New Caledonia Islands: which one should you explore?

New Caledonia is an archipelago of 6 inhabited islands in addition to its main island, Grande-Terre: the Isle of Pines, Belep, and the Loyautés Islands formed by Lifou, Mare, Ouvea and Tiga.  With more than 135 islands, islets and atolls, there is a little chance you can visit them all during your stay in New Caledonia. However, no trip would be complete without putting at least one of the New Caledonia islands on your itinerary. While the main island is all about mountains, prairies and jungle, the smaller islands are all about white sand beaches and coconut trees you dream about when you think about Pacific Islands, but always with the twist of the native Kanak culture.

As a scuba diver, you may wonder, where is the best place to go to make the most of a diving addict’s time in New Caledonia. I decided to focus only, in this article, on the 3 islands of New Caledonia where scuba diving is available: the Isle of Pines, Ouvea and Lifou. In their local dialect, these New Caledonia islands are also called “Kunie”, “Iaai” and “Drehu”. Each island was very different, and if you have time, I would love to tell you to visit them all, but I know this is not always possible. From a pure scuba diving perspective, you will quickly understand from the experience I had there, that, for once, I have a relatively strong recommendation about where to go.

“Kunie”, the elegant Isle of the Pines

It was the first ever pin from New Caledonia I added to my World Dive Map even before starting to prepare my trip. After hearing for years from my friend who finally moved there 2 years ago how beautiful the island was, the Isle of Pines was the first of the New Caledonia Islands on my list. Only a 20-minute flight or a 2h30 ferry ride away from Noumea, the Isle of Pines is the closest of the New Caledonia Islands.

Right after my arrival, I took the opportunity of a bright sunny day without any cruise ship in sight to explore the highlight of the island: the Natural Pool of Oro Bay. I was staying at Nataiwatch Bungalows, and lucky me, I took an early flight, because I arrived just in time to order a sandwich and catch Nataiwatch’s shuttle bus at 10 am to Oro Bay. I didn’t see the 5 hours passing until 3 pm as I took my time walking around and then enjoying a long snorkelling session. The walk along the sand river to the natural pool takes about 10 minutes and is a breath-taking site in itself. The natural pool level and the size of the white sand beach around depends on the tides. At its centre, there is a large sandy area where you can free dive in crystal clear waters among the yellow-striped goatfish (I measured 8m deep with my dive computer at the time of my visit). The natural pool is separated from the sea by a shallow coral reef full of colourful baby clam shells with convict surgeonfish swimming all around. It was the perfect introduction to the Isle of Pines before starting scuba diving the next morning!

Good to know: The close geographic location makes the Isle of Pines one of the most visited places of New Caledonia, especially by the cruise ships every 2 to 3 days, Sundays being a forbidden day. If you can, avoid Oro Bay on the days cruise ships’ passengers invade the island, and go scuba diving instead. You can easily find the cruise ships schedule at the end of the local newspaper. Generally speaking, I found the touristy side of the Isle of Pines was the only downside compared to the islands of Lifou and Ouvea, but as I visited New Caledonia during the winter season, I cannot say I was bothered at any point either.

Oro Bay Isle of Pines New Caledonia

 

Most beautiful places to explore in the Isle of Pines for free or a small fee

  • Natural Pool of the Oro Bay: Just the unmissable spot of the Isle of Pines, see description above. (Entrance 500 CFP for people staying on the island, about 4 €/ £18, 1,500 CFP for cruise ship passengers).
  • St Maurice Bay: A puzzling monument stands where the first mass was celebrated in the 17th century on the island. Made of a statue of Jesus Christ surrounded by Kanak carved totems, it shows the ambiguity of how religious and at the same time attached to their ancient traditions, the Kanak tribes are (New Caledonia is mostly Christian, roughly 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant). I came out of curiosity and left in love with the beauty and serenity from the ensemble overlooking the beach of St Maurice Bay with the Brosse Isle in the background.
  • Kuto Beach: The long white sand beach, on the slope of N’Ga Peak, is in my top 5 beaches of New Caledonia. The sand was so thin that it felt like walking in flour. It was so soft that I couldn’t help walking the entire beach bare feet.
  • Kanumera Bay: This bay is only separated by a thin strip of land from Kuto Bay. Very photogenic thanks to its sacred rock in the middle of the bay, no approach by swimming or kayak is allowed. Make sure to have a look at the road next to it with trees forming an enigmatical natural tunnel.
  • N’ga Peak: Its 262m of altitude may not sound like such a big challenge, but climbing the highest point as the rest of the island is rather flat, was a good workout. The nature trail back and forth takes about 1 hour, depending on how much time you will stay admiring the thousands of shades of blue of the surrounding lagoon.
  • Queen Hortense’s (Oumagne) Cave: This medium-sized cave features impressive stalactites covered in sparkling quartz (don’t forget to bring your torchlight!) is surrounded by lush jungle and the home of an adorable bat colony. You won’t need more than 30 minutes to visit the site, but it remained one of my favourite visit of the island thanks to its lovely trail through nature, covered in heliconia flowers and tree ferns. If you pay attention, you may see a rainforest crab hiding between the fallen leaves. (Entrance 200 CPF, about 1,70 €/ £1.50, incidentally, we didn’t have change with my friend, so we left 500 CFP for the 2 of us, when we came back, a lady was waiting for us, to give our 100 CFP back, how lovely!)

 

Where to stay in the Isle of Pines?

During my 2 stays at the Isle of Pines, I tried 2 different places: the Nataiwatch Bungalows which is also a campsite, and the Kodjeue Hotel, located right next to the dive centre. While the Nataiwach was on the opposite side of the island, Kunie Scuba Centre staff come to pick up customers for free every morning, so it’s not an issue. On the other hand, I appreciated that Nataiwatch Bungalows was close to Kuto and Kanumera Bays and that the trail to N’Ga Peak wasn’t far away. They also offer a shuttle bus to the airport and Oro Bay (2,000 CFP return, about 17 €/ £15). So virtually by staying there, you won’t need to rent a car which is not so cheap on the island (7,000 CFP per day, about 59 €/ £53). By the way, if it wasn’t enough, their restaurant was one of the best ones I tried of my 3 months in New Caledonia. They offer a French cuisine menu with local flavours (make sure you try their Passion Fruit Tart!).

If you are looking for a budget place to stay but don’t have any camping gear with you, the Atchu Camp Site offer tent rental (3,100CFP per night, about 25 €/ £23) just a little bit further away from the Nataiwatch.

For those who want to enjoy a relaxing beach holiday with scuba diving every morning available at your doorstep then the Hotel Kodjeue will be a better choice and they have special pricing for those who scuba dive with Kunie Scuba Centre (details at the end of this article).

 

Scuba diving in the Isle of Pines

Scuba diving in the Isle of Pines is a feast for the eyes of those deeply in love with marine biodiversity: from hard coral to sea fans, from nudibranchs to pygmy seahorses, from octopus to slipper lobsters, from barracudas to sharks, there is everything. On every single dive, from the tiniest to the biggest, I enjoyed so much looking for all the critters of the Gadji Bay, the wonderful underwater playground of the scuba diving centre of the Isle of Pines. It was the perfect place to improve my underwater macro photography skills.

If you are into nudibranchs, you are going to love looking for Chromodoris Kuniei (named after the native name of the Isle of Pines “Kunie”), Glossodoris Cruenta, Chromodoris Coi and Robostra Luteolineata. However, the fantastic marine biodiversity of the Isle of Pines is also illustrated by all these different shapes and colours of sea anemone and pygmy seahorses!  I’m so happy I learnt how to spot the correct gorgonian to spot the pygmy seahorses in Poindimié because there were so many to look for while scuba diving in the Isle of Pines. At “Eden Garden” dive site, you can spot not less than 4 different colours of pygmy seahorses: red, pale pink, yellow and purple! I only managed to get the biggest ones, the red ones, in pictures, but so a first time shooting photos of this species, I am happy with the results. While looking for tiny critters, inspect whip coral, where transparent gobies are often found, they make incredible macro subjects that are patient enough for beginners photographers. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to join a night dive in the Isle of Pines, don’t think twice, just go. In an hour scuba diving at Daa Djaré dive site, I saw octopus, slipper lobsters and basket stars fully open.

The Isle of Pines is the place where I logged the greatest number of dives in the New Caledonia islands: 12 dives, 8 different dives sites, in 5 days. Generally speaking, I found that if you should dive in only one place in New Caledonia, the Isle of Pines would be a perfect choice. The hard coral may not be as in a stunning shape as in Koumac, the gorgonians may not be as large as in Hienghène, and you may not see as many pelagic species as in Nouméa or Ouvea, but you can get a taste of everything New Caledonia has to offer underwater in the Isle of Pines. Without a doubt, the Isle of Pines had to be on my list of the best diving in Asia-Pacific.

 

 

Best dive sites of the Isle of Pines

  • Eden Garden: My favourite site and without surprise the most offered to scuba divers visiting the Isle of Pines. Best for colourful coral gardens, a great diversity of tropical fish and many pygmy seahorse gorgonians. My dive parameters: max depth 25m – bottom time 69min
  • Gié Pass: Beyond its gorgeous coral reefs, its resident giant school of barracudas was one of my highlights of diving in New Caledonia and where I saw many white-tip sharks. My dive parameters: max depth 20m – bottom time 52min
  • Daa Djaré: I was lucky enough to scuba dive this site in the daylight and by night. This is where I found the greatest variety of colourful nudibranchs. During the night I got amazing shots of octopus and slipper lobsters. My dive parameters: max depth 24m – bottom time 67min
  • Gadji Cave: Right in the middle of Gadji Bay, with the right currents and sun conditions, hiding inside the barrier reef, you can explore the fabulous Gadji sea caves. I was lucky enough to explore this top dive site of New Caledonia with beautiful rays of sun shining inside the main chamber. My dive parameters: max depth 18m – bottom time 66min
  • Kasmira: A site I would recommend only to advanced divers, not only because of its stronger currents than on other sites. While it is one of the best dive sites of the Isle of Pines to see leopard nurse sharks, this also a nest for sea snakes, no you need to know how to control yourself when facing a curious individual. My dive parameters: max depth 22m – bottom time 69min

 

 

“Iaai”,  the breath-taking Ouvea

A 50-minute flight away from Nouméa or a 6-hour ferry ride, the atoll of Ouvea is the furthest islands of the three New Caledonia islands presented here. I was lucky enough to visit the island during one of the lively festivals organised all year long in the Loyalty Islands (Ouvea, Lifou, Tiga and Mare). At the “walei” festival (hold to celebrate a sweet yam only produced in Ouvea), I could enjoy the warmth and hospitality over meals prepared with love by the women of the tribes in charge of the festival. They made we taste delicious lobster and coconut crab, yam “bougna” (traditional method to bake inside banana leaves with coconut milk), yam cakes and jams. While Ouvea remains the symbol of the painful history between France and New Caledonia, the way visitors like me were welcome like family deeply touched me. When I participated in the good-bye custom at the end of the festival, I had tears in my eyes. I cannot recommend enough planning your trip to New Caledonia around one of these festivals if you want to discover Kanak culture in the most heartfelt manner.

Good to know: When you book during one of the festivals through the tourism board you get a special price on a package including flights, transfers and accommodation with breakfasts in a homestay. You can find more information here: https://www.iles-loyaute.com/en/packages-news-and-events.

hello Ouvea New Caledonia

 

Most beautiful places to explore in Ouvea for free or a small fee

  • Ouvea Beach: In my top 5 beaches of New Caledonia.  25 km of white sand beach along one of the most stunning lagoons I have ever seen. My 2 favourite spots were in Mouli at the Moague Guesthouse and near St Joseph Church.
  • Mouli Bridge: Linking the main island of Ouvea with the south island of Mouli, the bridge in itself is not unforgettable, but the view is. In the background, you can see the cliffs of Lékiny. I recommend going an hour before sunset for the best light. Park your car on the side, and go down on the beach, where you can spot stingrays. Be careful, do not swim or snorkel on the left side of the bridge when looking south, it is a sacred area for the local tribes.
  • Lekiny’s Cliffs: Ouvea is an atoll located on a tectonic plate which is slowly plunging on its lagoon side, lifting its opposite side where the dramatic Lekiny Cliffs stand. You can freely go by yourself to check the cliffs out, but if you are fond of geology, I would like to recommend booking the tour guided by Félix (contact Ouvea tourism board, 2,100 CFP about 18€ / £16).
  • Hanawa Blue Hole: A mesmerising sinkhole with a deep blue colour. Seawater can penetrate the hole and so do the tropical fish you can see from the top. Even if it was very tempting to jump into the water to go free diving and take underwater picture of this New Caledonian “cenote”, the edge of the hole is high compared to the surface of the water, and except if you are an expert at rope climbing, just look at it from the top.
  • Turtle Hole: Much wider than the Hanawa blue hole, the Turtle Hole doesn’t have the beautiful blue colour of its neighbour. However, if you are patient enough to wait for a maximum of 15 minutes, you will be able to see one of the resident turtles coming to the surface to breathe. To find it, you will need to spot the sign giving its native name “Anep”.

 

Where to stay in Ouvea?

I stayed in 2 homestay guesthouses, one in the south, Moague Guesthouse, and one in the north, The Banian Guesthouse. Comfort was basic, and I would strongly advise you to request an antimosquito coil at your arrival, but the location of the traditional Kanak huts on the beach is worth all the efforts, and you are close from the Mouli Bridge and the Lekiny Cliffs, 2 of the most stunning sites of Ouvea Island. Comfort was much better at the Banian, but no beach view in this case. In both cases, please be warned hot shower is not guaranteed, so if you need modern comfort have a look at the Beaupré Hotel.

 

Scuba diving in Ouvea

The dives in Ouvea were mainly along deep walls. The number of swim-throughs and caverns was nothing I had seen before. They were either covered in yellow and red gorgonians or massive colonies of pink shrimps. I’ve been lucky to scuba dive with manta rays in Indonesia, Hawaii and Egypt, and every time it was a special moment. However, in Ouvea, it was only my dive guide, me and a peaceful oceanic manta ray swimming in crystal clear waters. It will remain as one of my most beautiful moments underwater. In 2 dives, I could spot 2 manta rays, a stingray, 3 nurse sharks, and a couple of reef sharks and white-tip sharks, including one that was ‘pregnant’ ( please remember that depending on the species sharks are viviparous or oviviparous, but they are not mammals!). During my first dive, I couldn’t help thinking “Wow, this is the closest experience I ever got from what a Cousteau expedition might have felt like!’

The most breath-taking underwater moments I had during my stay in New Caledonia islands were undoubtedly in Ouvea: Incredible visibility, healthy corals, interesting swim-through and pelagic action with manta rays and nurse sharks. Unfortunately, and I want to be honest with you, it didn’t go like a breeze. I was warned weeks before by all the local scuba divers of New Caledonia that if I could scuba dive in Ouvea, I would join the club of the few lucky ones who could go. Somehow, I came mentally prepared that I may have to go beyond my usual limit of what is acceptable if I wanted to go. I don’t want to go into too many details, but between the usual island time, compressors’ issues and the fact that the local dive guide is never reachable on his mobile phone, it took me 3 hours and 3 return trips along the main road of Ouvea to finally go diving. So let’s make things clear, if you are still a beginner in scuba diving and/or expect full-inclusive customer service, this is not a place for you. You can still explore the beautiful island of Ouvea, but for the underwater part, just join the snorkelling tour with Pierre in the Southern Pleiades Islands (contact Ouvea tourism board, 7,500 CFP about 63€ / £57).

Who knows, if it would be that easy, would these dive sites remain that pristine? I seriously had a doubt when talking with my dive guide at the surface interval while eating a fresh coconut he kindly cut for me. Was he making it hard on purpose to limit the impacts of reefs he loves? Anyway, scuba diving in Ouvea is exceptional but requires effort and perseverance, but also experience and self-reliability as for now.

The pictures below were taken at the Whale Pass, in the Northern Pleiades Islands. I dived there twice, with an average maximum depth from 27 to 30m, and a bottom time of 56 minutes each time.

 

 

 

“Drehu”, the traditional Lifou

A 50-minute flight away from Nouméa or a 5-hour ferry ride, Lifou is the largest of the New Caledonia Islands and the capital of the Kanak culture through all the New Caledonia Islands. Like for Ouvea, if you can visit Lifou during one of the numerous festivals organised, you will get the fabulous opportunity to witness how lively native culture is on this island. When you book through the tourism board, you get a special price on a package including flights and accommodation in a homestay. You can find more information here: www.iles-loyaute.com/en/packages-news-and-events

Good to know: Although renting a car is not cheap on the island (about 7500 CFP per day, about 63€ / £57), the distances between each point of interest are significant, so you won’t be able to do anything without one, unfortunately. You can find the contacts of the rental companies here: www.iles-loyaute.com/fr/lifou/transport. Make sure to book in advance, and your car will be waiting for you at the airport or ferry terminal.

Sunset Peng Beach Lifou New Caledonia

 

Most beautiful places to explore in Lifou for free or a small fee

  • Jinek Bay: I discovered this site during a night dive in Lifou, and I was surprised to see such a beautiful coral reef full of life so close from the shore. The access to the underwater trail from the shore is accessible for free to swimmers and snorkellers.
  • Vanilla plantation: Near “Maison de la Vanille”, where you can shop high-quality organic vanilla beans, honey and skincare, you can also visit a vanilla plantation next door to understand how vanilla is grown and transformed into one of the world’s favourite sweet flavours.
  • Jokin’s Cliff: SImilar to the Lekiny cliffs in Ouvea, but much higher and impressive. I admired them from the scuba diving boat on our way to our dive sites, but if you are looking for an excellent place to hike, this is a good spot with spectacular views.
  • Luengoni Beach:  Maybe the most beautiful beach I have seen across New Caledonia Islands. Was it the absolute silence? The fact I was alone? The rock in the middle of the bay like a diamond in its jewellery case? The perfect fine white sand? It is hard to tell, but Luengoni Beach will be the place that you will remember forever, even if you think you have already seen too many beautiful beaches in your life.
  • Luengoni Cave: This could be the entire reason for a trip to Lifou! After admiring the beach of Luengoni, you can explore with the family of the chief of the Luengoni Tribe, an incredible semi-submerged cave nicknamed the “jewels of Luengoni”. After a 3 minute hike in the jungle from the road, you descend into a tunnel with the help of a rope to an underground natural pool. You can snorkel and free dive there, so don’t hesitate to bring your gear and a waterproof torchlight!
  • Peng Beach: This beautiful beach accessible after driving 15 minutes on a tiny road that seems to never end from Wé, the main town of Lifou. It is the perfect spot if all you want is a romantic sunset.

 

Where to stay in Lifou?

During my 5 day trip to Lifou, I tried 1 guesthouse and 2 hotels. If you are looking for simple accommodation with authenticity and delicious homemade food (baked lobster anyone?), look no further and book at Jeanette’s guesthouse, located on the beautiful Chateaubriand Bay near Wé. For those looking for perfect comfort in a tiny paradise with mouth-watering food, the “Oasis de Kimu” is the perfect place to stay in the south of Lifou near Luengoni, between dramatic cliffs and a private beach which revealed to be an excellent snorkelling spot.

 

Scuba diving in Lifou

After so many amazing underwater discoveries around New Caledonia islands, I went scuba diving in Lifou without much expectation. When I thought I had already a good understanding of scuba diving in New Caledonia, Lifou surprised me. The boat from the scuba diving centre leaves from Easo in the Santal Bay, on the east coast of Lifou, and goes in the direction of the Jokin’s Cliffs were most of the dive sites are. The two underwater highlights of Lifou were its vast sea caverns and the density of gorgonians on vertiginous pinnacles.

Unfortunately, although the situation was much better than in Ouvea, at the time of my visit, the owner was in the process of selling the dive centre, bringing uncertainty for the future. Please if you have recent news don’t hesitate to comment or send me a message. In any case, don’t book a trip to Lifou with scuba diving specifically in mind before clarifying if it will be possible for you to scuba dive or not.

Best dive sites of Lifou

  • Tomoko’s Cave: My favourite in Lifou, not only because it was named after the Japanese diver who discovered it but because of its mesmerising rays of sun getting into the different chambers. Inside and outside Tomoko’s sea cave, gorgonians and whip corals show their brightest colours in Lifou Island when you shine your torchlight. My dive parameters: max depth 21m – bottom time 63min
  • Gorgones Reef: This dive site is all about pinnacles, tunnels and arches, covered in a density of gorgonians like I haven’t seen anywhere else. The last pinnacle we saw before ascending to the line for our safety stop was cover in the largest sea anemone I had ever seen inhabited by at least a dozen clownfish! My dive parameters: max depth 27m – bottom time 60min

 

How to go to the islands of New Caledonia?

Natural Pool Oro Bay Isle of Pines New Caledonia

Aircalin operates direct flights from Tokyo and Osaka in Japan (about 9 hours), and from Brisbane and Sydney in Australia (about 2h30) to the Airport of La Tontouta (45 min from the centre of Noumea). With a flight from Europe, you can get a free stopover in Japan on your way to this South Pacific island. Make sure you follow them on social media to be in the know when they have special promotions.

After Aircalin flight to La Tontouta Airport, the international airport of New Caledonia, 50 min driving from Nouméa city centre, you have 2 options, flying with Air Calédonie or taking the Betico Ferry. The Magenta airport is the domestic airport of Noumea, a 10-minute drive from the city centre. The boat leaves right from the city centre at the Jules Ferry wharf.

Good to know: The check-in luggage weight allowance is low on Air Caledonie flights with 12 kg and cabin luggage of only 5 kg which will be thoroughly checked. While paying extra for the additional 6kg I need for my scuba diving gear (about 1,500 CFP), the main issue came from my underwater camera gear for which there was no way it would go into the hold. The solution was not to take my regular backpack which weights 3kg and take only my underwater photography gear in my light, foldable backpack. If you know your camera is heavier than 5 kg, make sure to have a protection case, or take the boat!

 

Conclusion

scuba diving boat Isle of Pines New Caledonia

To visit one of New Caledonia islands, please allow a minimum of 3 days/ 2 nights. Knowing you’ll need at least 10 days to explore Noumea and the main island of New Caledonia, you can easily calculate how many islands you can visit based on your available time. While I want to tell you to visit every island if time allows, from a scuba diver’s perspective I’d like to advise you to go to the Isle of Pines in priority.  You will get the best mix of the tropical island experience with the best mix of what can be seen underwater in New Caledonia while enjoying the services of a professional and reliable scuba diving centre which offers service in English, French and Japanese.

Kunie Scuba Centre has a partnership with the Kodjeue Hotel and offers special packages including one night at the hotel, breakfast and 2 dives for 2 persons at 34,950 CFP, which makes a cost of 17,475 CFP per person (about 146€ / £132). Knowing the 2 tank dive trip is at 15,400 CFP (about 129€ / £116), this is an excellent deal.

Alternatively, you can also save money on your dives by getting the “Plongée +” card in one of the participating dive centres. Price of the card is 6000 CFP (about 50 €/ £44), and it will then give you a 15% discount in all participating centres. I calculated you only need to do 6 dives in New Caledonia (2 in Hienghene, 2 in Poindimié and 2 in the Isle of Pines for instance) to start saving money!

Kunie Scuba Center

Ile des Pins, New Caledonia

Email:

Phone: +687 46 11 22

 

 

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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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