New Caledonia's cultural and political identity makes it unique in the Pacific, writes Anendra Singh.
Dotted into the interior mountains of New Caledonia, you might catch a glimpse of the scars that remain from the industry that once sustained the island territory. Scratches in the red ravaged hills — the oxidated result of robust drilling, predominantly nickel — tell the story of what for many years has been the island's major income earner.
But the colour that really grabs your attention as your Aircalin flight comes into land at Noumea, is the endless turquoise trail of islets forming a runway of sorts with the promise of grandeur.
It's that beauty that brings international visitors to this very big island, sprawled across the South Pacific (New Caledonia is about the size of Northland and Auckland combined). There's no disputing tourism is the No 2 cash cow, but sooner or later mining will be spent and tourism will be the playmaker.
We touched down at the modest but appealing La Tontouta International Airport, about 45 minutes out of Noumea, and headed off to spend four days at the Sheraton Deva New Caledonia Golf and Spa Resort.
Our stay in the south and southwest of the nation's main island was packed with tourism activities. Nouvelle Caledonie didn't disappoint.
From Swedish resident Oscar Martinsson, whizzing me around on the golf kart at the challenging 18-hole course, to French-born Axelle Battie, who drives a 4WD-guided tour, Toutazimut, to the off-the-beaten tracks of The Deep South, there was a sense that growth and prosperity were on the horizon.
Support for independence fell just short of 44 per cent in a referendum last November, so it will be interesting to see what unfolds in this French territory that has more than a geological commonality with Australia — France had deported common criminals and political exiles to New Caledonia in the 19th century. Those banished descendants still feel disenfranchised from the outnumbered free-settler French population. Another referendum is due next year.
It dawns on me, at the height of a tropical downpour on day three, at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, named after assassinated Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, how its conical spires catch the eye but brazenly toy with the mind.
From a tourist perspective, it's hard to go past the lure of a 2hr 30m flight from Auckland for an intriguing holiday that promises not just a point of difference from the other South Pacific nations but also creates a state of awareness of the unique local cultural and political scene. It's a lesson that's especially important for visitors from the big Pacific neighbours, Australia and New Zealand.
Checklist: New Caledonia
flies direct from Auckland to Noumea.