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New Caledonia: A jewel in the Pacific

Felicia Tan
Felicia Tan9/1/2022 05:31 PM GMT+08  • 13 min read
New Caledonia: A jewel in the Pacific
Poe Lagoon in Bourail on the Grand Terre. Photo: Ethan Li, New Caledonia Tourism (NCT)
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Why postcard-perfect New Caledonia should be on your bucket list

Before I took the direct flight between New Caledonia and Singapore on New Caledonia’s national carrier Aircalin in July, I knew little of this French territory. Located about 1,210km east of Australia, this 140-island archipelago at the southwest of the Pacific Ocean consists of three provinces — the North and the South, located on the New Caledonian mainland called the Grand Terre, and the Loyalty Islands Province, which includes three islands Lifou, Mare and Ouvea.

This hidden place has quite a following: In 2019, New Caledonia welcomed some 130,000 tourists, mainly from France, Australia, Japan and China. But at the height of the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, that number fell to 31,000.

The Heart of Voh, a natural formation in the middle of mangroves that spans around four hectares on the Grand Terre. Photo: Piergiorgio Pironne, NCT

Julie Laronde, managing director of New Caledonia Tourism, hopes to change that. “We want to establish New Caledonia [as a destination and choice] in the minds of customers,” she says at a media conference held at the Changi Experience Studio at Jewel Changi Airport on July 2 to launch New Caledonia’s flag carrier Aircalin’s direct flights to Singapore.

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The route between Changi Airport and New Caledonia’s La Tontouta International Airport, located in its capital city Noumea, takes eight-and-a-half hours. It is also the first time you can fly directly from Singapore to New Caledonia in more than 25 years. As the first non-stop service by Aircalin, the airline invited Options to fly to New Caledonia on one of the first flights to experience the territory’s beauty first-hand.

Island escape

British explorer James Cook named the untouched jewel New Caledonia in 1774, as the island’s northeast end reminded him of Scotland. But unlike the Scottish isles, New Caledonia is endowed with magnificent shorelines ringed with coral reefs, sparkling azure waters and a vibrant marine ecosystem.

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The vibrant marine life on display in New Caledonia. Photo: Pauline Masse, NCT

When it comes to the ultimate beach getaway, New Caledonia is no slouch compared to more famous destinations like the Maldives in Southern Asia or Bora Bora in French Polynesia. The shades of blue that make up a part of New Caledonia’s lagoon dazzled us even as we were about to touch down. It is the largest enclosed lagoon in the world and was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. It spans 24,000 sq km and is surrounded by 1,600km of the coral barrier reef while being home to 9,372 recorded species.

To get a closer look, you will want to visit Bourail in the North Province on the Grand Terre, where the lagoon is.

If that is not your thing, opt for the one-and-a-half-hour glass bottom boat tour that departs from the beach at Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Spa and Golf Resort. On the tour, you can observe the rich life within the lagoon. Snorkelling and scuba diving activities are also available if you prefer to swim.

The French territory welcomes whales during the winter season in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: Catamania, NCT

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Love whales? Visit New Caledonia during whale-watching season, which takes place in winter, from July to September. Every winter, the territory will welcome humpback whales that migrate to its tranquil shores from Antarctica and return in September.

Soak up the sun

If you love the beach life, head to the territory’s numerous postcard-perfect shores like Amedee Island (40 minutes away from Noumea by boat), Poe Beach in Bourail (about a three-hour drive from Noumea) and Upi Bay and Oro Bay on the Isle of Pines (or Ile des Pins).

The natural swimming pool at Oro Bay on the Isle of Pines. Photo: Sebastian Lebegue, NCT

When in New Caledonia, visiting the Isle of Pines is a must. Just a 25-minute domestic flight from the Noumea Magenta Airport or a two-and-a-half hour boat ride from Noumea, the Isle of Pines is one of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific. Located southeast of the territory’s Grand Terre, the island is known for its pristine sandy beaches, crystalline waters and tall pine trees.

One of the island’s highlights is visiting its natural pool, where you can swim or snorkel. The “pool” is an enclosed lagoon replete with shades of blue, protected from the crashing waves from the ocean by a majestic stone arch. Here, we highly recommend you bring your snorkelling gear and protective footwear for the water, as you will have to navigate through the shells and corals to get to the deeper end.

There are two ways to the pool, with the quickest way being a shuttle bus from the airport to the Le Meridien Ile des Pins. The hotel is also a five- to 10-minute walk to the pool. The entrance to the pool costs XPF1,000 ($11) per person.

A traditional Melanesian canoe, or an outrigger, at St Joseph's Beach on the Isle of Pines. Photo: Sebastian Lebegue, NCT

To see more of the island, you can opt for the tour that takes you to St Joseph’s Beach, about a 30-minute drive from the Moue-Ile des Pins Airport. You will cross the turquoise waters to Upi Bay on a traditional Melanesian canoe, also known as an outrigger. The trip to Upi Bay takes around an hour. Once there, there will be a 45- to 60-minute hike to the pool, including a river crossing.

Walk on the wild side

There is something for adventure-seekers in New Caledonia. If you want a bird’s eye view of the archipelago, do not miss skydiving or paragliding, where you can see the sparkling lagoons and reefs and the territory’s Heart of Voh, a natural formation in the middle of mangroves that spans around four hectares. It is three-and-a-half hours away from Noumea. Other activities include hiking, kayaking and horseback riding.

Experience the culture

When visiting a new place, understanding its culture is a must. A visit to the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea will help you better understand New Caledonia’s rich indigenous heritage. Founded and named after the independence movement leader, the cultural centre pays homage to New Caledonia’s indigenous and Kanak cultures.

The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea at dusk. Photo: O. Strewe, NCT

The centre, which opened in June 1998, was built to remember everything Tjibaou did for the Kanak people, says May Nemia, a desk officer at the centre. All the desk officers at the cultural centre speak English, French and their language.

Within the centre, three huts showcase exhibitions and artefacts, including traditional dwellings, that are significant to the history of the Kanak people. If you are keen on visiting the cultural centre, you can make an appointment beforehand. The entrance fee, which includes a guided tour, is XFP2,000.

Day trip in Noumea

During your trip to New Caledonia, be sure to leave a full day to explore Noumea itself. Within the capital city, there are plenty of things to do and see for families, individuals, friends and couples.

If you are a morning person, the sunrise at Ouen Toro is an unforgettable experience. The 123m-high lookout point offers a near-panoramic view overlooking the bay in Noumea, the lagoon, views of the capital’s trendy Anse Vata Bay and Baie des Citrons, and the 825m-high Mount Dore.

Once the sun is up, you can glimpse New Caledonia’s military history at Ouen Toro. There, you will find two World War Two-era cannons installed by the Australian military. The lookout point also offers vantage views of the idyllic Amedee Island and Duck Island, where daily tours are available.

The fluorescent coral that is part of the display at the Aquarium des Lagons. Photo: Toko, NCT

Then, there is the Aquarium des Lagons. The aquarium, founded in 1957, houses 1,150 fish across 56 species and from 250 colonies. It is the first to present fluorescent coral since 1958 and the first to introduce live nautilus (a type of marine mollusc) in 1962. The aquarium also serves as a rehabilitation centre for turtles, welcoming 15 a year.

Shopping excursions

Check out Le Jeudi du Centre-Ville, an open-air market that happens once every two months at the Place des Cocotiers. Here you will find a wide range of souvenirs, including popinee dresses that the missionaries introduced to the territory. You will also be able to find handmade bags, handmade straw hats, vanilla bean pods, honey and even fresh vegetables.

Vanilla pods from Lifou Island. Photo: Eric Aubry, NCT

Glorious food and hospitable locals

There are plenty of good eats to check out at Noumea, where you will find fresh seafood, French food, cuisine from Oceania, Kanak cooking and Asian dishes. One of the restaurants we visited was Le Roof in Anse Vata. The restaurant serves a menu of French and European cuisine and seafood and is perched over the waters, where you will get beautiful bay views.

One of the tables at Le Roof, which overlooks Anse Vata Bay. Photo: Groupe Cuenet, NCT

Fancy a tipple or two? The nightlife here, mainly located at the Baie des Citrons, will not disappoint. Tucked away at the city end at the Baie des Citrons, we enjoyed our time at the MV Lounge Noumea, which had great views of the beach, a great menu of food, drinks and French pop hits.

Five days in New Caledonia — which included tours in Bourail, Noumea and trips to Lifou Island and the Isle of Pines — went by too fast. I loved that the residents were so welcoming from the get-go. Even though they were mainly French-speaking, the locals were warm and hospitable. With so much beauty in one place, I am already dreaming of my next as I pen this.

Fly in style to New Caledonia

My journey began in Aircalin’s Business Hibiscus class from Changi Airport’s Terminal 3. Housed in Airbus’s latest A330neo aircraft, there are 291 seats spread across three categories: Business, premium economy and economy, with 26 seats in business and 21 in premium economy.

Aircalin’s A330neo at New Caledonia’s La Tontouta International Airport. Photo: Aircalin

On the plane, passengers also had a preview of what New Caledonia has to offer: From its yellow-headed coral and Melanesian patterns in business class to its flora motifs showcasing the territory’s diverse landscape in premium economy. Meanwhile, its inviting blue shades depict the territory’s lagoon in the economy class.

Inside business class, podlike seats served as inviting cocoons, which I settled into for the eight-and-a-half-hour flight. The duration may be long, but the comforts afforded me more than made up for it. The pods, for example, transformed into a fully-flat bed at the touch of a button. They also offer direct aisle access and, more importantly, space and privacy.

Aircalin’s Business Hibiscus class. Photo: Aircalin

Within each pod, there are other thoughtful touches such as a USB socket and a 110-volt socket for electronic devices, a 39cm high definition LED touch screen with remote control, and numerous storage compartments, including a “treasure box” for small belongings. The complimentary amenities pouch with lip balm and hand cream from Nuxe — along with an eye mask, socks and earplugs — was a nice touch.

We were served a glass of champagne once on board, which is always welcome. Also on hand was a menu of various New Caledonian and international favours. The dishes take their inspiration from the culinary specialities of New Caledonia, which include seafood and local vegetables. The airline also provided a selection of fine French wines to accompany our meals.

Frequently asked questions

Where is New Caledonia?
Located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, New Caledonia is south of Vanuatu and east of Australia. Brisbane, Australia, is the nearest city to the territory.

What language do the people speak?
French. While most of the residents can communicate in English, it’s always handy to have a translator on hand.

A Kanak song and dance performed by the We Ca Ca group. Photo: Silicia, NCT

What is the territory’s currency?
CFP Franc or XPF. You will only be able to change your money to XPF at the airport, where there’s a money changer. It is recommended that you change your Singapore dollars to Euros before making the trip.

How much will I need to have?
A five-day trip, which includes accommodation, meals and activities, can cost you around 100,000 XPF. But of course, it depends on the type of activities you’re looking to do.

How can I get Wifi or data?
You can get a SIM card at the airport in Noumea. Otherwise, your hotels and restaurants should be able to give you the Wifi password.

What can I buy from New Caledonia?
Plenty! The territory is known for its fresh vanilla bean pods, honey, coconut oil, just to name a few. At the flea market, you can also look for handmade bags, handicraft, as well as popinee dresses that are unique to New Caledonia. These dresses, which are made of cotton and are accented with lace, shells and embroidery patterns, were introduced to the territory by the missionaries.

Here, you’ll also find the territory’s own-brewed craft beers, rum and fresh seafood.

What are the residents like?
They are warm and welcoming. Residents in New Caledonia mainly comprise the indigenous Kanak community, Europeans, other Pacific Islanders, as well as Asians (including Indonesians, Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese).

The people here are mostly Protestant or Catholic due to the arrival of the missionaries in New Caledonia from 1840. There are also Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the same time, the Kanaks practice the more traditional aspects of their culture including ancestor worship.

When is the best time to go?
That depends. New Caledonia enjoys a mild climate. Its summer months, which is around December to January, will see temperatures rise to the early 30s in the day. Its winter months of July to August will see temperatures averaging around 22 to 24 degrees Celscius.

If you’re looking to avoid the peak seasons, May to June and September to October, which will see dry and sunny weather, are just as great.

You’ll want to avoid the low seasons, which are in November and February to April, where you can expect heavy rains.

How far is the international airport away from Noumea city centre?
The drive will take about one hour.

Head to https://www.newcaledonia.travel/en and https://www.aircalin.com/en for more information on New Caledonia and Aircalin

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