Pamela Wade visits New Caledonia's southernmost atoll for a veritable feast.
It was the stuff of nightmares. Borne proudly to our table where I would be expected to eat it, it looked to me exactly like a giant orange head-louse. "Voila," our host said, placing it in front of me, its huge claws clacking on the plate.
I'd learned about those claws this afternoon, on a walk through the bush. They were strong enough to take off a finger.
The coconut crab is an oddity, living on land, feasting on coconuts at night using its fearsome pincers and going down to the sea only once a year to lay its eggs. It's the world's largest arthropod and highly prized here in the Loyalty Islands, 100km to the east of New Caledonia, for its delicate coconut-flavoured flesh. With good reason: once it was transformed into a platter of creamy meat and served with a glistening dollop of home-made mayonnaise, the louse memory evaporated and there was no more hanging back. It was absolutely delicious.
I would like to say the same about the fruit bat, but even marinated in red wine and slowly braised, it wasn't a dish I would choose to have twice. No matter: here on Mare, the southernmost atoll in the archipelago, there is no shortage of good things to eat, prepared and served with a happy mix of Pacific simplicity and French flair. Of course, the ambience helps; sitting under a thatched roof with open sides, looking out over a lagoon of gin-clear water edged with crushed coral, coconut fronds rattling overhead in a warm breeze, surf breaking on the reef and chickens scratching nearby will make even a sandwich seem special.
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With no rivers running into the lagoon, the water is perfectly clear and shallow enough for non-swimmers to poke around the rocks, spotting Nemo fish among the anemones and even a turtle gliding past. At the Natural Aquarium, a blue-tinged lake connected to the lagoon by coral caves, schools of fish swarm to the edge like iron filings whenever anyone approaches.
No wonder, then, that at the village market the tables are stacked with shiny fish displayed on banana palm leaves, beside plastic buckets of busy crabs. Local Kanak people sit behind piles of leafy green vegetables, crusty loaves and deep-fried doughnuts, the women in their colourful and shapeless mission dresses, the old men neatly dressed in shirts, pullovers and jackets, despite the steamy conditions. Children and chickens dart across the grass behind, young women sit on mats playing dominoes, and toothless old ladies cackle together while customers haggle over the price of half a dozen huge and twisted beans.
Life in Mare is still simple and directly connected to the land and the sea. When the occasional cruise ship stops by, it's a huge event for the villagers, who make the visitors feel like royalty. But when they've gone, peace returns to the coral beaches, the soaring cliffs and green araucaria forest; and catching a coconut crab is as exciting as it gets.
Getting there: Fly with Aircalin.
Accommodation: Nengone Village Hotel is located right by the water.