghene, on the east coast, is our destination, and it deserves a far longer visit than we are able to make. Startling rock formations guard the bay, among them "La Poule", the "Sphinx" and the Linderalique rocks; massive black limestone cliffs that are home to flying foxes.
Near Hienghene, we are able to cross the river on the last car ferry in New Caledonia. Defaut tells me there used to be 14 such ferries on the island, but the others have been replaced by bridges. Travel on the Bac de la Ouaieme is free and it operates 24 hours a day.
The backdrop to this part of coastline is Mt Panie, New Caledonia's highest mountain at 1628m. One of the beaches sports the curious name of "Billet de 500", and Defaut explains that a rock at one end of the beach is featured on the 500 Pacific franc note.
Hienghene is also home to Babou Cote Ocean, a dive centre and camping ground which offers diving, snorkelling, boat and kayak trips, along with mountainbike hire.
Owner Thierry Baboulenne says while diving is the main focus, the snorkelling trip along the underwater trail, which takes in nearby Yeega island and includes a botanical trek across it, is popular. As well as the wealth of underwater life and corals, participants may see turtles.
Here, after all this driving, the temptation of the sea is too great to overlook. The water is divine - at 29C, according to Baboulenne - and there is no need to pluck up courage to go in.
However, on returning to the dive centre, I discover I've been attacked. Mosquitoes obviously saw me as juicy bait and my legs are covered in bites that I didn't feel at the time. Travellers in this paradise are advised to carry - and regularly apply - insect repellent and although I had applied it earlier in the day, my swim must have washed it off, opening the way for hungry pests.
One of the major hotels on the east coast is Koulnoue Village. Again, bungalow-style units are scattered along the beachfront on the site that previously belonged to Club Med.
A range of activities are offered by Koulnoue, from water-based sports such as snorkelling and kayaking, to tennis, volleyball, table tennis, golf and petanque.
To interest youngsters, there is not only a playground but a small farm with a variety of animals and birds. Our last day was spent driving back along the coast to Poindimie, then returning across the island towards Bourail and finally Boulouparis, the nearest town to Tontouta.
Our round trip drive unveiled a side of New Caledonia worth much more than a flying visit. Just don't forget your insect repellent.
Get a rental car - and fill up wherever you can
Tourism in New Caledonia tends to be focused on Noumea, the Isle of Pines and the Loyalty Islands to the east. Unlike New Zealand, where campervans are widely used, New Caledonia has none, apparently because of the high taxes imposed on importing and running the vehicles.
For the tourist wanting to tour the picturesque northern province of the main island, rental cars are the way to go.
However, note that service stations close at 7pm and stay closed until 6am. They are also often closed from noon to 3pm, and on busy weekends can run out of petrol.
The east coast does not have many service stations, so it is important to fill up before crossing from the west. And when you do see a station on the east, remember that it could be an hour or more before the next one.
On average, diesel costs the equivalent of $2 a litre and petrol $2.40 a litre.
As well as the "nids de poule" (potholes), night-driving hazards include deer, wild pigs and cattle roaming on the roads.
Getting there: Aircalin, the international airline of New Caledonia, has four departures a week to Noumea from Auckland and is the only airline with business class on the Auckland-Noumea route.
Further information: For more about visiting New Caledonia see here.
Sue Baxalle drove around the Grande Terre with assistance from New Caledonia Tourism and Aircalin.