My Trip to New Caledonia
About New Caledonia (and why we chose it)
I was planning a little escape over the Easter holidays earlier this year with my girlfriend for sometime and after some discussions and reading reviews we decided to visit New Caledonia (or Nouville Caledonie as the French call it). There's just something about French culture that both of us found appealing and I heard from some friends that New Caledonia was literally like being in France - only at the other end of the world.
Situated at roughly a third of the way from Sydney to Honolulu, New Caledonia is one of 3 French dependencies in the Pacific ocean (the other two being French Polynesia and Wallis & Futuna). Originally settled the Kanak and other Melanesian indiginous groups, European settlement actually began with the British followed by the French (who colonized the other side of the main island, Grand Terre). The French eventually took control of the whole of New Caledonia and set it up as a penal colony until the discovery of Nickel. The economy of New Caledonia has since advanced heavily - thanks to Nickel mining and generous subsidies from France and it is today, along with its capital city, Noumea, one of the South Pacific's most industrialized territories.
Coming back to planning our trip, we decided to explore this fascinating island and booked our flights, not really knowing what to expect given our complete lack of knowledge of the French language.
Flying into Noumea
We booked our flights on New Caledonia's flag carrier, Aircalin, which operates regular flights from the island to Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane), New Zealand (Auckland), Japan (Tokyo) and neighboring Pacific countries including Fiji and Vanuatu.
After a slow and rainy journey into Sydney airport, we stepped on board our flight SB141, an Airbus A330-300 to Noumea's Tontouta international airport, which is located around 50 kms north of Noumea city. The flight was comfortable and in-flight amenities were pretty decent considering Aircalin's not exactly a household name and the flight from Sydney to Noumea took us roughly 3 hours. Put it in perspective, that's similar flying time between Sydney and Auckland, or say Singapore and Hong Kong.
Delays at Noumea Airport
We all know long queues at immigration and customs can drive even the most seasoned travellers wild - Noumea airport was no different. Upon landing my partner and I waited to get through immigration and customs for almost an hour thanks to lack of staff.
However, this was going to be, as we soon realized the least of our troubles - thanks to our little oversight regarding organizing an airport transfer to our hotel.
La Tontouta airport is around 50 kms north of Noumea by road and after hours service by public transport is more or less non-existent. Taxis do not operate freely and only arrive on demand - with fares easily north of $100.00 AUD per trip into the city. In light of this, we decided to awail the the more popular option, a scheduled private bus transfer from the airport to the city Though it is relatively inexpensive (3,500 XPF per person or 6,000 XPF for a couple) and reliable, it is far from adequate when it comes to catering for passenger numbers and incoming flights.
The wait for the next bus lasted an eye-watering two hours upon exiting the terminal, with passengers getting increasingly frustrated and mosquitoes feasting on our veins.The staff also seemed a bit non-interested, but I guess one can't blame them given they have no control on schedules. A bus eventually did turn up at around 11:00 PM, and we were finally on our way to our hotel - where we would eventually settle in at 1:00 AM the next morning!
General word of advice re airport transfers here from first hand experience would be to book one with your hotel in advance or to just rent a car and drive off.
Exploring Noumea City
We woke up the next morning (Saturday) to a beautiful view into the Coral Sea from our hotel-room's balcony (Our hotel being the Hilton La Promenade Residences) and the tranquil of the area helped us put the unpleasantness of the previous night away.
After a decent breakfast at one of the cafes around the hotel, we decided to take a walk along Promenade Laroque and and breathe in the pure sea-breeze across Anse Vata beach and feel the romance of the Francophonic atmosphere.
Our first stop was the Noumea Aquarium, which despite its small size, hosts a good variety of local sea-life with a section exclusively for the larger fish, including Sharks! For only 1000 XPF (XPF standing for the Pacific Franc, the official currency in both New Caledonia and French Polynesia), the aquarium is definitely worth a visit if not a must do during your stay in Noumea.
As we left the aquarium, we decided to take a bus right into the city center - which is actually a lot further than one would imagine from Anse Vata beach. The local buses in Noumea are clean and reliable and probably the only 'cheap' way to travel across this stunning landscape - a day ticket costing only 200 XPF.
Noumea city is predominantly characterized by the hill towards the north which contains Noumea Cathedral, the main thoroughfare, Chinatown and the Cineplex near Gare-Moselle. Though there's really not much to see in the city, we decided to walk along Chinatown before heading to the New Caledonian museum. For an entry fee of (if I remember clearly), 400 XPF, you can get a glimpse of New Caledonian history and can even step into a traditional New Caledonian hut. There isn't really much to see in Noumea, but I guess if you are you might as well take a walkabout and check out the museum. As we made our way back to the hotel by hopping on a city-bus, we stopped by a magnificent French bakery just 500 meters east of our Hilton and stocked up some eclairs and croissants for breakfast next morning - this was truly one of those moments where we thought we were in Paris and felt this was a trip absolutely worth every coin and effort! This bakery also has a liquor store that houses cheap but quality imported French wine for as low as 800-1000 XPF however this shop was closed at the time due to the Easter holidays.
A word of warning about Noumea city is that there are certain 'dodgy' elements of society who frequent the area around the main bus stop and the cinemas - we actually witnessed teenagers smoking drugs and later a couple of seemingly homeless adults giving us intimidating looks. Incidents of locals attacking tourists are almost non existent in Noumea and as such across New Caledonia however its best to not approach shady looking characters given they could be under the influence of drugs or just angry and wishing to start up trouble.
Nightlife in Noumea and the Lunar Eclipse
Given the high visibility of tourists in New Caledonia (like any other Pacific nation really), the city does boast some nightlife - its not huge, but it does have quality.
The clubs, restaurants and bars of Noumea predominantly line up Promenade Laroque and are active until at least 1 or 2 AM during weekends if not all 7 days. There is a lot of variety in what once can eat - you can find anything from Pizza joints to fine dining establishments like La Bodega. We decided to visit the La Bodega Tapas bar, which is located in water on stilts. The atmosphere was very eclectic with a decent choice of snacks and drinks available and the waiters were pretty friendly too. What made this joint even more lively was the random dance routines performed by ordinary locals on cue - which sort of gives away the very laid back Euro-Islander lifestyle in Noumea.
As we finished up at La Bodega, we strolled back to Hilton in time to witness the Pacific lunar eclipse which had just begun casting its shadow. Despite the weather forecasts expecting rain, we were blessed with a clear night and witnessed a spectacular total lunar eclipse or 'blood moon'.
Overall, it was a lovely day spent exploring Noumea and we tucked in for the night to wake up early next morning and head to Amadee Island.
Easter Sunday at Amadee Island
Easter Sunday in Noumea, and my girlfriend and I woke up early in the morning to get ready on yet another beautiful sunny morning and await our transfer to one of Noumea's wharfs. We had booked a day trip to Amadee Island, an island with a remote light-house on it around 45 mins south of Noumea. Amadee Island is a must-visit attraction for anyone in New Caledonia as it bears a lot of historic and natural significance. It was built under orders from Napolean III and is situated in one of the densest coral reefs of the world (2nd only to Australia's Great Barrier reef).
Amadee Lighthouse also boasts hosting the world's smallest post-office, a healthy load of sea-kraits and one of the densest populations of turtles. For the cost of roughly 20,000 XPF (including fuel-surcharges for the boat), tourists get an all-inclusive package that consists of the boat transfers between the island and Noumea harbor, a full 3 course buffet lunch including wines and spirits, a Polynesian dance performance and photo session with the performing ladies, visit to the bar and souvenir shop (no freebies here :) and two boat cruises across the reef - one to view the underwater marine life through a glass boat and the other which takes tourists further off-shore to feed fish (including sharks).
The whole experience lasted us a day and was worth the money - during our free time we could sit by the beach or swim in the waters - the only thing worth noting is that the surface beneath the sea is sharp due to the corals and there is not much sand about. Climbing up the Amadee lighthouse is also impossible at this stage due to pending renovation works. The New Caledonian authorities have not yet advised of a tentative date of completion.
Apart from this tiny inconvenience, our visit to Amadee Island was certainly the cherry on the cake and as we made our way back to Noumea, we were content with what we had seen so far and were now looking forward to our flight back to Sydney the next day.
The Journey Home
Easter monday, and we finally were ready to pack up and head home. Though our holiday only lasted 4 days, it felt like we had stayed there a lot longer and wished we could definitely come back again now that we were familiar with a few things.
Fortunately, our journey back to La Tontouta airport was less eventful - the Hilton Hotel organized an airport transfer without any fuss for us for 6000 XPF (the same amount we paid for the bus that shuttled us into Noumea on Friday night) - thought you need to inform the hotel at least 24 hours in advance. As we drove on the New Caledonian Highway 1 (Route Territoriale 1), we were simply amazed at the stunning beauty of the New Caledonian landscape - high hilltops to valleys and sea-shores and felt rather accompolished about our first overseas holiday together as a couple.
After some duty-free shopping at the airport, we were on our way back home to Sydney on board Qantas flight# QF92, a Boeing 737-800NG and made it back home (greeted in Sydney by thunderstorms!) in 3 hours.
Summary and Tips
I hope this hub served as a useful and entertaining read for anyone who's keen on visiting this beautiful country.
The below points should summarize what any tourist should know about New Caledonia if they are travelling there for the first time:
1) New Caledonia is a special French territory - the capital Noumea is located towards the South-Eastern end of the territory's main island, Grand Terre. Geographic co-ordinates for Noumea are roughly 165 degrees East and 22 Degrees South. The entire archipelago uses the UTC+11 timezone.
2) The weather is rather unpredictable given New Caledonia's location. It's best to travel between June and September (The southern hemisphere winter) as these are the driest months - we traveled during Easter and the weather was somewhat damp for the first two days of our trip.
3) Many people visit New Caledonia and Noumea on ship (the cruises then proceed to Isle of Pines, which is otherwise expensive to travel to) but Noumea airport is well connected to Oceania with airlines like Aircalin, Qantas, Air New Zealand and Fiji Airways servicing regular connections to major cities in the region. La Tontouta International Airport however is located 50 kms north of Noumea so its best to book airport transfers in advance or organize a rental car as taxis are infrequent and bus-transfers can take forever in waiting times (if not booked in advance).
4) French is the official language in New Caledonia and is deeply rooted in New Caledonian culture. English and Japanese are widely spoken (There are 2nd and 3rd generation Japanese-New Caledonians who most likely migrated after the second world war while American troops were stationed there which explains the popularity of the Japanese language) in Noumea however its best to learn or try to understand some basic French.
5) Public transport in Noumea is the best way to go about but if you can help it, rent a car. The roads are in good condition with speed limits of up to 110 kph (70 mph) - although I saw plenty of locals driver a lot faster at least on the motorway. Driving standards are at international competence and New Caledonia rivals New Zealand as the South Pacific's best driving country so it is a good idea to use that opportunity. However New Caledonia has almost no street-view and GPS data on Sat-Navs (I didn't notice any of the car-rental majors offer Sat-Nav as an option) so its best to travel with a map while driving. Many petrol stations in New Caledonia also shut down for lunch and during nights so please ensure your car's filled up with a full tank of fuel, loaded with correct tyre pressures and in good condition if you're driving into the countryside. On a more serious note, there have been cases of drink driving and crashes due to excessive speed on both the highways and within urban limits of Noumea due to very lax enforcement by police so its best to not drive about at night unless you have to.
6) Noumea is an industrialized, 'developed' city in every way possible - the city's clean, civil and tap water is safe to drink. However, given its tropical location, mosquito borne diseases are prevalent and it is best to carry and an insect repellent and sit in air-conditioned surroundings at all times (unless of course you're having fun at the beach or exploring the city on foot :)
7) The standard of living in Noumea is high (don't be surprised to see the locals drive cars like AMG Mercs and Porsches) but so is the cost of living. The national currency is the French Pacific Franc and despite it being fairly devalued against the likes of USD and AUD, things are fairly expensive up there including food, accommodation and costs to rent a car. For example, we found a pizza shop charging in excess of the equivalent of $50.00 AUD for two pizzas.and breakfast prices from a half decent cafe are easily comparable if not higher than what we pay here in Sydney.Speaking of money, Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted while American Express is accepted at more major hotels, shops and restaurants.
8) You can remain well-connected to the outside world while in New Caledonia. Broadband internet speeds are good and 3G is widely available around Noumea and surrounding areas. However, NCL Mobilis,probably the only cellular service provider on the territory is expensive and to my knowledge has no discount-roaming arrangements with overseas carriers. It is best to purchase your own cellular provider's roaming-data/call pack prior to leaving home or stick to wi-fi.
8) Noumea as a city is fairly safe and tourist friendly. However the sad fact is that the indigenous Kanak people of New Caledonia have more or less been excluded from economic growth. There are tensions regarding the New Caledonian identity (the territory does use its own flag apart from the French one) and hostilities between the indigenous and European population have occasionally reached boiling point in the past. Your country's embassy will advise you of any unrest so reconsider your travel into Noumea's city-center if anything suspicious is brimming.
Hope this helps :)