Whether I’m exploring Hawaii or Scotland, I love territories that are an invitation for superb road trips. It’s about freedom, about immersion in nature, about adventure. When I discovered the main island of New Caledonia was one of these places, I was in awe. On the second week of my stay in New Caledonia, I took the road alone for 10 days, leaving the bustling city of Noumea behind. My target was to sample the best scuba diving sites and best viewpoints New Caledonia has to offer. During that trip, it was the Northern Province that took my heart. A month later, I organised 2 other long weekends with Audrey, who is also a Divemaster and a travel blogger living in Noumea, to explore further my favourite places: Koumac & Hienghène.
My itinerary exploring the northern province of New Caledonia
I built the following itinerary based on these 3 trips, taking into account that most of you would only have a week for such an adventure, asides other trips in New Caledonia. While I thought it would be way too much on my 1st trip, on my 3rd trip, Audrey and I drived all the way from Noumea to the northernmost point of the island in a day. It was finally not such a big deal; we left Noumea around 8 am and arrived in Poingam around 4 pm. I found it was the best way to make the most of your time and then enjoy the rest of the week. I also included an optional last stop in Sarramea and Farino, before getting back to Noumea. You can also use this day as a buffer in case of bad weather and diving trips cancellation.
Day 1 – Driving from Noumea to the northernmost tip of New Caledonia
With a departure from Noumea, around 8 am, you will have plenty of time to reach the northernmost point of New Caledonia before sunset, following the west coast road across Bourail, Kone, Voh and Koumac. It is indeed more comfortable if you are at least 2 drivers, but with stops along the way allowing you to unwind while visiting inspiring places, it is not an issue. Make the first stop in Bourail, after 2h30 of driving, at the beach of “Roche-Perçée”, famous in New Caledonia for its iconic rock looking like a paunchy man. If you feel like stretching your legs, make sure to get on the 3 Bay Trail, starting on the right side of the beach near the rock. In only 30 minutes, you can easily make it to Turtle Bay and back.
Another 2 hours of driving later, make at Voh, world-famous for its aerial picture featuring a heat in its mangrove. It is unfortunately only clearly visible from the sky; there is a trail leading to a viewpoint with a partial view, but it is long and not worth the efforts. Instead, I made a stop at the Coffee Eco-museum of Voh. The entrance to the exhibition in a lovely colonial style house is only 100 CFP. I learnt where coffee originally came from, how it arrived in New Caledonia, how the industry boomed before almost disappearing, and how people are now trying to develop it again. Behind the house, you can take a short stroll in the small coffee plantation before tasting a flavour rich expresso of New Caledonian coffee. I spent in total only 15 min. If you feel like having lunch and you didn’t pack a picnic, there is a snack restaurant just next to the Eco-museum.
From Voh, you will be only 1 hour of driving away from Koumac. It is the last place where you can shop for food and supplies before reaching the northernmost point of New Caledonia. Make sure you have enough fuel in your car too. 1h30 driving north from Koumac, lies the ‘Relais de Poingam”, one of my favourite places in New Caledonia. Please, be aware that this portion of the road trip isn’t in such a perfect state as the road from Noumea to Koumac, which looks like any road in France. There are many tight curves, river fords and the sometimes the road disappears and becomes a dust trail. Make sure to keep following the very few signs of “Boat-Pass” ( yes, it is written in English) and keep the faith! The sign for “Relais de Poingam” will only appear 1 km before arriving there. The first time, I took the road on my own, I got lost and ended in the “centre” of Poum, 12 km away as I missed a turn on the right. It is quite an adventure, but the views of the lagoon the red and white rocks, the dry forest and the wild horses passing by makes it one of my top 3 scenic drives of my trip to New Caledonia.
When you finally arrive at “Relais de Poingam”, you may feel an extraordinary feeling of relief but achievement like I felt. This guesthouse/camping/restaurant is so adorable and decorated with taste. Peacefully located in a coconut grove along a deserted sandy beach, it felt like the end of the world with a taste of paradise. Whether you stay in a bungalow or at the camping, anyone is welcome to join the “table d’hôte” dinner in the evening. For 4,000 CFP (34€/£30), all guests seat at the large dining table and enjoy a 3-course meal with a welcome cocktail and an infusion at the end of the meal. All ingredients are locally sourced, and they are happy to accommodate vegetarians if mentioned at the time of booking (make sure to call a couple of days in advance).
Day 2 & 3 – Koumac, the most pristine part of New Caledonia Barrier Reef
Waking up with the sun in Poingam is like a dream. Cooking breakfast on the beach with fried eggs, toasted baguette bread, cream cheese and coffee, right in front of my tent will remain one of my most cherished memories of New Caledonia. Once you are ready to leave with everything packed back into your car, don’t go yet.
Take the opportunity to go on a special morning hike in the surroundings of Poingam. The Ko salt marshes trail takes between 45 min and 1h30 depending on if you try the mud baths or not! The first viewpoint is a 360-degree view of both the west and the east coast of New Caledonia. If the weather is clear enough you can see as far as the Belep Islands. As you go down for this viewpoint, you will get a stunning view of the salt marshes with the east lagoon in the background. On my first road trip, I didn’t have the time to do it as I needed to make it back to Koumac before the night where I had made sleeping arrangements. I am so glad I could finally do it! If time allows, indulge yourself with a mud bath in the back side of the salt marshes. Just 2 minutes walking away, you will find changing and rinsing areas below the coconut trees (small participation is asked, you can give anything you want). So first you undress and only keep your swimsuit, you cover yourself with the mud of the salt marshes, you let it dry, you rinse most of it in the sea, and then you get a final rinse with niaouli water.
As Koumac is only 1h30 driving away, there is still plenty of time to picnic along the beach after your hike. While you drive back to Koumac, take the time to make as many photo-stops as you wish. As the road goes up and down, stop at the top of the hills for breath-taking views of the west lagoon, you can also make a quick detour by turning right in the direction of Tiabet. Each time I drived this road I had the opportunity to see wild horses so make sure to open your eyes! Please remember, the area is mostly Kanak villages, so if you cross private property to go to the beach make sure to find someone and ask for permission.
Once you set up for the night, make sure to get plenty of rest before an exciting day of scuba diving the next morning. David, the owner of Rêve Bleu Calédonie, the only scuba diving centre of Koumac, usually gives a meeting time at 8 am. However, scuba diving in Koumac depends on the weather as the winds can sometimes be strong and he may decide to start a bit earlier. This is why I recommend having a buffer day in your planning (hence the optional day at the end of this itinerary) and a cellphone to rearrange diving and accommodation if necessary. It didn’t happen to me on my first trip, I could dive the 2 days I had booked, but on the second time, I waited 2 days before being able to dive.
The only dive centre of Koumac is located in the lovely marina of Pandop, 5 minutes away from the centre. Koumac is where the barrier reef of New Caledonia is the furthest from the shore, so it takes time to reach the dive sites. Count between 30 and 50 minutes by boat. However, what may sound like a disadvantage may also be the reason why the dive sites of Koumac were the most pristine I saw around New Caledonia.
In 2 trips to Koumac, I dived 6 different dive sites along with the 1st barrier and even made it to 2nd barrier reef (yes, the lagoon in Koumac has a double barrier reef!). If you are lucky enough to dive at incoming tides, this is when you have the highest chances of seeing a lot of pelagic action. David has counted he saw 17 different species of sharks in Koumac, including whale sharks and tiger sharks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case for me during my trips, but we saw reef sharks, a spotted eagle ray and a giant turtle.
The highlight of scuba diving in Koumac for me was the barrier reefs were densely covered in colourful hard corals. On the first minutes of my first dive in Koumac, there was so much to see I couldn’t take any picture as I had too much choice! If you are a coral nerd, you are going to love Koumac.
Dive sites in Koumac include deep walls, chimneys, tunnels and canyons filled with gorgonians and lobsters. Koumac is the only place in New Caledonia where I could dive as deep as 40 m. Mid-July, water temperature was 24°C and end of September it was 22°C which is the coldest you get there. During the New Caledonian summer (December-February), water temperature can easily reach 30°C.
Marina de Pandop, 98850 Koumac, New Caledonia
Phone: +687 97 83 12
Before driving to the east coast, I recommend spending another night in Koumac since you need to drive up to 900 m of altitude. So take the opportunity to include one last adventure in Koumac after you have rinsed and packed your scuba diving gear. only a 10-minute drive east from the centre, the caves of Koumac are nested in a beautiful forest. The entrance of the caves is just a few minutes of walking from the parking space.
Please, be careful, there are two caves, a small and a large one. While the small cave doesn’t require any specific precaution, the large one is an adventure in itself. I was quite surprised the access was free. First, you need to make sure to register your name, the number of people, entry and later exit times. Make sure to bring several torch lights (or batteries) since it is completely dark inside. Exploring the cave until the furthest point allowed and back takes about an hour. However, you can limit your visit to the second chamber (the most interesting in my opinion) and be done in 20 minutes. For information, the site of Koumac caves has a picnic area and a free camping space (which is always good to know if you are looking to save a bit of money).
Day 4 & 5 – Hienghene, lush jungle and dramatic landscapes above and underwater
Once your dive computer is cleared after a good night sleep, do your best to hit the road as early as you can so you have plenty of time to enjoy the scenic drive ahead of you with as many photo-stops as you wish. It was the favourite of my road trip in New Caledonia. The road to Hienghene is to New Caledonia what the road to Hana is to Hawaii. Leaving Koumac behind, you will drive up and down the hills which still have these colours of red and yellow until you reach “Col d’Amos”, the pass across the mountains that separate the west coast from the east coast of New Caledonia. Make sure to stop to enjoy the breath-taking view on the east lagoon and its barrier reef. You will see a road sign indicating “Col d’Amos” and shortly after there will be a trail on your left where you can park your car.
Going back to the sea level, the landscape dramatically changes to deep shades of green. The east coast of New Caledonia receives the greatest amount of rainfall of New Caledonia, hence its lush jungle along the slopes of Mount Panié, the highest peak of New Caledonia, at 1,628 m. The east coast is also the home of the greatest number of Kanak villages. The history made them flee the west coast so don’t be surprised to see more Kanaky flags than anywhere else on the island. Don’t feel impressed by these flags, symbol of their independence claim. Just by making sure to slow down in every village you will cross along the road and waving at every person you will see (please be careful as I saw many people walking in the middle of the road), you will only receive smile after smile.
On my left side, I could see splendid deserted beaches, on my right side, colourful churches with lush jungle in the background. Don’t hesitate to stop to take pictures but always remember to as for permission as often as you can. Under the customary law of Kanak tribes, a customary gift is usually expected to get access to tribe’s lands but if it is to take a picture of the beach, showing respect by asking for authorisation works wonders.
If the weather is sunny, make sure to stop at the Tao waterfalls under the peak of Mount Panié. In my case, it took me 4 tentatives to finally be able to go on this hiking trail. The 3 first times, it started raining at my arrival, and in this case, the trail is closed for safety reasons. A small donation of 200 CFP is asked by the owner of the land to keep the path in good conditions. To walk up to the falls and back, with all the photo stops I want and including some resting time with a snack at the falls, it took me 1h30 so plan accordingly. I usually found most waterfalls overrated but the Tao waterfalls, with a height of 100m, are not to be missed.
15 minutes driving south after the Tao waterfalls you will find the last ferryboat of New Caledonia, crossing the Ouaieme Valley. I found it was the place that looked like the most to Scotland. No bridge will ever be built across as the river as a sacred meaning to Kanak tribes. After dying, they believe the souls of their loved ones travel down the river from the mountain to the reefs of the lagoon where they will rest. Crossing the river on the ferryboat only takes 5 minutes. Bonus, it’s free!
Another 15-20 minutes driving south you will reach the town of Hienghene and its famous limestone karst rock formations: the “Sphinx’ and the “Brooding Hen”. There are resting areas along the road before arriving in Hienghene that are perfect stops to take pictures. However, my favourite viewpoint was from the city hall of Hienghene, which displays a splendid architecture mixing Kanak traditions with eco-friendly construction. Hienghene centre is tiny, and it doesn’t take more than 2 minutes to cross it by car. A stop at the marina is another beautiful viewpoint, and so is the lagoon of Linderalique on the way to the dive centre of Hienghene.
After such an exciting day, get a good night sleep before going scuba diving the next day with a meeting time at 7.30 am. Babou Cote Ocean is the only scuba diving centre of Hienghene. Thierry, its owner, has lived and dived in Hienghene for more than 18 years. Saying he knows the place is an understatement. His instructors will show you how amazing Hienghene is as amazing underwater as above water. The dive sites of Hienghene are incredible for their coral reef architecture with deep narrow canyons, elegant wide arches and impressive swim-through, populated by giant sea fans with all shades of pink, orange and red. Some of the scenes of the famous movie “Oceans’ were shot at the “Cathedral” dive site, in a narrow canyon nicknamed the “gallery of monsters”. There, some rocks look like a dragon or an old witch.
If you are an underwater photographer and you love wide-angle shots, Hienghene is the number 1 place to visit in New Caledonia. I dived 6 times in Hienghene on 2 trips at 6 different dive sites. If I can return one day, I would love to dive them all over again, as every single time I could see something different. Hienghene was the first place where I saw electric clams, and on my last dive, we were lucky to see a beautiful leopard shark.
Most dive sites are a 20-minute boat ride away and meeting time is around 8 am so you are usually back around 12.30 pm. I never dived deeper than 25 m, but I could enjoy 60-minute dives almost every time. Please be advised that even if the staff of Babou Côté Océan will do their best to adapt the choice of dive sites based on the experience of divers, currents can be expected in New Caledonia. You need to know how to handle them like not fighting against them and hiding behind a wall for instance. In July and August, the water temperature was around 22/23°C. During the New Caledonian summer (December-February), water temperature can reach 29°C.
Tribu de Koulnoué, BP77 Hienghene, New Caledonia
Phone: +687 42 83 59
The next stop of this itinerary is only a 1-hour drive south so you can enjoy your post dive afternoon with a picnic at Babou dive centre which is along a beautiful sandy beach, or why not renting a kayak to explore the mangrove around the rocks of Linderalique. Just make sure not to leave after 4.30 pm to arrive in Poindimié before sunset. Another option if you don’t mind getting up early the next day is to stay for the night in Hienghene if you prefer the budget-friendly campsite of Babou Coté Océan rather than the hotel in Poindimié.
Day 6 – Poindimié, golden beach and coconut groves for macro lovers
As you drive more south, you will notice the landscape becomes dryer with more and more coconut groves. Poindimié area has the most beautiful sandy beaches I have seen on New Caledonia main island. Tieti Diving centre is located on the premise of the Hotel Tieti. Meet-up is at 7.30 am as Laurent and Martine the owners of the dive centre will drive you along with their boat to a small marina located 10 minutes driving south. From the marina, dive sites are only 20 minutes away by boat on average.
The 2 dive sites I explored in Poindimié looked like an “Underwater Manhattan” where canyons between coral reefs delimit “blocks”. I loved the density of gorgonians and the exciting low ceiling swim-through. The highlight of Poindimié for me was it incredible macro biodiversity. I was stumbling upon a new nudibranch species every 3-5 minutes. Maximum depth on both dive sites was quite shallow with 22m and the water temperature was about 23°C end of July which is right in the New Caledonia winter.
Of all the scuba diving spots of this itinerary, if you are into underwater macro photography, this is the place where you will use the most your macro lens. It is an excellent place to take pictures of the colourful queen of nudibranchs in New Caledonia: Chromodoris Kuniei. At the end of the first dive, I spotted two green and yellow Rhinopias fish, maybe a male and a female, sitting next to each other right next to the anchor line. Martine, my guide, was so excited because she said that was a fish they could see only once per year, how lucky! But unfortunately, I ran out of battery so I could just take one shot, how unlucky!
My favourite memory of Poindimié will remain when Laurent taught me on my second dive how to spot pygmy seahorses by identifying the right species of gorgonians. So not only I saw my first pygmy seahorse, but I learnt a new species ID skill that is so useful for underwater photography!
Hotel Tieti, 98822 Poindimié, New Caledonia
Phone: +687 424205
Day 7 – Sarramea & Farino [optional]
Although Farino and Sarramea are part of the Southern Province of New Caledonia, they make a perfect last stop before returning to the bustling city of Noumea. After my first solo road trip which lasted 10 days, I was exhausted. So the jacuzzi of my bungalow in Sarramea overlooking a river at the Evasion hotel was like the best thing ever to end in style this adventure.
Only 15 minutes driving from Sarramea, the Tree Fern Park of Farino is perfect for a last nature shot before going back to the city of Noumea. A bit like to reach Poingam in the north, once you see the sign for the park in Farino, keep driving up the hill even when the road becomes a trail. Keep the faith until you find the entrance of the park. Don’t hesitate to ask the park rangers at the gate for an itinerary recommendation based on your available time and capabilities. They will lend you a laminated map to follow your customised itinerary. Walking in the Tree Fern Park felt like walking in “Jurassic Park”, without the T-Rex! After enjoying the viewpoint of the Launay Mine Peak, I walk down into the jungle make of tree ferns and palm trees for a total time of 1h30. It started raining during my walk, but the tree ferns made great natural umbrellas! For information, if you are into bird watching, the Tree Fern Park is a hotspot in New Caledonia.
Important tips for an enjoyable road trip around New Caledonia
1 – Do not forget that as in France, New Caledonia drives on the right, not on the left like Australia.
2 – Main roads are of European standards, but when you leave them you can quickly be on dust trails and have to cross rivers at fords, however with care and adapted speed, a 4 wheel drive is not necessary for this itinerary. I rented my car at Budget in Noumea for about 44€ per day; don’t hesitate to compare prices in Noumea but be careful some cars are rented for use within Noumea area only.
3 – Forget about renting a GPS at the rental car company, they are useless (says the person who had one and got lost twice because of the b**** GPS). Get a local SIM card with a data plan and download the app MAPS.ME which has far more details and precision than even Google Maps for New Caledonia. Moreover, outside of Noumea, Internet connection is not reliable in New Caledonia, and locals still rely a lot on their cellphone: always confirm the day before your arrangements for scuba diving and accommodation.
4 – Avoid driving at night as much as you can. While the roads are generally in great conditions around New Caledonia, the speed limit outside of town is way too high for this kind of road in my opinion (110 km/h). Obviously, it is still too low for many locals who still drive well above this limit. If it is manageable during the daytime, at night time, it becomes a nightmare. Only towards the end of my 3-month stay, I started driving a bit at night because I knew better the roads but as a visitor don’t do it. Remember sunset is quite early, between 5 to 6 pm, so plan your day accordingly.
5 – Save money on your dives by getting the “Plongée +” card in the participating dive centres. Scuba diving is not cheap in New Caledonia, so any help counts! Price is 6000 CFP (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! For information, 2-tank boat trips are roughly between 12,000 (100€/£90) to 16,000 CFP (134€/£120) in New Caledonia.
Where to stay on New Caledonia main island?
Accommodation in New Caledonia is not cheap if you are looking at regular options such as hotels or even Airbnb. The best is to budget carefully before going there to avoid bad surprises. However, if you are looking to organise the dream vacation of a lifetime or let’s say a honeymoon, you’ll be happy to learn there are beautiful resorts all around the main island of New Caledonia with prices starting from about 12,000 CFP (100€/£90). But if you are on a budget or prefer something more adventurous to enjoy fully the amazing outdoors of New Caledonia, there are many well-equipped campsites in stunning locations (often along the beach) all around New Caledonia too! As I tested both options on my 3 trips around the main island of New Caledonia, here are my favourite addresses. To get better fares on hotels, remember the low season is winter in New Caledonia, which is from July to September and is also the whale watching season! However, camping prices remain stable all year long.
Even if I loved sleeping in the beautiful hotels of New Caledonia, my camping experiences in New Caledonia were more aligned with what I was looking for there: being more in touch with nature. I hadn’t done any camping in a long, long time before New Caledonia. I was a bit rusted the few first days, but I had so much fun going to bed with the stars and cooking delicious breakfast in front of paradise beaches for as little as 700 CFP a night! Since the pricing is per person, you can get more space and get one tent per person if you like. For information, if unlike me, you don’t have friends in Noumea who can lend you camping gear, you can buy everything you need at a very reasonable cost at Decathlon in Dumbea, in the suburbs of Noumea. You can also use the many expat groups of New Caledonia on Facebook to buy or sell camping gear.
For this itinerary, I recommend:
- Relais de Poingam, Poum: 900 CFP (7,50€ / £7) per person per night, bungalows also available at 10,000 CFP (84€ / £75) for 2 persons
- Gite du Lagon, Koumac: 1000 CFP (8,50€ / £7.50) per person per night, bungalows also available at 8,500 CFP (71€ / £63) for 2 persons
- Babou Cote Ocean camping, Hienghene: 700 CFP (6€ / £5)per person per night, tent rental available (my favourite!)
- Le Refuge de Farino: 850 CFP (7€ / £6) per person per night, tent rental available, bungalows also available at 9,100 CFP (76€ / £68) for 2 persons
Hotels & Resorts
I tested a couple of hotels in New Caledonia during my 3 months in New Caledonia. Some were stunning, and some were just alright. If you are in the mood for comfortable accommodation for a relaxing holiday without breaking the bank, I found all the hotels from the GHNC group were always neat and comfortable. They were not over luxurious and had this local feeling I loved, even if sometimes a few things would need to be refreshed. Standards rooms are of course more affordable but if you are already spending this kind of money, splurge a bit more and book one of the gorgeous bungalows with a sea view at least one night during your trip. If you can book well in advance on booking.com, there are great deals to get with a reduction sometimes up to 40% making them an excellent value for money!
For this itinerary, I recommend:
- The Malabou Beach in Poum
- The Koulnoue in Hienghene (my favourite)
- The Tieti in Poindimié
- The Evasion Hotel in Sarramea
How to go to 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.
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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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