New Caledonia: A French affair

By Sarah Lawrence

French food and wine are the tops in Noumea, finds Sarah Lawrence.

The tropical paradise of New Caledonia is only a two and a half-hour flight from New Zealand.
The tropical paradise of New Caledonia is only a two and a half-hour flight from New Zealand.

The winter blues have arrived and the long, sunny days of summer are a distant memory.

What I wouldn't give for a mini break. Trouble is, I can't think of anywhere close to Auckland that doesn't spell COLD, until I realise that in the time it takes to drive up North
I could fly to Noumea, New Caledonia.

Just a 2½-hour flight from Auckland, New Caledonia promises summer temperatures nearly all year round and is a welcome winter break from home. Affectionately known as the little France of the Pacific, New Caledonia is a tropical wonderland. Although it is thousands of miles away from the colonial motherland, I'm told it bears a striking resemblance to the French Riviera, with crystal waters, seaside eateries and sprawling lagoons. French is still its official language and I make a pact with myself to be reeling off a few phrases by the end of my long weekend.

Within hours of landing in Noumea, I'm sitting poolside at the Ramada Plaza Hotel enjoying tapas with foie gras and local seafood accompanied by a rosy red French wine.

The Ramada Plaza is situated in the hub of the Anse Vata tourist region and provides panoramic views of Anse Vata bay, a hive of activity for wind and kite surfers, paddleboarders and kayakers.

There's no better way to start a trip than with a spot of shopping, so I begin the following day exploring the colourful Noumea markets in nearby Port Moselle. Open daily, the markets boast a wide selection of local arts, crafts, produce and seafood.

It's easy to spend hours wandering the sights, sounds and tastes of the stalls, and I leave with a few mementos to take home, including locally made banana soaps wrapped in pretty handmade paper flowers.

The Noumea Explorer, the city's tourist bus service, collects me from the markets and we head to the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. It opened in 1998 as a tribute to pro-independence Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. Set in picturesque gardens, the centre aims to treasure the heritage and culture of the indigenous Kanak people.

The main buildings, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, rise majestically above the treetops and house a number of ever changing exhibitions covering the history of the Kanak people and the inspirational plight of Tjibaou, who was assassinated in 1989 so was never able to see his vision come to fruition.

Before the day is done, I have just enough time to visit the Noumea Zoo and Botanic Gardens. Our Pacific neighbour's national icon is also a flightless bird, the blue-grey crested cagou. Luckily the cagou isn't as elusive as the kiwi, and within minutes we're standing face to beak.

Although it has been endangered for years, numbers are rising thanks to the work done at the zoo. The Caledonian crow and parakeet also live here, with native bats which peek out from under their wings as I pass.

As I leave, I can't resist stopping at the kiosk serving creme brulee to go. The woman behind the counter pulls out a small blow torch to caramelise the sugared top, just as you'd expect for a traditional creme brulee, and have to remind myself that I'm in a zoo.

As the sun begins to set, I return to my hotel with just enough time to spare before meeting local tour guide Rike Simmendinger. Rike accompanies me for a wine and cheese degustation at Le Maison Ballande, a local French wine shop.

As we make our way around the shop, Rike is bursting with facts about New Caledonia and, more especially, the plentiful local produce such as lychees, coffee, vanilla and Niaouli. However, it's the French wine that really takes my breath away.

Displayed in the beautiful boxes they were shipped in, I'm in awe. French wine is labelled by the region, village or family as well as the grape variety, so I find it all a bit confusing.

Julie Tavenaud, a descendant of a winemaking family from Bordeaux, seems happy to spend as much time as I need to be educated about the ways of French wine and culture.

A drop of wine at lunchtime, a crisp rose in the afternoon, and a good wine match with the evening meal all seems pretty standard for Julie.

I'm told red wine promotes good digestion and Julie believes that, because French wine is low in preservatives and additives, I'll be headache-free the next morning. Wine is nurtured and respected here and is intrinsic to the lifestyle. Sadly, I feel I've dominated Julie's time long enough so Rike and I depart, with a few bottles tucked under each arm.

I wake the next morning looking forward to a relaxing day on the beach at Ile aux Canards (Duck Island), a short water-taxi ride from the mainland. This dainty oasis takes a matter of minutes to circumnavigate on foot and is covered in white sand, peppered with coral washed up from the surrounding reef. A small resort provides refreshments and, in keeping with true Continental style, loungers and sun umbrellas are available for a small fee. Every so often, I hear the tinkle of a bell as a waiter is summoned to a lounger on the beach to take an order. Later in the afternoon, I slip on my snorkel and plop into the water to experience the underwater delights of the reef.

I'd been looking out across the water all afternoon without fully realising the vibrant world under the surface. Tropical fish of different varieties dart in and out of pink and purple corals. Sea snakes curl themselves into a burrow and sea cucumbers roll gently on the sea floor. If heaven was underwater, it would be here, and I happily float my afternoon away.

Back on the mainland, as I wander to my hotel in the warm afternoon sun, I pass clusters of teenagers meeting for a crepe on the beach who chat in French after greeting each other with a kiss on each cheek. Groups of young and old play petanque along the roadside and, in some cases, great debate is underway over the last throw. This is what Saturday afternoon looks like in Noumea.

Back in New Zealand, I wonder why my local dairy owner gives me a quizzical look as I buy milk. Then I realise I've subconsciously bid him a breezy "Bonjour" as I float in the door. Never mind, I'm just happy I've brought a little of that French joie de vivre back home.

Online:
flightcentre.co.nz
ramadaplazanoumea.nc
visitnewcaledonia.com

More tropical short-break ideas

Fiji
Just a three-hour flight from Auckland and four hours from Christchurch to Nadi. Fiji Airways operates 13 flights a week to Fiji, including a weekly direct flight from Christchurch. Air New Zealand operates daily direct services from Auckland and during the peak season (July to September) the schedule increases to up to 13 direct services a week and a once a week direct service oeprates from Christchurch and Wellington. Nadi International Airport is 9km north of downtown Nadi.

Cook Islands
Just under a four-hour flight from Auckland. Air New Zealand operates daily services from Auckland to Rarotonga. During the peak season (July to September) the schedule increases to up to 12 services a week. Virgin Australia flies five times a week non-stop from Auckland. You'll gain a day on your outward journey as you cross the International Dateline and you'll lose that day again on your way back. Once in Rarotonga, there are three-four daily scheduled air services to Aitutaki (apart from Sundays), operated by Air Rarotonga. Flying time is only 45 minutes. Some international flights into Rarotonga are timed to link up with these flights to Aitutaki.

Vanuatu
Just over a three-hour flight from Auckland. All international flights from Auckland arrive at Bauerfield International Airport, 6km north of Port Vila. Air Vanuatu flies to the nation's capital Port Vila twice a week. Air New Zealand operates one service a week from Auckland and up to three services a week between the June-October peak season. Once in Port Vila, Air Vanuatu flies to 29 domestic airports, including the popular islands of Santo and Tanna.

Samoa
Just over a three-hour flight flying Air New Zealand to Apia offering non-stop services up to six times a week with connections from across the domestic network. Virgin Samoa flies five times a week from Auckland. International flights arrive at Faleolo International Airport, 15km west of the nation's capital, Apia.

Niue
Just over a three-hour flight from Auckland flying Air New Zealand once a week and twice a week during the May-October peak season. You'll gain a day on your outward journey
as you cross the International Dateline and you'll lose that day again on your way back. Flights arrive at Hanan International Airport, a 20-minute drive from the main township, Alofi.

Tonga
Just over a three-hour flight from Auckland, Air New Zealand flies six days a week.
Virgin Australia flies twice a week. All international flights from Auckland arrive at Fua'amotu International Airport, a 30-minute drive from the nation's capital, Nuku'alofa.

For package information to these destinations, visit hot.co.nz

Sarah Lawrence travelled to Noumea courtesy of Flight Centre and Ramada Plaza Noumea.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 19 Dec 2014 17:53:53 Processing Time: 524ms