New Caledonia Stories and Tips

French is Back on the Menu

citron Photo, New Caledonia, South Pacific

Let's face it, finding a suitable holiday destination is a bit of a challenge at the moment. For all the reasons we're bombarded with, many of our most popular destinations are off the 'must do' list for now.

On the flip-side, other locations, particularly domestic, are coming back into vogue. Some of our near international neighbours are also experiencing something of a renaissance, particularly New Caledonia, where visitors are rediscovering the exotic blend of French and Melanesian cultures in the idyllic South Pacific setting.

Always a popular cruise destination, P&O's brand new Pacific Princess recently visited the capital, Noumea, on its maiden voyage. Noumea is also well served by air through the Tontouta International Airport and the smaller domestic airport of Magenta.

The national carrier, Air Caledonia International (AirCalin), flies to Noumea daily and is adding a sparkling new 271-seat Airbus A330 to its fleet in January.

The last time I was in Noumea, I was still in short pants. In fact the French colonial outpost was my first true overseas experience as I trundled along behind my parents on our P&O cruise. The fact that the brazenly opulent Pacific Princess was in dock on her maiden voyage was just another dose of nostalgia.

New Caledonia's maritime tradition goes way back to our beloved Captain James Cook who discovered and named the island during his very busy second voyage in 1774. Apparently the mountainous, heavily forested 16,000 sq km main island reminded him of the islands off the stormy Scottish coast. (Caledonia was the Roman name for Scotland) Or maybe he was just plain homesick?

From the beginning of the 19th century there was some to-ing and fro-ing with the British and French until Napoleon III made his intentions clear in 1853. A good call as it turned out, because the island was rich in minerals, particularly nickel, and a factor that ensured a lively economy for the little Territoire d'Outre-Mer.

During WWII New Caledonia became the USA's pacific base for the campaign against the Japanese. That done, the stunned locals were well-and-truly shaken out of any dozy South Pacific nonchalance and dropped firmly in the hurly-burly of the real world. Local political activity developed, not always to the delight of the French, and tourism gradually became an increasingly significant source of revenue. Around 100,000 visitors now visit New Caledonia annually.

In the last few years, New Caledonia has become less reliant on tourist arrivals from France and more regionally focussed, whilst stubbornly retaining its quaint French colonial heritage. This inflexible colonial allegiance has preserved New Caledonia's character, creating a distinctive cultural outpost in the midst of Anglophilic Anzac territory.

New Caledonia's tourism catch-phrase; "France's best kept secret", will soon become redundant if the strength of their current marketing is anything to go by. Australian television audiences are seeing the first ever commercials for the islands, promoting enticingly priced packages that stand competitively against rivals such as Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand.

As soon as you set foot in Noumea you know you're overseas. You're instantly surrounded by funny little French cars all on the wrong side of the road. Everyone you talk to has to think twice before answering. Some just shrug their shoulders and smile, clearly oblivious to your request. I've been to France, so I dare not burden any of these friendly faces with my high school French, although you're much more likely to find someone who admits to speaking a little English than in Paris's Gare du Nord.

Downtown Noumea is barely recognisable from the little I remember all those years ago. Smart shopping arcades, a rejuvenated Coconut Place (park) in the central shopping district and modern, freshly painted buildings. Even with the huge cruise ship in port, the town centre was delightfully unhurried. Australian visitors will be tempted to draw comparisons with Cairns, Townsville or the Gold Coast, but the lack of brash, gawdy accoutrements (and all that brings) will continually set Noumea apart.

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