From market to restaurant, budget to high-end, there are many culinary options in New Caledonia. Right now, the exchange rate is not wildly favourable to those travelling with NZ currency but there are ways to flex your dollar, writes Sarah Daniell
Noumea is described as the Paris of the Pacific. But while the French flavour packs a punch, the cuisine of the capital of New Caledonia and, more broadly the main island - Grand Terre - owes more to influences of its diverse population. The indigenous Kanak, Melanesian, Vietnamese, Chinese. Coconut crab, blue prawns, raw fish, mangrove oysters, crepes, siu mai, warm baguette and coconut glace. For an authentic Kanak experience you’ll have to travel further, to the northeast of Grand Terre to experience the most celebrated indigenous dish, bougna: root vegetables such as taro with chicken or seafood, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over fire.
Here are some top picks for the best New Cal nosh.
Pack a picnic
It’s Sunday and Port Moselle, Noumea’s biggest market, is amping. Set among sprawling hexagonal buildings with distinctive blue tiled roofs, the produce is abundant and you can gather armfuls of fruit and vegetables, or sit and drink good strong Melanesian-style coffee while watching kids on skateboards, buskers, and couples and families having brunch. There are queues for coffee and crepes but it moves quickly. We buy the best lettuce I have ever eaten. I am not usually aroused to exaltation by lettuce, but this one was so fresh and sweet. We make sandwiches with it later, adding cheese, ham and tomatoes. It’s the lettuce that keeps on giving. At the market we sit at a small table and eat croque monsieur. We’ve bought pineapple, papaya, tomatoes and bananas small and sweet. At a nearby table, a group of musicians jam on guitars and their melody carries across the stalls. There are stalls with souvenirs, wooden carvings, lava lavas, jewellery, clothing in bright prints. We order coconut glace, and drink coconut verte from the husk with a straw. Port Moselle Noumea Market: Open Tuesday-Sunday 5am-11.30am.
DIY dining: At the Marche Supermarket
You might have bought duty free, but you’ll need mixers with that. At Michel-Ange supermarche in Noumea, we linger at the cheese aisle in a state of reverential wonder. All the cheese: soft, gooey brie, goats cheese, comte. Finding crackers is a kind of singular voyage of discovery, wrapped, as they are in unfamiliar paper or cellophane, with descriptions and labels I spend an inordinately long time trying to decipher. Visiting a supermarket at home may be drudgery, but here it is worthy of its own tourism attraction sub-category. The supermarche is where you can see and sense cultural nuance. What the shelves reveal in turn reveals the people and the place. The aisles of possibilities. Tomatoes, herbs, sweet potato, taro, tropical fruit. They are places to get lost, absorbed, tired, surprised and hungry. At la bouchere, I’m trying to find venison, which is abundant and popular in New Caledonia. But seeing I’m struggling and that my children are bored, a woman next to me asks me, in perfect English, “What is it that you are looking for - I can help?” I explain and she in turn relays it in French to le boucher, who immediately sighs and says, “Desole!” So, instead, I buy three small pieces of steak and thank her. Outside, our rental car has been blocked slightly by a motorbike, which is in turn blocked in by several others. A dude bystander, smoking outside, starts to lift the motorbike, though it’s not his, so I can reverse and then a couple of other people join in, moving the others and waving their hands to indicate “droit” au “gauche” as I reverse. Everyone is invested. “Normale.” We head to our home for the night, with fresh baguette, cheeses, salty treats in packets, coffee, water, mixers, lemons for gin.
To the island
The trip to Amedee Lighthouse Island takes about 40 minutes from the marina in Noumea. It’s a large, comfortable boat to travel 24 kilometres west off the Noumea’s shore and should you have missed breakfast, you can buy decent coffee and pillowy pastries on board. We had dithered the day before, when deciding whether to do the trip because that particular day was not sunny, there was a cold breeze and the trip is not cheap. We do not want to spend our last day expensively, on an island in the wind, blanketed by overcast skies. But as Roberto says, leaning on the railing of the Mary-D Seven as we head out of the marina, it is different once you get to the island. He says this with conviction and he is right. About 20 minutes into the trip to the outer reef, the sun blazes and the water dazzles. Amedee Island is 400m long and 270m wide. It’s fringed with white sand beaches and the centrepiece is the lighthouse. Built in France by an engineer from the Eiffel Tower workshops in Paris, it towers 56m above the island. We walk up the spiral staircase to the top and look out. The Mary-D Seven is a tiny white toy. The majestic trees are model props in an imaginary garden. We take photos. We go snorkelling and then it’s time for lunch. Which brings me back to the dithering the day before. It’s a challenge, sometimes, to be in unison as three on holiday. But if you can do one thing in Noumea, do this trip. The place itself is breathtaking, a testament to conservation and kaitiaki, but the manakitanga and the spread are a revelation. At outside wooden tables under trees, we feast on a Pacific-French fusion of raw fish, mussels, stuffed tomatoes, baguette, spicy pickles, pulled pork and sweet potatoes. We drink good wine and “welcome cocktails” and finish with fresh passionfruit, yoghurt and friand. And then we lie in the sun like it’s Christmas Day. amedeeisland.com
Baie des Citrons
Restaurants, bars and cafes line the street that follows La Plage de la Baie des Citrons. Once we check into our Airbnb, we walk around the corner, past the bar-nightclub on the corner (which later, we discover, will pump till the small hours), to Babar Cafe. We grab a table with an uninterrupted view along the bay, our elbows resting on the window sill as we watch people promenade along the beach. Babar Cafe is eccentrically curated, full of colour and character. There’s Warhol-style art, flamingo sculptures, comfy couches and a retro tabletop foosball game. A large neon sign says “I will shine for you” and they aren’t lying. We order burgers - towering monsters that come with baskets of fat chips and salad, and a chicken caesar salad so large it could easily feed two. It’s garnished with bright flowers and palm fronds, and there’s enough to put in a takeaway container for later. The coffee is said to be very good here, and will set you back around NZ$4.50. But it’s lunchtime, our first meal in Noumea, so we order cold Number One beer ($8) - the local lager and an outlandish milkshake, a tower of decadence in a glass, for 1200 Pacific Francs (XPF) - or $18.
Le Jardin du Poe
It is what it says - a small local restaurant run by a Frenchman, set in a garden of frangipani, bromeliads, lychee trees and banana palms, in Cote de Poe. We have a table booked for 7pm. It’s so dark that we drive past twice before we see the small sign and driveway leading to the entrance. Everything here is open so the breeze wafts into the restaurant, and we order passionfruit cocktails in tall, slim glasses. The waiter brings slithers of deep-fried sweet potato in a basket and takes our order. We have duck and crab and a meal that takes me right back to Southeast Asia - a plate full of little elements full of piquant flavours. Rice, beef curry, cucumber, sambal and chilli. We finish with fresh mint tea.
Get there early for freshly baked croissants and pastries. They sell out fast. But stay for lunch - their fresh tuna poke bowls are out-the-gate gorgeous and fresh. In the small kitchen, separated from the grocery store (which sells fresh produce, bread, toothpaste, first aid items, honey, candles), they create a simple fresh and reasonably priced menu. We sit in the early morning sun, with our bags of bread, yoghurt and bananas, and drink excellent coffee.
Order “to go” from the pizzeria, or a delivery meet the cool guy at the gate in his 4WD who says “Normale!” when you thank him and, “I think you will enjoy it.” La Raclette is on the menu of Pizza Nera, in La Roche Percee, Bourail, and its tempting but we opt instead for a large “Reine”: mozzarella, oignons, jambon, olives, champignons ($34). But I have a yearning for a “Napolitaine” and I might definitely-maybe-have to go back.
WHERE TO STAY: With buffet breakfast included
Chateau Royal Resort and Spa
Up the sweeping driveway from Promenade Roger Laroque is Chateau Royal Resort, which overlooks the curvature of the bay and the wide ocean beyond. The swimming pool, just below, is nearly empty of people in the early evening and we sit on the deck watching the sunset and plot our night moves. We need to get a cocktail in that bar later. We need to dive into that pool. We have one fleeting night in this fancy hotel, but the impression lingers in the memory. We would usually avoid hotels, to be honest, because the experience takes you further from the essence of a culture. But I would vehemently suggest treating yourself to a night here before heading off to explore the hills or the outer islands. When we arrive in our suite, the kitchen has full cooking facilities (if that’s your jam) - large shiny pots and pans, serious frypan, knives - good knives - all of which look unused and will remain so for our stay, which seems a kind of sacrilege. The room is subtly lit and there’s a large vase of flowers, a small plate of macons and a welcome note signed “Valentin”. Two bedrooms, with their own ensuites, both grander in scale than our bathroom at home, and a personal, warm, feel. We head out that night, but I am not sure why because I have dreamt many times since, of hiding in that room. Going nowhere, except to float in a sarong and bikini, down to the pool or to sit in the garden and gaze at everything and nothing. But we explore, heading to a to a Vietnamese restaurant at Anse Vata, in the main area where there are many restaurants, and order curry and a couple of starters. Two mains to share between the three of us, and one glass of wine cost - I’m not sure how much exactly because I am trying to erase it from my memory. I desperately wanted to find good Vietnamese in Noumea. But on reflection, I realised we had, days earlier, at the market. Vietnamese spring rolls packed with fresh herbs, singing with flavour, served in plastic containers and enjoyed while listening to musicians jamming in the sunshine. After the Vietnamese dinner, we walk back to the hotel just five minutes up the road, where we head straight for the garden bar and order cocktails and discuss the past nine glorious days. The next morning, the buffet breakfast pastries (pan au chocolat and pain au raisin, croissant), scrambled eggs, omelette, sausages, hashbrowns, fried rice, noodles, juice, coffee. We sit outside and take it all in, before checking out - of the hotel and Noumea - for the return home. hotelchateauroyal.nc
Hilton Promenade Residences
A large wedding party has gathered. The aunties wear flowers in their hair. They fan themselves in the lobby, dressed in their finery. The younger ones wear white pressed shirts, smooth braided hair. We see them all again at breakfast. It’s only 10.30am but one guy has beer. It looks like a fun crowd. Hotel lobbies provide ideal people-watching conditions; a place to observe while you wait for the bus, the pool towels, the extra coffee pods for the machine or the key to the room. Our large, self-contained, three-bedroomed apartment resembles the aspirational dwelling often found on the side of a cliff in the eastern suburbs of Tāmaki Makarau: it has a living room begging for a party. Doors open onto a balcony and from the table, the sea views stretch out beyond the low-key bustle of Anse Vata. There’s a pool, which we never make it to. I cook steak badly, and we make a salad. We eat yet more bread, and sit outside, looking at the dancing lights on the water, the TV screens in neighbouring windows, in apartments that are probably permanent residences because they have pot plants, and we wonder and speculate about their lives.
Christmas and New Year in Noumea
The Nouméa Féérie, December 1 to January 1, features a range of free shows and events. With nightly performances at the bandstand, featuring circus acts, theatre, and music by both local talents and international artists from Catalonia, Australia, and Mexico. From December 9-31 at Place des Cocotiers: the Festival of Light.
For more things to see and do in New Caledonia, visit newcaledonia.travel/en