The Pacific nation's colonial legacy is still much in evidence, writes Hamish Fletcher.

"When I see him I tell him: you are lucky to still be here," my tour guide Ludo says of Jean-Baptiste Orly.

The words are wasted on Orly, the one-time governor of New Caledonia from 1878 to 1880.

Ludo's offhand remark, though, is directed at the French naval officer's statue, sitting in the most shaded quadrant of Noumea's Place des Cocotiers.

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Orly is a problematic figure in New Caledonian society — best known for his violent suppression of Atai, a chief of the indigenous Kanak people.

"Seen as hero by some people, as the symbol of colonialism by others," Ludo says of Orly.

A Kanak totem pole in New Caledonia. Photo / Getty Images
A Kanak totem pole in New Caledonia. Photo / Getty Images

Despite petitions for the statue to be removed, he still looms large in the square — a symbol of unease on an island that will soon choose whether or not to divorce from its colonial parent.

New Caledonia will head to the voting booth next month, in the French territory's first independence referendum since 1987. Polls point to the island picking to remain tied to France; in May thousands of its citizens marched past the statue of Orly to show their support for Europe.

Along with the iron effigy of the strict 19th century governor, other parts of Place des Cocotiers offer a window on the island's past. In a separate quadrant of the square is the distinct bandstand, erected in 1883. As well as being (in Ludo's words) a "true emblem of colonial architecture" the bandstand was built by convicts brought to the island from France.

More than 21,000 prisoners were deported to New Caledonia in the 19th century — at one point making up two thirds of the country's settler population.

A mixture of common criminals and political exiles, the last convicts arrived in 1897 but locals tell me there's still signs of the economic divide between descendants of prisoners and those of the free settlers.

One of those early free settlers lived just a stone's throw from Place des Cocotiers in one of Noumea's grand old mansions, Maison Higginson, one of the capital's heritage houses, built in 1901 by industrialist John Higginson.

As well as constructing one of Noumea's historical landmarks, Higginson co-founded Societe Le Nickel — a mining company that is still one of the country's biggest employers.
The grand house was closed when we visited but during parts of September it and other old properties are opened up as part of New Caledonian heritage month.

One thing that is noticeable during a walk around the historic quarter of Noumea is the lack of sites recognising the role of Kanak people.

Indigenous to the archipelago, Kanaks make up 40 per cent of New Caledonia's population but appear to have been left out of the monuments on Noumea's streets.

To discover a tribute to Kanak culture, you'll need to travel 8km from Place des Cocotiers to the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre.

Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia. Photo / Supplied
Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia. Photo / Supplied

Designed by Renzo Piano (the Italian architect behind London's The Shard) the centre is named after Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who was assassinated
in 1989.

A stunning structure, it features 10 striking conical spires high up on a windswept peninsula.

Playing host to exhibitions, performances and cultural celebrations, the centre is also an educational resource on the myths and tenets of Kanak culture.

Give yourself plenty of time to explore its grounds, which are surrounded by the island's tropical flora, fauna and distinctive columnar pines.

BEACH PARTY OF ONE

It's 10pm on a Thursday and for reasons unknown I've found myself at a dance party on a tiny island off the coast of New Caledonia.

Surrounded by the Noumea party set, I'm almost certain to have been the only one silly enough to come to Ile aux Canards alone.

What by day is an idyllic island — a five-minute boat ride from the mainland — turns into a nightclub one evening a month. Beers range from $8.70-$11.50 while a Red Bull and vodka and will set you back a whopping $25.

You'll likely need plenty if, like me, you venture there by yourself.

A small kitchen also serves food (I opted for a mini-burger) and is open late if you want to dance into the night. The music is a mix of top-40 hits (think Drake) and your in-laws' birthday party (think Kool & the Gang).

If, like me, you visit the island dance party with no mates, follow these handy tips:

1. Make sure you've plenty of mobile data. If you think it's awkward to go to this sort of event alone, try doing it without having the crutch of scrolling aimlessly through your smartphone.

2. Go late. If you want to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb, arrive once the party is in full swing.

3. Dress down — a local told me the best way to blend in at the island is to wear shorts and jandals.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Aircalin

flies from Auckland to Noumea five times a week, with Economy Class return fares starting from $539.

ONLINE
newcaledonia.travel