Looking to escape the usually wet and cold June weather in Sydney, we chose New Caledonia’s capital Nouméa for a quick getaway over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend 2016. Nouvelle-Calédonie is Australia’s closest Eastern neighbour, and it’s balmy temperatures make it (not only) a great winter getaway. Unbeknownst to us at the time though, New Caledonia has a reputation for being hugely expensive. After having been there, what is it really like, and is it worth a visit despite the cost?
First up, some background
New Caledonia is a French overseas territory, just like Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean or La Réunion off the coast of East Africa. It’s not just one island but an archipelago made up of 350km long Grand Terre, the Loyalty Islands (Îles Loyauté) and the Isle of Pines (Île des Pins) to the East and South East, respectively. Nouméa itself is located in the South of Grand Terre.
A last-minute decision, we booked the Chateau Royal Beach Resort and Spa – one of the top 5 spots in Nouméa according to TripAdvisor. Staying at a four-star hotel is most unusual for us, even before we became minimalists. That said, we found that booking flights and accommodation separately (even using short-term rental accommodation platforms) was significantly more expensive, so the package deal (non-stop flights for the two of us plus 4 nights accommodation for <AUD2,000) won out. Besides, we are always up for an experiment…
How to get there
Our afternoon AirCalin flight from Sydney to Nouméa took 2h 45min – less than hopping across the Tasman from Sydney to Auckland (and it’s not much further from New Zealand). Many South Pacific cruises from Sydney, Brisbane or Auckland include New Caledonia on their itinerary. If that’s your preferred mode of travel, the shortest cruise you’ll find is 7 nights as you’ll spend a few days at sea just to get there and back.
We decided to take the public Carsud bus service (Ligne C) to get us from La Tontouta Airport (50km north) into Nouméa itself. The cost per person was XPF280 (AUD3.58), instead of the standard XPF2,500 (AUD32) for a shuttle bus ticket or even more for a taxi. You stay on the bus all the way until the last stop at Rue Desmazures (a parking lot next to the Bingo Hall).
Although the drive takes longer, we love taking public transport: it’s always a great opportunity to get to know the area (and the locals). Thanks to our (very) basic school French, we even worked out what bus to change to once the airport bus arrived in town: the #10 Karuia bus took us to a bus stop just outside the hotel grounds.
The food is delicious… but…
Too tired to venture out on our first night, we dined at La Pirogue, one of the hotel restaurants. The food was delicious… though not cheap. We managed to contain the bill shock AND fill our stomachs by sharing our meals (which we often do as portions tend to be more than we can manage individually): One entrée, one main, one dessert and two glasses of wine set us back XPF8,000 (~AUD102).
We began to realise that New Caledonia was more expensive than Australia or New Zealand, when our (very basic) breakfast the next morning at a cafe nearby ended up costing us XPF3,600 (AUD46). Holy Moly.
So, what do you do if you find yourself at a hugely expensive destination? Apart from doing your homework before you go, you go shopping! No, not what you think… we are talking groceries. So after breakfast, we headed to the produce market at Port Moselle and to a nearby supermarket for a new experience of food shopping on a French island in the South Pacific. Let me tell you… no taste is uncatered for here: freshly baked baguette, all kinds of cheeses, French wine, foie gras… just like in France. No wonder they call it Little France.
Our grocery bill came to XPF6,360 (AUD81) – not bad considering it would have cost a lot more had we eaten out for all our meals. Luckily, our hotel room had a kitchen.
If you think we’d pass on yummy French cuisine and have all meals ‘at home’ think again. We dined out twice more: at Le Miretti Gascon (following a recommendation) and La Bodega Del Mar, a tapas bar strutting out into the ocean at Ansa Vata. While the meals were good both times, our first night’s dinner at La Pirogue turned out to be the best meal we had during our stay. Who would have thought?
Cool and affordable activities in and around Nouméa
Blessed with several beautiful beaches in walking distance or a short bus ride away and a big hillside park (with gorgeous views) just behind our hotel, we spent most of our time in/by the water and exploring the town. On Saturday afternoon, we climbed all the way to the top of Parc du Ouen Toro (home to a WWII battery). Staying for the sunset, we shared the place with several local families having picnics (and a few youngsters blasting music from their cars).
New Caledonia’s clear blue waters are great for snorkelling too – after all, it’s home to the world’s largest lagoon. If you only get to visit Nouméa, you may want to book a snorkelling trip to one of the nearby islands. While closest (and thus cheapest), tiny Îlot Canard (Duck Island) just offshore at Anse Vata can be a bit hit and miss visibility-wise. If you can spare the pennies and have the time, Ilôt Amédée (24km south of Nouméa) is a great destination for an adventures day out.
On our last full day in New Caledonia, we hired a car to explore Nouméa’s surrounds, including Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue. The Park is just under two hour’s drive North-East of Nouméa, an interesting drive through red clay hills rich in Nickel and iron oxides (mining is an important industry in New Caledonia).
The trip inside the Park was remarkable for several reasons. The park was only established in 1980, and the work that had gone into developing the infrastructure to be able to welcome visitors was quite impressive: you can hike, mountain bike, kayak and even camp overnight. The park is home to native Kaori trees, including Grand Kaori, a 1,000 years old giant. Most memorable though was being able to observe Kagus (the native and endangered bird of New Caledonia) close up.
So, is it worth a visit?
We enjoyed our long weekend in Nouméa and would come back to see more of Grand Terre, the Loyalty Islands (especially Ouvéa, Lifou and Mare), maybe even the more touristy Isle of Pines. Next time, we’d make sure we stay with the indigenous Kanak people who make up 40% of the islands’ population and learn more about their culture.
Nouméa itself turned out to be surprisingly European. If you love anything French (including practising your language skills) and live in Australia or New Zealand, New Caledonia is a great destination. If you are looking for a South Pacific island experience where everyone speaks English, you might want to head to Vanuatu or Samoa instead… delicious local food and warm hospitality are guaranteed.
While definitely more expensive than many other South Pacific islands, a trip to New Caledonia doesn’t have to break the bank. It does require though a bit more planning (and flexibility). For a comparison of prices between Nouméa and your city, check out Numbeo.
This article was first published in June 2016 but has since been updated. XPF/AUD exchange rates are as at June 2016 (but haven’t changed much since).
Feature image by Dominique Delisle from Pixabay