The glorious and varied islands of New Caledonia provide a feast for the eyes, the mind and the tastebuds and they are almost on our doorstep, writes Alexia Santamaria

It's quite incredible to take a flight of fewer than three hours from Auckland and suddenly find yourself on a tropical island where everyone speaks French. New Caledonia is a fascinating destination where European and Pacific culture meld, creating a unique environment. It's gorgeous too, as I found out on a recent trip. Here are some must-dos and must-eats for those considering a holiday there.

Must-Dos

1. Get under water

The smaller islands away from La Grand Terre (Lifou, Ouvea, Mare and the Isle of Pines) offer snorkelling and diving opportunities galore but if you're staying in Noumea, a five minute boat ride from Anse Vata beach will get you to Ile aux Canards, an islet where you can float through the marine reserve and see all types of pretty coloured sea life. I loved swimming in the crystal-clear bath temperature water and hanging with Nemo and his mates. If it's just a dip you're after, Anse Vata and Baie des Citrons in Noumea itself are lovely.

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2. Get some Kanak culture

There are multiple nationalities making up New Caledonia. The Kanaks and the French are the best-known, but there have also been huge waves of Vietnamese, Indonesians and other ethnic groups who have more recently contributed to this fascinating melting pot. To understand the Pacific side, the Tjibaou Cultural Centre is an absolute must-do. A celebration of modern and traditional Kanak culture mixed with art and sculpture from all over the Pacific, it was built as a tribute to pro-independence Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. It is one of the best cultural museum experiences I've had anywhere in the world. I loved the indigenous houses and was gobsmacked by the incredible wooden structures (designed by well-known Italian architect Renzo Piano) which rise way above the treetops.

3. Get active

We've all seen the white-sand beaches and clear water in the brochures, but I was surprised just how mountainous New Caledonia is too. It's a great place for hiking and I really enjoyed getting up a bit higher in Bourail and enjoying the bush and views from an elevated position. Horse riding is also a popular activity. I tried it in Deva at Le Carre 9 Ranch and enjoyed the relaxation of ambling along the beach and up into the golden grass on my new equine friend.

4. Get French

Of course, one of the things New Caledonia is best known for is its "Frenchness". There are 28 regional Kanak dialects but French is the only language that unifies the whole country. Make sure you get your fill of bread, charcuterie and good wine from supermarkets; ride bicycles; and have a go at playing petanque at any of the pistes dotted around the place.

5. Get to an island

There's plenty of magnificent scenery on the main island but the Loyalty Islands and Ile de Pins will complete your total Pacific island fantasy of fine white sand and azure-blue ocean. Ile de Pins is the most easily accessed but if you can get out to Mare, Lifou or Ouvea, it's worth the journey for some of the best beaches you'll ever see.

Must-Eats

1. French pastries and crepes

Load up on patisserie wherever you go in New Caledonia as it really is fantastic. If you've ever been to France, you will be transported back immediately in one bite of a gorgeous pain au chocolat or croissant. I loved L'Atelier Gourmand and Au Pain d'Antan in Noumea but didn't have a bad pastry anywhere. Also worth a mention are the crepes - especially at Le Rocher in Noumea. Stunning views and fantastic-tasting galettes and crepes.

2. Seafood

There are so many types of fish and seafood available in New Caledonia that it's a bit mind boggling. I tried octopus (very popular with locals) at Au P'tit Cafe and it was tender and beautifully cooked. Local prawns and fish cooked with a Kanak twist at L'Assiette de Cagou were delightful as was the seared tuna at very recently opened Les 3 Chefs. Seafood lovers will be in heaven in this Pacific paradise.

3. Bougna meal

This is a traditional Kanak-style meal where banana leaves are used to wrap chicken, lobster or fish with soft yams, bananas, sweet potatoes and coconut milk. This is then steamed over hot stones underground for a few hours. I believe you can get it in restaurants in the city but I would totally recommend going with a guide into a local tribal area for the real deal. I went with Emeric from Gecko Evasions to have a Bougna lunch with the lovely Anderson and Kathy up in the mountains in Bourail, and it was an unforgettable experience. I even got to walk around their land afterwards, see the river, and marvel at their fruit and veges.

4. Tropical fruit

Definitely indulge in local fruit while in New Caledonia. The papaya, mango and passionfruit (so much prettier externally than their New Zealand counterparts) are all sensational. I could not get enough of the local pineapple - way sweeter than what we get in New Zealand. It's at roadside stalls and in abundance at the lovely
city markets (right next to the water) in Noumea. The markets are worth a visit whether you're a fruit fan or not. Go during the weekend if you can, as they are vibrant with more vendors present.

5. Venison

Try and have some venison somewhere during your stay. New Caledonia has an excess of deer (I have seen evidence of this on the golf course in the Sheraton in Deva, where they popped in to say hi) so the locals eat a lot of it. I tried it tartare style in Noumea at La Table des Gourmets but if raw deer meat doesn't appeal, you can get it cooked in many eateries.

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Air Calin flies from Auckland to Noumea five times a week (twice are codeshare with Air NZ) and daily during the school holidays.

Staying there:
Hilton Noumea La Promenade Residences are the perfect self-catering solution. The apartments all have great views and are set up with everything you need to cook and do laundry yourself. A few minutes' walk from the beach at Anse Vata.

Sheraton New Caledonia Deva has beautifully appointed rooms and bungalows. A huge effort has been made to incorporate Kanak style into the design and many of the woven panels you'll see around were made by locals. Great for golfers too with its lovely 18-hole course.

Further information: See newcaledonia.travel, geckoevasion.nc and ileauxcanards.nc.