Hamish Fletcher avoids dangerous sea creatures and romantic liaisons but laps up the natural beauty of Bourail.

"It's not like the Steven Spielberg movies," tour guide Emeric Amice reassures me.

We're speeding in a water taxi through the turquoise Bourail Lagoon and our skipper has just recalled the time he had a run-in with a shark while out surfing.

I'm minutes away from jumping over the side of the boat and haven't yet paid any mind to what Jaws-esque beast could be roaming this stretch of ocean.

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It doesn't seem like a bad place for a shark to hunt; along with well-fed tourists snorkelling and scuba-diving, the 24,000sq km of lagoon that surround New Caledonia's main island host a buffet of colourful fish.

It's for this very reason I'm diving headlong into these tepid waters, to meander through the coral and its abundance of marine life.

The lagoon and its surrounding reefs were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008, and it's easy to see why when encountering the mesmerising flurry of clownfish, parrotfish and butterfly fish darting below the surface.

Together with 450 types of underwater plants, the wider reef is also populated by aforementioned sharks, though none came near me during my 40-minute snorkel.

The lagoon is also home to four of the world's seven sea turtle species and one of them — the green sea turtle — nests nearby on Ile Verte.

A tiny archipelago close to the coast, Ile Verte is a wildlife sanctuary and only a tiny portion of it is accessible to the public.

Although you can't stray far on the island, you can explore its pristine golden beach and wander around its rocks without too much effort.

Be warned you'll likely have a rendezvous with a tricot raye — the sea snakes that slither out of the ocean and writhe up on the sun-warmed stones. Although these black-and-white striped kraits are highly venomous, they're extremely placid and keep their distance even when I wander into their habitat.

(As an aside, they form a central part of belief system of the Kanaks — the indigenous Melanesian people who make up about 40 per cent of New Caledonia's population. These reptiles represent rebirth for the Kanaks, with a deceased person rejoining the world of the living after shedding their snake skin on the shore.)

Having already allayed my fears about sharks in the lagoon, Emeric is blase about the kraits and points out that there hasn't been a fatality from a bite since the 1970s.

Emeric, who runs the one-man tour company Gecko Evasion, is a specialist in outdoor excursions and he's busy sparking up a campfire barbecue on Île Verte while I'm out exploring the shoreline.

He's serving rustic local fare for lunch; venison sausage in a baguette — a sort of New Caledonian hot dog — and marinated red deer steaks, which take on a rich smoky flavour from the fire and are the perfect choice for our laid-back location.

Deer are a pest on the mainland and a popular animal for Bourail locals to hunt. It's probably why their meat turns up so often on restaurant menus — along with sizeable helpings of beef from the area's plentiful cattle farms.

Bourail, about a two-hour drive from Noumea, is cowboy country and its modern-day roots began as a penal colony when France deported convicts there in the 19th century.

With a population of close to 6000, its grassy plains and agricultural flair have earned it the nickname of the "New Caledonian Far West".

It is much drier than the lush and tropical east coast of the island, and hiking trails are dotted through its wild terrain.

One of the more popular jaunts is through the West Coast's Trois Baies — a two-hour walk around the coastline to three different beaches with breathtaking views along the way.

Starting at Plage de la Roche Percee, you spy Bonhomme — a rock formation with a strong likeness to a man, jutting out into the waves. You then head through to Turtle Bay, a nesting and hatching spot for its namesakes between December and February.

Even without seeing turtles on its shore, the bay is distinctive due to the cluster of columnar pines at its mouth.

These tall thin trees are found all over New Caledonia, particularly at spots populated by Kanak tribes.

According to a Kanak story, each Turtle Bay pine is said to represent a life lost during the harshly repressed indigenous revolt against French colonists in 1878.

The violent tale is a good fit for the bay — its strong currents and rough swell mean swimming is banned.

After a steep climb up the next cliff, you'll look down on the last of the three beaches, Lovers' Bay, whose privacy is said to make it popular with amorous couples.

Emeric makes no effort to give the place a sense of romance.

"It's where people go to ... you know ... " he says.

Just like the sharks that day, if there were any such lovers, they kept well out of view.

A little taste of the old country

"It's a part of France for you in New Caledonia," sommelier Yannis Kherachi tells me.

Yannis is co-manager of Le Chai de l'Hippodrome, a trendy eatery near Noumea's Henry Milliard racecourse.

Only six months old with a strong equestrian theme, Le Chai de l'Hippodrome's decor leaves patrons under no illusion as to its fine-wine credentials.

As well the stacks of bottles and wooden wine casks, both the bar and all the restaurant's tabletops are made with parts of oak barrels.

It doubles as a boutique, selling wine-related accoutrements and imported French specialities.

But the real highlight of Le Chai de l'Hippodrome is its intimate back room, where Yannis takes me through an hour-long lesson on pairing French wine and cheese.

Starting at $75 per person, these rapid-fire lessons teach the basics of wine-tasting and make for a delicious afternoon pit-stop in the heart of Noumea.

Originally from the Rhone valley in Southern France, Yannis doesn't bat an eyelid when I admit I'm not a fan of reds.

He says the first thing to take into account when coming up with any food and drink match is the customer's personal tastes.

Red wine can be paired with fish and chicken and white wine with meat, if the dishes are prepared in the right way.

"We can do what we want," he says.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Aircalin

flies from Auckland to Noumea five times a week, with Economy Class return fares starting from $549.

ONLINE
For information on activities, go to newcaledonia.travel.