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It’s midnight. I have just arrived at Tontouta International Airport. I take a taxi to Noumea city centre, 45 minutes driving away. In the dark, the entire road looks like home in France. The only clues telling I’m in the southern hemisphere are the stars. After one month in Japan and a direct 9h flight with Aircalin from Tokyo, my arrival in New Caledonia is unexpectedly familiar.
What was I expecting exactly? I’m not entirely sure. I was mainly excited about being reunited with my friend who moved there 2 years ago and the promise of having the scuba time of my life!
While New Caledonia is a French overseas territory of the South Pacific, it has acquired in the last decades a high level of autonomy. Making Noumea my home base for the next 3 months reinforced the feeling of being back in France: the streets, the bakeries, the wine shops, the apartment buildings’ architecture, etc. If you add the port and the industrial activities, it almost felt like I was back to Toulon on the French Riviera! But after a couple of days, the impression of familiarity, maybe reinforced after spending some time in Japan, was disappearing as I started to notice what was different. On the first day I went out of the Noumea area, I realised I was indeed on an island far far away… and not any island.
Summer in the austral winter
Being in the southern hemisphere, about the same latitude than Brisbane in Australia, and arriving beginning of July for 3 months, meant I was about to live a second winter this year. To be fair, the days are warm with temperatures usually around 25/28°C allowing me to be in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops most of the time, but the evenings are way cooler around 15°C.
Winter in New Caledonia is like spring in Europe. However, due to the humidity in the air, I felt way colder, especially at night than I would have expected. I quickly realise the only pair of jeans I brought for my trip wouldn’t be enough. On my second day in Noumea, I went to buy a new pair of jeans, lucky me they were on sales!
Was it a bad choice to come in winter? Not at all, it is the low tourist season, so accommodation and flights are cheaper, but it is above all the whale season! From a scuba diving point of view, this is the time of the best visibility but also currents, which means lots of sharks! In the end, it was handy because I just had to take only one 7mm wetsuit which was a perfect fit for both Japan and New Caledonia with a water temperature range between 18°C at the coldest in Japan and 24°C at the warmest in New Caledonia for that time of the year.
Going through a cultural jetlag
New Caledonia might be a 9-hour flight away from Japan, Noumea has only 2 hours of difference with Tokyo. Having well absorbed my jet-lag in the first week of my month in Japan, I was looking forward to arriving fresh and ready for anything on the day following my arrival. While it was partially true, in my first week in Noumea, it was a different kind of jet lag I had to adjust to.
In New Caledonia the sun rises at 6 am and sets at 6 pm. After sunset not much happens. It means if you get up a bit too late and decide to do something only after lunch, you haven’t much of the day left. I was enjoying a slow start of the day from 9 am and many nightlife opportunities in Japan. This lifestyle difference was similar to a 4h jet lag, and it took me a week to adjust.
Given anyway all the outdoor activities, including scuba diving and hiking, requiring an early start to enjoy the best conditions of the day, I now love being awakened by the birds from 5.30 am and getting so much done every day.
A small continent at the heart of the South Pacific
Something I realised only recently is how large New Caledonia is. During my first road trip around the main island, I drove for 1,300 km. It is almost the same distance as Brussels to Barcelona! New Caledonia is not a volcanic island like most Pacific islands; it is a part of the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. So you won’t find any volcano here, but the island is so big that thinking you’ll be able to see everything in 2 weeks is just not possible. You’ll have to make choices.
Hopefully, I am staying here for 3 months to report and help you decide! This time I’m not just reviewing a scuba diving destination but more like an entire country. Picture it like if I was trying to do all the dive spots of France or the UK in one trip!
Beyond the number of places to explore around New Caledonia and its islands (the Isle of Pine, Ouvea, Lifou, Mare & Tiga), there are some fantastic regional opportunities to fly and dive abroad. From Noumea, you can fly to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu and French Polynesia thanks to the direct flights of Aircalin. That’s why I decided to take the opportunity to visit another country while being in New Caledonia: I’m going to Vanuatu!
The cost of paradise
It is a topic you can hardly avoid when talking about New Caledonia. However, it is essential to understand that living in the middle of the Pacific with western standards, especially those of French people, so picky about their food, makes the standard of living higher. Food independence of New Caledonia is only of 18%, while some ambitious agriculture programs want to increase it to 30% by 2025. As a result, most of the food is imported from France and a little from Australia and New Zealand.
However, I found a high level of resourcefulness as people never hesitate to help each other by exchanging food or services. I also had to turn around my preconceived ideas about what is supposed to be cheaper or more expensive.
A visit to Noumea food market, although lovely and colourful, taught me that local fruits and veggies are not necessarily the cheapest. Once I was used to the price tags in supermarkets, I decided to do my best with what I could buy. I cooked as much as I could by myself using as much as possible the fruits and veggies available in the garden of the house I was staying at. My hosts who had long hour shifts seemed to be happy to have a motivated chef at home.
I decided not to keep the rental car I use for my road trip while in Noumea as I’m mostly spending my time writing when I’m there. I’m walking and using taxis once in a while which is cheaper than renting a car. However, don’t even think about using your Uber app, it doesn’t exist here. There is a Caledonian alternative but they are more expensive than the regular taxis, so I went back to call good old taxi central number!
Generally speaking, building a target budget to go exploring and scuba diving around New Caledonia is the way to go to enjoy your trip at its most without bad surprises. I will help with all the detailed figures. They are also tons of saving tips you can use to go on a dream trip to New Caledonia without breaking the bank that I will cover in my future articles.
Pure nature away from the crowds
Maybe only my Scottish readers will know this fact, as even very few people in New Caledonia are aware of it, but Caledonia is an area from the Scottish Highlands. This interesting fact is not pure coincidence, as it simply linked to the history of James Cook on his second exploration journey through the Pacific Ocean. It’s when I left Noumea that I realised where I was, a vast wild island of the south pacific. Like James Cook, New Caledonia reminds me a lot of Scotland: the hills, wild and colourful, the golden hour lights though passing the clouds, and the low population density!
New Caledonia counts only 280,000 inhabitants. With only 120,000 tourists a year coming mainly from France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, you are more than likely to enjoy New Caledonia pristine nature on your own. It might be a positive consequence of the lower population, but I found New Caledonia to be cleaner than most destinations I visited before, the natural parks and beaches are spotless.
I visited 3 natural parks, and I enjoyed how well organised and equipped they were: “Parc Regional de la Rivière Bleue” (Blue River Regional Park), Domain of Deva, and “Parc Provincial des Grandes Fougères” (Tree Ferns Provincial Park). You can find in each a welcome centre where rangers can recommend itineraries based on how much time you have and your capabilities; you will also find fresh water to refill your bottle, picnic tables and toilets. Those parks are also perfect for all kind of outdoor sports like hiking, mountain biking and kayaking. Check especially the kayak tours Aventure Pulsion offer in the Drown Forest of “Parc de la Rivière Bleue”.
Another consequence of lower tourism figures is that you need to make sure you have a working cell phone. It will be a vital tool to book and confirm all your accommodations and activities. For example, scuba diving centres are not all necessarily open all the time so make sure you make contact a few days before and book your accommodation well ahead of time. You can get a Mobilis pay-as-you-go SIM card in Noumea at the OPT (Post office) for 6,195 CPF (52€/£47) which includes 3,000 CPF of credit. To give you an idea, 3,000 CPF is what I spent in one month.
Two worlds living side by side
In the early stages of my project of coming to Noumea, I heard advice and warnings. Advice about readings I needed to do, warnings about what not to do. The history between France and New Caledonia is complicated, that is a fact. While I always listen and do my due diligence about places, I tend to keep my opinion for when I will be there myself.
2018 is a particular year for New Caledonia as a referendum on independence will be held on the 4th of November. It is the second time I am in a place going through an independence referendum. Back in 2014, it was Scotland. I thought I would be again this neutral observer, listening to all sides with the goal of understanding better the country history and culture. This is what I have done too in New Caledonia, but this time it’s different since I am not a foreigner. Whatever I do, whatever I say, like it or not, I had to acknowledge this first if I wanted to dig more into New Caledonia history and culture during all the inspiring discussions I had since my arrival.
As I explained before, Noumea and the rest of New Caledonia are two very different things. Actually, there are 4 distinct regions of New Caledonia: the Greater Noumea area, the South, the North, and the Loyalty Islands. But I didn’t know it yet when I headed for the first time to Noumea city centre.
I walked around “Place des Cocotiers” (Coconut Square), observing and taking the temperature while looking for hidden gems. The square is a garden with coconut trees with a gazebo, a fountain and a few cafés. A lot of roadworks are going on making the surroundings not so nice to walk because of the dust and the noise. But this is not what bothered me. As I kept walking I felt more and more embarrassed: people were apart. The white Europeans on one side, the native Kanak on the other. I had one opportunity to smile though when I saw people on the giant chess board playing together.
Leaving Noumea behind, I discovered things could be different. You cannot just walk to any Kanak village like that, but some people on both sides well understood the issue and created initiatives that would make those two worlds meet and share moments together. I got priceless opportunities to meet Kanak people and learn more about their lifestyle, their culture and their wisdom about how to use natural resources responsibly.
Thanks to the tours organised by Noëlle of Bourail bus excursions, I spent a lovely day learning local recipes and basketry with coconut palms with the women of the Katricoin tribe, an hour driving from Bourail. In Ouvea Island, during the Waleï Festival, the Heo and Takedji tribes welcomed all the visitors as if we were family. In each case, I experienced touching hospitality despite what could drive us apart.
Far from any Disneyfication, Kanak culture is sometimes raw but authentic. Kindly guided by Noëlle, I learnt how to do “La Coutume” (the custom), an essential introduction ritual to be welcome on tribal lands. It’s important to understand that in New Caledonia not all spaces are public. The reward of being a mindful and responsible traveller in New Caledonia will be access to some of its most beautiful treasures from a natural and cultural point of view. I think New Caledonia is teaching me a travel lesson like I never had before.
Digital detox in spite of myself
Maybe the first impression of New Caledonia I got from Noumea which looked so much like France gave me the wrong impression that the infrastructure and communications would be the same all over the island. At the northernmost point of New Caledonia or in the islands I could understand, but even in a luxury hotel, only 2h30 driving from Noumea, I wasted hours trying to do anything online. While consulting the web wasn’t a big issue, uploading anything to my blog or social media was a total nightmare.
With a couple of 3G data packages (forget about 4G) with my mobile phone for 90 CPF (0,75€) an hour, I just managed to update my Instagram stories. So after 3 days into my road trip, I gave up because I was on one of the most incredible trips I’ve ever done so I decided to relax and delay the uploading to when I would spend time in Noumea. Honestly, it was a good lesson for future planning.
When on the road, especially scuba diving and then driving on my own, I do what I can do. Sharing everything live is not essential. Enjoying my trip more means more beautiful stories to tell later. Does it mean I should plan adventures off the grid more often? Maybe…
A dream underwater photography playground
The lagoons of New Caledonia are nothing like I have seen before. I often heard the local scuba divers are so spoilt that it hard for them to scuba dive anywhere else. I can understand why. The marine ecosystems around the Barrier Reef of New Caledonia, the second largest in the world after Australia, are in stunning shape. No wonder why the lagoons of New Caledonia are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
New Caledonia saw me having a lot of “underwater firsts”: My first large flock of spotted eagle rays in Noumea, my first leopard shark in Bourail, my first pilot whales in Koumac, my first electric clam in Hienghène, my first pygmy seahorse in Poindimié, my first oceanic manta ray in Ouvea. I have never seen a place that could offer so much pelagic action with such a little marine critter diversity. So I am taking no risk in adding New Caledonia to my list of the best diving in Asia-Pacific.
Whatever your interest is in scuba diving, New Caledonia has it for you, for both beginners and advanced divers. You can even go wreck diving in Noumea and cavern diving in the Isle of Pines.
The deeper I dig into underwater photography settings and skills, the more I love it. New Caledonia is one of the most amazing marine playgrounds I’ve ever seen, it attracts a lot of talented underwater photographers, and local scuba divers became underwater photography addicts as well. In only a month of diving in New Caledonia, I know I already made tremendous progress. Having long conversations about the optical properties of lenses and the type of F point to use depending on the kind of shot became my favourite topic recently. While having those nerdy conversations, I started to make lots of new friends as passionate as I am:
- David, the owner of Rêve Bleu Calédonie in Koumac
- Thierry, the owner of Babou Côté Océan in Hienghène
- Laurent, the manager of Tieti Diving in Poindimié
- Pierre-Emmanuel, the manager of Kunie Scuba Center in the Isle of Pines
- Bastien, the owner of Odyssey in Noumea
Here is a short selection of some my favourite underwater shots:
Update 2019: After my 3 months in New Caledonia, I wrote 3 travel guides about scuba diving in New Caledonia and exploring its fabulous lagoon. I included all the essential information about the dive sites and how to do it without breaking the bank:
- New Caledonia: the lagoon of all hopes
- A scuba diving road-trip into the wild of Northern New Caledonia
- New Caledonia Islands: which ones should you explore?
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This article was written in partnership with Aircalin & the Tourism Board of New Caledonia. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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