In our part of the world we're spoilt for choice when it comes to tropical islands. So when Diana Noonan finds herself heading to the same patch of South Pacific for the fourth time, you know it’s somewhere special.
Book the ticket, pack the tent and throw in the snorkel and mask (you can buy the machete when you get there) – travel plans don’t get much simpler when New Caledonia is your destination. On this 350km-long slice of French Pacific paradise, surrounded by coral reef and azure lagoon, my best experiences have always involved the ocean and everyday island life.
From Noumea, the capital, the gateway to paradise is Col d’Amieu, a winding pass leading across the island to the East Coast. It's everything you’d expect from a Pacific island, from bark-roofed huts to coconuts dropping onto empty white-sand beaches. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to get there because en route is Poe, the Noumeans’ favourite water-sport playground and a perfect place for visitors to people watch. Armed with a basic tent, a bottle of wine and a baguette, city escapees kite board the waters and sit around campfires, socialising in that easy way the holidaying French have perfected. (The Poe campground offers equipment hire if you want to pick up a wave.)
If you’re self-catering, stock up on groceries and buy yourself a machete before you hit the East Coast. Shops don’t have much of a presence in this self-sufficient part of the country – you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled for the trucking depots which frequently double as bread outlets. The machete (available from any local store) will cost just a few francs and will quickly become your best friend. Use it to chop kindling, hack the tops off coconuts and shave skin from the taro and igname (yam) you’ll want to boil over your campfire.
Neither the secluded beaches nor the tribal-run camp grounds and gîtes (Kanak-style holiday cabins) that fringe them are usually signposted. The secret to finding them is to take the rough-track turn-offs leading into the bush. Always ask before pitching your tent, carry cash for payment and, as the sun dips below the water, don’t be surprised if one of the locals arrives with a plate of grilled fish to share, and all the time in the world to talk.
Step lightly on the gas when on the open road or you might miss one of the highlights of the East Coast – the grass-verge stalls selling grapefruit as big as your head, long, silky-skinned pawpaw and woven baskets of plantain. But there’s another reason to slow down: speed is not appreciated by the Kanak, the island’s indigenous inhabitants, who amble along the roadsides on their way to gardens, school, church or the homes of relatives. If you’re in the Tuhoe region on a Sunday, follow the family groups strolling to the local church and join in with a service to hear some lovely harmonised Pacific singing.
Off-beach snorkelling is a feature of the East Coast, where fish and coloured corals are almost always just a few metres from shore. But weirder underwater worlds can be found further out in the lagoon. I took a half day snorkel and dive tour with Babou Côté Océan, a small-scale operation based at a simple but idyllic camp ground a short drive from the town of Hienghène. A 12-minute runabout trip – surrounded by flying fish the whole way – took us to Hienga Islet, where we got up-close to fluorescent giant clam and listened to the rasping of parrot fish gnawing at banks of iridescent coral. Seasoned underwater adventurer though I am, this was like visiting another universe.
The further north you go on Grand Terre, New Caledonia's main island, the more the pace cranks down. With nothing much else to do, you've plenty of time to eat your way along the stalls at Hienghène’s covered market (Tuesday and Friday 6am-midday). This is where French and Pacific cuisines meet in a unique, rustic fusion: huge, mouth-watering rounds of ash-coated, Dutch-oven brioche, rugged patisseries and vast wheels of torte with flame-licked crusts.
Say a serious goodbye to the rest of the world as you grind your way across the Tao River just north of Hienghène on the island’s last remaining car ferry. Fortunately, the ferry's slightly dilapidated appearance belies its grunt, but you'll still feel like a castaway when you reach the other side and encounter the wild horses of the forgotten far north and tiny settlements announced by little else but roadside carvings.
It can be a shock to the system to arrive back in the capital after the other-worldly calm of the remote north, and you shouldn’t be surprised if Noumeans stare disbelievingly when you tell them where you’ve been. Rural Grande Terre is not tourist country – not for the French and not for 90 percent of the visitors to the island whose only experience of the country is likely to be a city nightclub and an urban beach. But one thing is sure: once you’ve lived life outside the capital, and seen for yourself that time really can stand still, I guarantee you’ll be as reluctant to leave New Caledonia (or part with your machete) as I always am.