What if the French had settled the whole of New Zealand, instead of just the tip of Banks Peninsula?

Baguettes and pate instead of sausages in bread. Ricard with water instead of Lion Red. Croque-monsieur instead of bacon and eggs.

This is what we pondered as we haunted the boucheries, boulangeries, charcuteries, antique shops and, mostly, the restaurants of Noumea and southern New Caledonia.

Only 2 1/2 hours' flight from Auckland, this island is a gourmet paradise and a haven for relaxation - even in the middle of a general strike that closed the airport and shortened our time there by several days.

Like so much of the Pacific, European settlers brought a lot of gloom with them. The French colonists settled paradise as a prison colony and the original Kanak population was subjugated and almost destroyed. But it is now in the middle of a cultural renaissance similar to that of the Maori in the 1970s.

Arriving at New Caledonia's international airport - 50km from Noumea - we pick up a rental car and are rudely reminded that we are in a French colony. The steering wheel is on the wrong side. And so are all the other cars.

I adapt, slowly. After stalling the car a few times, driving the wrong way up various streets, almost taking out a motorway toll booth and getting nightmarishly confused in Noumea, we make it through the small central town and over to our hotel in Baia de l'Anse Vata. The 10-minute trip takes nearly two hours and I need a stiff drink when we arrive.

But it's worth it. The next morning we wake to a view of paradise: blue waters and palm-cloaked islands.

Breakfast is a pain au chocolat and a croque-monsieur (grilled or toasted open ham and cheese sandwich).

The stores are stocked with French everything: pate, wine, bread, salami and more. An duty of 40 per cent on all imports makes it all relatively expensive, but still cheaper than you can get in New Zealand.

Because this a fly-and-drive junket, we timidly get back in the Renault and head north. New Caledonia is divided into three sections. Tourism is mainly in two of them: the southern province and the Loyalty Islands. The north seems to be reserved for farming and nickel mining, the country's main earner.

Today's destination is a place called Bourail, which doesn't look like a particularly promising tourism destination. It's like a smaller Ngatea, with bugger all to see or do, but a good enough beach in summer and a bit of history.

We have two reasons for being here: the Commonwealth war graves of hundreds of New Zealanders, and the Hotel La Nera, where, for 20,000 New Caledonia francs ($295), you can shoot a deer. The war cemetery is serene and decorated with bougainvillea. Four lines of graves curve down between a monument and a little chapel. The land for the cemetery was donated by a local farmer, and 246 sailors, soldiers and airmen are buried here, including two Fijians and five Brits - the rest are Kiwis. A memorial records the names of a further 25 soldiers, 252 airmen and three merchant navy sailors whose bodies were never recovered.

One or two New Zealanders a month make the journey here, many leaving comments in the visitors' book that a father, uncle, brother or friend is here.

Onward. Eugene and Marielle Hernu's hotel has a 300ha farm stocked with Limousine cattle and wild Rusa deer, which make excellent sausage and pate. Eugene takes visitors out to examine the product while it is still on four legs, and to shoot the venison if they so desire. He doesn't hunt on the nearest mountain, so visitors can see the deer congregate about 1pm every day near the hotel.

We are sent out to the nearby turtle beach, where it is the wrong season for turtles. And then up the coast to a swimming beach lined with miles of empty camping grounds and holiday homes, where it's also the wrong season.

It's still warm enough for Kiwis to swim but we wanted to eat back at the hotel. We have a few French wines on the balcony, looking out from its clifftop vantage point across a river, over red cattle and up into the mountains, and feel very satisfied.

Dinner is an entree of spectacular fat-free venison sausages, followed by the most fantastic cassoulet. The flavours of the white beans, venison, pork and beef have all been perfectly preserved. This is all accompanied by French red wine. You'd be hard-pressed to doubt this wasn't the southwest of France, rather than a Pacific atoll. To my knowledge, there's nowhere like this in Ngatea.

The next morning our itinerary takes us to La Foa, where we are told a few hours of walking around is long enough to discover its beauties. Fifteen minutes later, after looking through a park full of wooden sculptures, we head for a sunny cafe. It reminds me of Mercer and I doubt there is anything else to see, unless you're into mild adventure tourism or tourist farms.

We have other priorities and other problems. The general strike (French: la greve) has crippled the nation's gas stations and we are repeatedly told to conserve fuel.

We graze in the Hotel La Foa cafe for two hours while we wait for the pleasant lady from the local tourist organisation - she arrives wearing a T-shirt that says "sexy" in the style of the Pepsi logo - to take us to a traditional Kanak village.

Hotel La Foa is known for the hundreds, if not thousands, of caps hanging from the ceiling and would be a good place to stay if you like horse-riding and abseiling. The waitress is the owners' daughter, and trained at the Chateau at Mt Ruapehu and spent a couple of years learning English in New Zealand.

We visit a historic fort, about 10km out of town, where French criminals, revolutionaries and intellectuals were once sent to begin their stay in purgatory/paradise.

Here, they don't speak English so the wife is forced to "translate". We are taken around a two-storey building full of models, old posters and photos, and the tour guide's five-minute speeches are translated as, "From here you can see the sea and over there was the bakery where pain au chocolat and croque-monsieurs were cooked." Hmm.

We look at an old jail, and the foundations of the former governor's home. I am even more suspicious when the wife starts translating stories of people kept in the basement to hold up the floor, and the way the governor used to stride about naked.

Thankfully, "Sexy" takes us to visit a traditional village. The man who was supposed to show us around has gone fishing, so his 11-year-old son shows us the house. The doorway is low so you have to bow respectfully to get into the round meeting space, topped by a conical, thatched roof. A 7m central mast pokes out the top, hung with shells and symbols. Outside is a leaning pole where they used to tie up wrongdoers to be lashed by their peers. All the tribespeople still live in the village, but they have discontinued their ancient method of punishment.

Then it is time to speed back to Noumea and a stop at the giant Carre Forre supermarket to stock up on wine and cheese.

Next morning, we are off to the markets on the waterfront. We get tiny espressos at a central bar and sit with strikers who have large beards and eat pain au chocolat. If we were cooking for ourselves, which would be much cheaper, this would be the place to buy piles of fresh tuna, bananas and tomatoes and have a good time doing it.

Noumea has two quite different museums: one national, the other local. Noumea Museum is sort of like Te Papa on a shoestring. Big efforts have been made to make it interesting and entertaining for kids. Downstairs, in the vault (this was one of the town's first banks) there's a display showing the role of New Caledonia - plus New Zealand and other nations - in World War II. Upstairs are models showing the city's early development, with commentaries in English, and information about the nickel industry.

The New Caledonia Museum is more austere and impressive. It has a huge collection of Melanesian artefacts and not just from New Caledonia. I'd suggest getting a guide because the annotation is mostly French. Our guide, a native of the Loyalty Islands, fills us with stories of repression and crushing of indigenous cultures.

But by far the best cultural attraction is the Jean Marie Tjibaou Centre. The architecture alone is worth the flight. It's one of France's major public works and is an act of reconciliation from the French to the Kanaks.

The centre is named after the priest-politician Jean Marie Tjibaou, who fought French domination with one hand and organised a rejuvenation of the Kanak culture with the other. It was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, whose credits include Paris's Pompidou Centre, and is based on a series of tribal huts built of wood and steel. It has galleries and libraries, is a venue for cultural shows, and seems, as much as anything, a place to celebrate the Kanak people and their way of life.

People say New Caledonia is a sophisticated alternative to Fiji, where you get the beaches and palm trees of the tropical holiday, but everything works and the bread is good. And I think that's pretty spot on. Having visited both places within a year, there's no way I'll go back to Fiji for a holiday if New Caledonia is an option.

And if New Zealand had a little more of the French to it, well, that would be a pretty good thing, too. Even if it did mean no one shaved their armpits.

* Matthew Martel made his own way to Noumea but was hosted by Tourism New Caledonia South.

Getting there

Air New Zealand and Air Calin fly from Auckland to Noumea four times a week, operating a mix of their own and code-share flights. It's often cheapest to get there on a package deal, which can be as cheap as $600 for four nights in Noumea during winter.

Public transport is good in Noumea, but a rental car makes life easier, even though they drive on the wrong side of the road.


Noumea has a huge variety of restaurants, but they are expensive by New Zealand standards. Self-catering is much cheaper and offers the option of buying fresh from the market, and supplementing it with fantastic French food from the supermarkets.