ARRIVING AT FIRST LIGHT, New Caledonia is a bit of shock to the senses, as I work my way through the renovation rubble of the airport terminal, with caveman-like attempts to use my rusty school French. But stepping outside, as the humid sea air reaches my skin, I feel myself slowing down. It's hard not to on an island such as this - where nothing happens at a fast pace, and the iridescent blue whirl of the landscape is a visionary delight. Somehow, even pine trees growing next to palm trees make sense here. You can see the French influence everywhere on this Polynesian paradise. Not only in the language, but in the fine croissants, delicate handmade chocolates and croque-monsieurs on every corner.
Captain Cook, who discovered this island in 1774, was so struck by the semblance of this island to his father's home of Scotland that he named it New Caledonia. The island was claimed by the French in 1854 and hasn't looked back since. The island itself is set behind the world's largest lagoon (24,000 sq. km), a wonderful sight from the air and the shore with its rainbow of blues and greens. The coral reef here measures 8000 sq. km and has over 900 varieties of coral and 15,000 types of marine life. Four of the seven species of sea turtles call this home.
Of course, the lagoon is one of the main reasons that anyone comes here. And it's the main reason why my friend, Kelly, and I are here. We want to see exactly what the island has on offer for people who love to spend their time in the water. Trouble is there is so much to do. We're only here for 10 days and it seems like there is just not enough time to do everything. We could go wind surfing (they've hosted the world championships here), kite surfing (New Caledonia is on the world tour too), canoeing, snorkelling, scuba diving, sailing, surf the reef, or paddle an outrigger into the lagoon and just watch the whales pass through.
New Caledonia's best snorkelling spots
Snorkelling is as good a place as any to start, so we hire some gear and set about exploring the water off Amedee Island (a 30-minute boat ride on the Mary D from Noumea). The day trip out to Amedee Island is one of the most popular things to do in New Caledonia. They provide plenty to do during the busy day, including glass-boat tours of the reef, sarong tying demonstrations, scrumptious buffet feasts and singing that starts at 8 a.m., all for a cost of $180 a person.
Be warned, they do have their fair share of sea snakes here at Amedee Island (on land and in the water), but their mouths are so small that they would have to bite you on a cut to have any hope of getting you - and there hasn't been a death in living memory. And with so many wonderful things to look at you'll be too busy to notice anyway. After all there so many shiny mackerel, huge Napoleons and colourful seadragons to visit in their underwater homes and if you look closely you'll even spot a turtle or two. Just be careful when nearby boats start feeding the fish as their teeth are quite sharp if they get close enough. We saw one poor guy get a particularly nasty nip on his finger!
If you're looking for some of the best places in New Caledonia to go snorkelling you can't go past Isle of Pines (half an hour by plane from Noumea), Duck Island (a five-minute boat ride from the city) and I'llot Maitre (half an hour by boat from Noumea). I'llot Maitre is surrounded by a 81 ha marine reserve and was well worth the day trip. Don't panic if you can't make it out to any of these places - that's the best part about New Caledonia. No matter where you jump in for a snorkel, off a boat or just outside your hotel, there is plenty to see. Even better the water here is warm year-round at a balmy 24°C, and is every colour of blue you can imagine. It is the gorgeous, post-card blues you dream of swimming in, clear from top to bottom and the ranges and sizes of the fish are spectacular.
After a day of snorkelling we soak up some rays on the soft white sand and enjoy the feel of the fine salt on our skin. The sounds of New Caledonia take over then, the gentle brush of the ocean against the shore, the soft calling of the seagulls (so remarkably clean looking here) and the echo of our own thoughts as the sun goes down, painting gold and orange over the horizon. It's only then, lying there, that I realise that it's not simply what's under the water that makes New Caledonia so amazing - it's what lies above as well; where the caress of nature blends so seamlessly with classic culture that could only be that of the French.
The essentials of New Caledonia
Getting there: Qantas and Aircalin fly daily from Sydney to Noumea, New Caledonia. Flights operate three days a week from Brisbane. The city is about an hour bus ride from the airport. You can prebook your transfer with your travel agent or on arrival with a bus provider.
Getting around: Be patient; hire a bike or walk to get around rather than waiting on the taxis or buses (as they can run on the hour if you're lucky). Most of all either have some basic French or bring a French dictionary.
Visas and money: No visas are required from Australia for a stay of up to three months. They use the French Polynesian Franc in New Caledonia. The rate fluctuates but a good average is about 68 Australian cents to 1XPF. There are plenty of ATMs around New Caledonia and credit cards
are accepted in most places.
Accommodation: New Caledonia has everything from backpackers (YHA Noumea), to basic hotels (The Lantana, 10 minutes from the city), homestays, to five-star resorts like Le Meridian. For accommodation, visit www.newcaledonia.com.au. Around the islands there are a range of campsites.
When to go: The climate is warmest from September to March, when the weather hovers between 25-27°C. New Caledonia enjoys 212 sunny days a year, so you'd be unlucky to have lots of rain.
Getting outdoors: You will be spoilt for choice in New Caledonia. There are hikes to explore, waterfalls to swim in, mountain bike trails, horse riding, cycling, gliding and breathtaking snorkelling… simply stop by the tourism office located in the centre of town (there's also one in Anse Vata) for information.
More info: www.newcaledonia.com.au