Pristine beaches, tick. Cocktails at sunset, tick. Great food and wine, tick.
Local market brimming with fresh seafood and local produce, tick. Warm smiles and genuine pleasure to see you, tick.
So, you think your bucket list is complete; but New Caledonia is unexpectedly so much more and that’s what makes it so interesting.
Add to your bucket list the diversity from the historic French government tenure, the native Kanak culture and the immigration from Vietnam, Indonesia, Tahiti and Wallis Island and it’s a rich melting pot of locals.
A multifaceted cultural heritage bequeathed by successive waves of settlers and all this so close for us (only a 2/1/2 hour flight with Aircalin from Auckland).
It’s a heady combination that delights and unfolds. You start chatting and stories and experiences shared are like a detailed tapestry. A rich mosaic. So much more interesting than cocktails on the beach.
At 5. 30a.m on a beautiful (still dark morning in Noumea) sadly leaving after my brief sojourn, my transfer driver Eric is busy explaining (in perfect English) the reason for the traffic at that time (as well as sporty lycra clad people on bikes, who appeared to be seriously training for some “Tour de Noumea”).
“Most of zee cars are people heading to work and zee people on zee bikes are keeping fit, before it gets too hot” Eric enthuses and then a simple observation provides a great revelation. “It’s a special place here, because we are often forgotten… you hear the news reports in your country saying that Cyclone Gabrielle is in the Coral Sea heading south, but they never say New Caledonia and we are in the Coral Sea! So, people often forget we are here.” That in essence is the complete charm of New Caledonia.
It’s not touristy - you don’t see a sea of suitcases in the hotel lobby and some loud frenzied guide running around screeching instructions, holding an umbrella in the air.
It’s delightfully not geared that way. Sure, cruise ships arrive for a day and you see some activity, but unlike some Pacific destinations tourism does not dominate the scene. For many in a post-Covid world, reflecting on what is now enjoyable when travelling, this has enormous appeal.
Also, if we are being candid and reflecting on pre-Covid travel experiences with huge long lines in over busy places that seem more like amusement parks – it’s nice for an authentic, more relaxed charm to surround you.
Other unexpected benefits are possibly initially seen as negatives – for example – shopping - you do not hear of people going to New Caledonia for shopping – it’s widely and often accurately considered too expensive - so no endless trips to outlets and Malls.
Your cell phone can really be put to one-side. Phone companies like Vodafone do not have inexpensive daily roaming packages in New Caledonia – so you arrive and keep you phone on flight mode for the duration and just use the hotel complimentary Wi-Fi. So, no endless calls and you can simply give yourself a break away.
On arrival in New Caledonia heading north from the airport (about 75 minute’s drive) to the quiet region of La Foa is the perfect means to start this serious relaxation.
This area is a multifaceted destination with its beaches bordered by the western coastal zone of the lagoon listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site plus hiking, mountain biking, horse-riding and plenty of adventure options – or like me the chance to sit and read in the quiet peaceful environment with the aroma of great food simmering on the stove - an extra, delicious bonus.
Visiting Annick Sadimoen at La Table du Banian is a must for any visitor. Here with panoramic views of lush forest you sit at tables decorated with local flowers and laden with local produce from her garden and surrounding gardens. She is an excellent cooking teacher, willingly sharing local produce knowledge and
the kitchen menu includes mangrove crab stack with local tomatoes and avocados, wild pork and outstanding deer, and a creamy side of ambrevade (pigeon peas) from her garden and corossol (soursop) mixed with a little sugar and mascarpone for dessert. It was incredible, but her joyous personality an added bonus. She willingly introduces you to others – for example, meeting Louise from Vanuatu in a near-by village to collect flowers felt very festive. Annick will also give you (book in advance) a personal tour of the local produce stalls and local cheese factory – you must sample the Vanilla yoghurt drink – yum-on- steroids.
Another very relaxed rural setting close by is Auberge de Pierrat - the owner Mr Jean-Jacques Delathiere is a delightful host on his 4-wheel drive showing you his farm and stock. He literally calls the cows over by name, like he would bring in a group of friends “come, come over here!” Hilarious.
Heading back to Noumea the local Magenta airport has a 40-minute flight (100k) out to Lifou one of the Loyalty Islands (60k long and 35k wide with 9,200 inhabitants). Cradled by trade winds and full of crystal clear water – there is serenity and beauty here. The names of the tribes are the names of the towns and it’s famous for its honey, so try some before you head home. Its lusciously full flavoured. Road side stalls sell honey, papaya and limes.
Book a rental car from the airport and five minutes away meet Mr Umako Passa of the Kumo tribe and
have lunch in his home at Traon. He and his wife Doris prepare generous local seafood platters for lunch and are a delight. Fresh coconut juice on arrival and a platter including local coconut crab (a land crab collected from the forest) and small delicious sleeper lobster, green papaya salad and Kanak cabbage (so good). Everything collected by them and prepared in their very simple outdoor kitchen.
Look hungry and they will bring out more food including pancakes from the breakfast and send you away with a small present with a big smile – a wind chime made with local shells.
Yvette from NZ booked a Casa hut (local traditional handmade hut) with them on Air B &B and stayed for 2 weeks.
The immaculate beaches and great diving, the steep coral cliffs of Jokin and the dense tropical forest in the centre of the island (a former lagoon) gives this island great contrasts, but also a very quiet and laid- back atmosphere.
Heading down the island a modern Hilton is under construction, but if you enjoy true local flavour and ok with sharing a simple bathroom and shower area –head to Tamanou Beach and stay with Eric Gaze and his family. He will prepare his signature lagoon fish with vanilla sauce and lobster on the BBQ (book this ahead) and you will literally be sleeping right by the beach in a simple hut.
Back in Noumea a few nights overlooking the lagoon at Chateau Royal Beach Resort and Spa was like being on a luxury cruise chip without moving. A super clean and modern room with a little kitchen and an outstanding pool area – plus a panoramic view of the boats - I wish I could stay for longer. The staff lead by GM Renaud Mahe make your stay very pleasant. https://www.hotelchateauroyal.nc/
I visited Noumea in 1972 as a school girl staying in a boarding school and was transfixed by the immersion into French culture – the smell of the freshly baked baguette, the citrus perfume in the air, the dressing up for dinner and sitting in the Baie Des Citrons looking out to sea.
Much has happened since, but this time like all those years ago – simple exchanges with the people make for the greatest reason to return. There is no evidence of tourism fatigue or cynicism here; from the joyful smile and warmth of Annick in the North through to the kind lady in the local market (a fellow customer) who gave me $1.75 NZ to make up my shortfall of cash so I could buy some flowers – it’s the real magic of the place.
Somehow these simple gestures are restorative, recharging and memorable.
You come away inspired and relaxed and an added bonus - a wonderful re-acquaintance with your school girl French – the years simply melted away.
MY TOP TEN FOODIE ADVENTURES IN NOUMEA
1. Le Ponton - it’s like being in a James Bond movie with all the excitement and thrills, but not the danger. Imagine arriving at a little bay and being met by a speed boat that takes you out for 10 mins on the
water to a restaurant on a pontoon that only serves local lagoon fish. Situated beyond Sainte-Marie island where you climb aboard the comfortable pontoon complete with underwater tunnel with 20 port holes to view the fish and even an area to soak up the sun and water. Open Tuesday to Sunday, owner Philippe Frolla (originally from Monaco and a marine biologist by training) selects the fish and seafood from the market for the daily menu. His knowledge of the local seafood is so extensive he has even created a fish guide on your table to help customers identify the fish they are enjoying. In the kitchen chef Robert presents a generous and tasty tapas platter – ceviche, fish rillettes and tuna tartare but the fresh lobster, delicious local prawns and simply cooked fish are so good out there on the water it’s unforgettable. One of those special moments when the people, place, food and wine we are all just right and in such a unique setting you don’t want to leave – if you don’t like seafood – fear not – there are other options. Book this lunch – considering the boat ride and the quality of the food – budget $120 NZD per person – curiously 95 percent of the patrons are locals – any tourist visiting Noumea and not having this experience is really missing out on a unique memory.www.leponton.nc
2. Dumbea Supermarket and Mall 11 k from the CBD. Not often a supermarket and a Mall make a top ten list, but this is a great place to visit. Free Wi-Fi, super clean toilets, ATM machine, a range of shops and a delicious well-priced, not crowded food court and coffee options BUT the airy, super planned
supermarket is one of the best I have ever encountered. A variety of food from all around the world (including NZ peanut butter and dairy products) and yes some is pricey, but I bought a beautiful caftan for $33 NZD. The hot food options in the supermarket looked amazing – hot pizza crafted with care, a local favourite - chicken and rice - through to Poisson Cru (raw fish salad) and local crab in the chilled section. If you were staying in a hotel with a little kitchen (fridge/microwave) or planning a picnic - you would do well to stock up.
3. Port Moselle market (open every day except Monday) Great local produce, fresh seafood and meats, plus stalls selling smart T-shirts (45$ NZD) and I bought a local island dress ($120 NZD) – all individually crafted by the lady selling them. A gastronomic highlight is the La Buvette du Marche a French inspired
café bar serving crispy croquet-madame for breakfast – a super cheese and ham toasted sandwich with a little béchamel cheese sauce inside and a fried egg on top ($5 NZD)– coffee to go as well and don’t leave before you visit Mamm Crepes a warm, super soft generous crepe made on the spot with great fillings ($3 NZD)– the Vietnamese nem (fried Spring rolls) ($2.40 NZD) also another great hot snack option.
4. Go to Au Petit Café for lunch and order the local fish dish for lunch and ask for a side order of cassava chips. Their cassava chips are worth flying there to sample. Their desserts are insanely good – but the cassava chips are lovingly prepared by going the extra mile. They boil the cassava well and then mash them, the pipe out the mash like a chipolata shape and then deep fly them till they are golden crispy and utterly addictive. Ask for the sauce au Bulldog (yes, dog sauce) taking it all to another level. (NB I Have the recipe and will work on it to share in a few months) main and dessert ($61 NZD) 8 Ave Carcopino.
5. Visit Au Peche Mignon for super baguette and the local specialty chouquettes – little choux pastry with a nutty topping (almond powder, icing sugar and egg white) and luscious pastry cream centre. Leave room to purchase one of their of their citrus (lemon) muffins. Imagine the most divine soft lemon drizzle cake in mini form with the addition of coconut milk. The lemon drizzle topping was crunchy and delicious Sandwiches and savoury items perfect for a picnic on display, Local jams on sale there and order the chouquettes ahead if you are visiting there in the afternoon as they sell out, they are so popular and considered the best in town. 13 rue Jules Garnier, Orphelinat, Noumea ph 27 24 25. Open 5.30am to 7.30 pm 7 days a week.
6. Visit Les Halles D’Alexandre this fine food shop has excellent French cheese and spices and a wide range of exotic items from imported salmon and caviar to unique local jams, flavoured oils and even jars of Turkish delight – very friendly ladies will help you select some treats to bring home to enjoy there.8 Edouard Glasser.
7. Visit Chocolat Morand for superb selection of chocolates, pastries and macarons – their canneles a sweet treat originally from Bordeaux and hard to perfect were deliciously chewy and full favoured. 13 98800 Rue Eugene Porcheron
8. Make a booking for lunch at La Guinguette – simply the most perfect local fish (filet de mulet roti) served with a light fish cream and creamy polenta and a little side of ratatouille ($41NZD) The fish was cooked perfectly – the secret according to the chef – one minute on one side and turn and cover – turn off heat and leave for 4 mins. Order a matcha tonic (matcha powder, basil, lime, honey and lemonade).For dessert, local vanilla ice-cream with a kiss of olive oil and microgreens and a fresh fig tart with exquisite pastry and pastry cream centre. Everything we ordered tasted like it was prepared with such care and skill. I keep thinking about that fish and fig tart. 2 Rue Georges Guynemer.
9. Head to Along Beach Café for some great Vietnamese food - their crab nem – local crab made into fried spring rolls that are a symphony of flavour, super crispy texture and great after taste – 10 of these
great rolls will set you back about $38nzd but they are worth every cent. Seriously had to stop myself eating them every day. Their dumplings and prawn salad were all good and the staff are used to visitors coming in and asking the team what they should order and returning the next night to order the same again. Galerie Palm Beach Anee Vata.
10. Go for a meal out of town to Café del Pap’s a French inspired bistro serving excellent fresh food options – we started with a prawn ceviche ($30 nzd) that was a stunning combination of super fresh raw thinly sliced prawns dotted with citrus, thin slices of radish and passionfruit. Leave room to have the prawn Buddha Bar inspired salad – chef Fabrice Papaya
(I’m not joking, what a name for a chef in a tropical location) originally from Martinique and having worked in Paris at the Buddha Bar has only been in Noumea a few months and is excited about the fusion food – the great mixing of the cultures - in his new home. He is enjoying all the local raw fish salads and the shell fish. So, he takes the Buddha Bar chicken cabbage salad and replaces the chicken with fresh local prawns and the base of the Asian dressing has the addition of a few mayonnaise ingredients and to give extra flavour and crunch a scattering of black sesame seeds and very thinly sliced friend wonton wrappers – not to be missed! 6 rue Diego-Sanuy.
Photo credit: @MolaMolaprod @Marine Reveilhac