Nouvelle-Calédonie
Conversations
from the other side

Red ginger flower.

Wadra Bay, on Lifou Island

Wadra Bay, on Lifou Island

Cook pines, Lifou Island.

The lagoon, separated from the ocean by the coral reef

On Lifou, the biggest Loyalty Island

On Lifou, the biggest Loyalty Island

Baie des Amoureux, on the west coast of Grande Terre.

Fiddlehead ferns, illustrating the territory’s unique biodiversity

A road winding through the rainforest covering the heartland of Lifou Island.

River and temple of the Tchamba tribe, Grande Terre

River and temple of the Tchamba tribe, Grande Terre

Passe de Poé, a deep canyon slicing through the lagoon.

Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa

Chez Waka Gaze

Far-flung placeslike a string of islands basking in the infinite expanse of the Pacifichave their own vocabulary: lend an ear to the whispering lagoon, the rustling tropical land, the echoes of a multifaceted people.

The solitude of the Rock

Names transport the traveler. They keep him busy while waiting to arrive, like a promise made to a child impatient to peek behind a curtain. Anyone traveling 17,000 km from Europe, with many hours spent up in the air, will have plenty of opportunity to ponder the name of New Caledonia. It was baptized by English navigator James Cook who, on seeing the mountains from his ship in 1774, chose the Latin name for ScotlandCaledoniaas a tribute. This may seem a surprising choice when you reach Nouméa and take a lungful of the humid austral summer and listen to the ocean spilling out over the coral reef. What is it that links the Scottish moors to this archipelago, which admittedly experiences heavy rain, but whose coastline boasts a refreshing ocean climate, gentle trade winds and evenings warm as noon?

You need to turn off the road taking you to your destination, watching out for elusive signposts while hugging the white beaches, to realize that this Pacific Caledonia shares more than verdant mountains and damp spells with Scotland: a certain predilection for solitude, for creating deserts. For Nouméa, an urban hub with a outdoor nightlife, soon retreats into her bays. This is borne out by the figuresthe average density is 14 inhabitants per km2but the landscapes are more eloquent. On Grande Terre, as on its escort islands, people are scarce. You pass through towns that are just sleepy streets, encounter villages that are no more than gardens sprouting thick grass and dotted with round huts, hibiscus and coconut trees. Words are also stripped down here: la brousse (brush) for when the landscape turns wild; la Chaîne (Chain) for the mountainous spine that zigzags across Grande Terre; les îles (islands), quite simply, when you head out to sea. Place names embellish the silence: the Forêt Noyée (Drowned Forest), the Côte Oubliée (Forgotten Coast), the Col du Crève-Coeur (Heartbreak Pass), the Atoll de la Surprise (Surprise Atoll) . . .

This brings to mind the other name locals have for New Caledonia: le Caillou, “the Rock.” It’s a modest nickname for a territory that covers 18,000 km2 and is ringed by the world’s largest lagoon, listed since 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage site and surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean. The nickname seems almost paradoxical given that the Rock is so generously fertile and rich in flora, where almost 80 percent of species are native, including the Cook pines crowning the rocky outcrops, the tree ferns embroidering the virgin forest and the paperbark tree, a cousin of the eucalyptus that perfumes the savanna. But it soon becomes clear that this humble stage name reflects the innermost nature of the archipelago, a unique foundation linking the varied populations, including the descendants of convicts and European explorers; Kanak and Polynesian peoples; and immigrants from Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan, among other places. Various languages have flourished on this Rock: an embellished, vivid, reappropriated form of French, together with the 28 vernacular Kanak languages (Drehu, Nengone, Paicî, etc.) that are also spoken day in, day out.

The ebb and flow of time

We are at the aerodrome on Lifou, the largest of the three Loyalty Islands, barely an hour before the flight to Grande Terre. Everything is quiet; the ticket counters are closed. You have a choice of places to wait: on plastic seats or in the shade of a large faré (hut) thatched with straw, with just the right amount of breeze. Even the children fighting over a tennis ball lower their voices and scrutinize the passengers who have arrived early. Thirty minutes before departure, the first cars arrive, dropping off coolers, cardboard boxes and passengers. The small tiled hall comes to life much like a slumbering station when the single train of the day arrives. The prop plane lands, buzzing like a giant insect, before setting off again for “35-40 minutes of flying, 50-55 if the wind is against us.” This ebb and flow can be summed up in a local saying, often uttered in the middle of a sentence: “casse pas la tête” (literally, “don’t break your head,” meaning “don’t worry”). It’s a way of saying that everything will sort itself out in the end, that every plane will eventually take off and that there’s no need to arrive early.

Since we have the timeand the spaceevery detail starts to become important: the old man wearing a straw hat on Peng beach, who skillfully slides his metal boat into the water over logs and sets off into the lagoon to cast his nets. Or the shore at Wé, where we follow the dark horizontal smudge of a swimming turtle that has surfaced to breathe. Or the farewell fires lit by Bossie Ijezie, the “little chief” of the Hunëtë tribe, which become flickering lighthouses at the end of the bay as we sail away in a motorboat. Or a hiker in the North Province, who appears suddenly on the reddish roads of the mountains scarred by mining; he waves, because in Kanak territory it is polite to greet both strangers and friends.

Being blue

Being blue Fishermen unload their catch at the Nouméa fish market. The names of the golden-lined spinefoot, highfin grouper, spotted rose snapper and yellow-banded snapper appear like sea-inspired poetry on small slates. The passageways fill upwomen in colorful mission dresses, bushmen farmers who have come down from the plains, students from the islands. Here, instead of saying “c’est noir de monde” (it’s black with people) to describe a teeming crowd, people say “c’est bleu de monde” (it’s blue with people). And with good reason, for blue dominates the New Caledonian palette, except, perhaps, when the roads snake up into the Chain or penetrate the tropical greenery. And even then the color is never far, bursting into view through a gap in the hills.

This blue performs a daily ritual along the coast that is orchestrated by the southern light. As on this morning in the Poé lagoon, on Grande Terre’s west coast, which emerges almost gray, with waves cresting with the tide. A few translucent crabs skitter across the sand, specks brought to life by the breeze. Then the sun rises, seeming to extract buried turquoise ore from the seabed. It explodes, splashing over the surface of the water. We’ve seen this dazzling blueveering between aquamarine and turquoise, and dappled by the shadows of the coralin images thousands of time, cheering our winter mood. But as our eyes scan over the color, it turns into shimmering silk. And when the noon sun blazes down on the coconut trees, it acquires a floral, slightly salty fragrance, sometimes warmed with vanilla.

But evenings are the most surprising, when the blue stubbornly persists in the face of darkness. You might think it’s impossible to see a color at night. At exactly what point does the lagoon take on the morning darkness, coming full circle? You would need to keep watch, eyes wide open, to catch the moment when the light goes out. Perhaps there is a second when everything becomes obscure, a chromatic flaw when the lagoon succumbs to the ocean, before flashing its palette of colors again, tempting you to use repetition to describe it: “It’s blue with blue.”

Tata !

Departures often need sweeteningespecially when you don’t want to comply and would rather forget that the far end of the tarmac at La Tontouta takes us back to the other side of the world and multiple time zones to cross. So people here have an affectionate name for goodbyes: Tata! sometimes said quickly and sometimes stretched out into “ta-ta” to make the goodbye last longer. It’s an expression that’s anchored in the islands, used at the end of a game of pétanque, in the shade of a gas station or at the end of a path through the bush. The illustrator Bernard Berger, who sketched Caledonian ways of speaking and accents and authored the highly popular comic strip La Brousse en folie, was never able to rid himself of it: “Even during my years of study on mainland France, this tata never left me. It came out spontaneously and ‘revealed,’ at the end of every encounter, that I was from a different hemisphere.” Tata, two syllables for a farewell, a way of making the departure bounce in the hope that it will one day ricochet into a return.

Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa

Open to the sea breeze, the huge kohu-wood-frame lobby of this recent five-star resort sets the tone: at the Sheraton Deva, launched in 2014 on Grande Terre, luxury is even sweeter when it melds with the landscape. The bungalows are scattered around the property in the shade of ancient banyan trees, like a village, watched over by blue-hued sultana birds who show the way to an easy, carefree, contemplative stay. Add in the golf course at the edge of the bush, a 900 m2 pool, a Deep Nature spa and sunsets that set the Poé lagoon ablaze, how could it be any other way? 

Sheraton

New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa Domaine de Deva, route de Poé, Bourail. Tél. +687 26 50 00.

www.sheratonnewcaledoniadeva.com

Chez Waka Gaze

Three steps: two on the grass, one on the sand. That’s the distance separating the four Waka Gaze huts from the turquoise strip along Wadra Bay, on the south coast of Lifou. There are very few hotels on the largest of the Loyalty Islands, or on its two sisters, Ouvéa and Maré; the best option is “tribal accommodation”: simple, round, oceanside rooms with a wooden door and a large square bed. You awake to the sounds of the rustling straw roof, then slip, still sleepy, into the first waves; sometimes, there’s nothing more to be said.

Chez Waka Gaze

Tribu de Mu, Lifou. Tél. +687 45 15 14.

Next

Fresh perspectives

Carnet d’adresses

Sheraton

New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa Domaine de Deva, route de Poé, Bourail. Tél. +687 26 50 00.

www.sheratonnewcaledoniadeva.com

Chez Waka Gaze

Tribu de Mu, Lifou. Tél. +687 45 15 14.

Restaurants

Tamanou Beach

On the south side of Lifou Island are a few outdoor tables and an open kitchen where Éric does justice to the family’s catch of the day while a child slumbers on his shoulder: red mullet, rock lobster or coconut crab, rice with vanilla sauce (sourced locally) and papaya salad. Call ahead to reserve or leave a note on the counter Baie de Wadra, tribu de Mu, Lifou. Tél. +687 45 09 24.

Le Taom

This gourmet spot upstairs in the huge Château Royal hotel is sheltered from the cosmopolitan buzz of Nouméa’s nightlife and offers elegant takes on local flavors. 140, promenade Roger-Laroque, Nouméa.

www.complexechateauroyal.nc

Drehu Village

Sweet potato salad, sashimi of yellowfin tuna, coconut milk marinated fish, stewed guava tart: the menu of the restaurant in the only hotel in Wé, the quiet capital of Lifou, is a tropical expedition on its own.  Baie de Châteaubriand, Wé, Lifou. Tél. +687 45 02 71.

ww.hoteldrehuvillage.nc

La Sorbetière Ferry

This artisanal ice-cream maker on the dockside where cruise ships moor provides an ideal spot to watch the wind whip at the caps of the passengers on a stopover in Nouméa. And to flavor your dreams of long passages with the taste of a mango-lychee sorbet. Quai Jules-Ferry, Nouméa. Tél. +687 27 20 58.

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Prendre l’air

Lifou Nature

On the customary lands of Hunëtë, the Ijezie family offers botanical hikes through the forests and along the clifftops. To continue your exploration of medicinal plants and Kanak lore, opt for the two-day trip, camping overnight on a little-known beach, with a boat trip and a stop to eat at Marianna’s. A great example of the shared tourist experience, launched by Bossie and successfully continued by his son Lino. Tribu de Hunëtë, Lifou. Tél. +687 45 05 56.

Toutazimut

Axelle Battie arrived in the city 14 years ago and has been working in the outdoors ever since. From Nouméa, she organizes 4WD off-road adventures all over Grande Terre, and excursions to the Blue River Provincial Park. Tél. +687 91 51 65. Nouméa.

www.toutazimut.nc

Cap Ulm Poé

This small airfield on the west coast is run by flying enthusiasts who take passengers up for a bird’s eye view of the Poé lagoonit will look very different when you’re back down at the water’s edge. À l’entrée de la plage de Poé, Bourail. À l’entrée de la plage de Poé, Bourail. Tél. +687 44 22 00.

www.ulm.nc

Centre culturel Tjibaou

Tjibaou Don’t miss this cultural center on the Tina peninsula, a must-see at the start of your trip for its elegant wooden design by Renzo Piano and its program celebrating the indigenous Kanak culture. Rue des Accords-de-Matignon, Nouméa.

www.adck.nc

Organiser son séjour

Nouvelle-Calédonie Tourisme

The revamped New Caledonia tourist website is a valuable source of inspiration when preparing your trip to the islands, with itineraries, events calendars, lists of addresses and a search engine for finding a specific experience (lagoons, culture, food). Information, catalogues and thematic brochures are also available at the Maison de la Nouvelle-Calédonie in Paris. 4bis, rue de Ventadour, Paris. Tél. +33 (0)1 47 03 14 74.

www.nouvellecaledonie.travel
Address Book

Going There

www.airfrance.com

Flight frequency

Air France has up to seven weekly flights to Nouméa from Paris-CDG via Tokyo-Narita, on a code-share basis with Aircalin.

KLM has up to two daily flights to Nouméa from Amsterdam, on a code-share basis with Aircalin.

Arrival airport

Aéroport de Nouméa-La Tontouta.
À 52 km de Nouméa.
Tél. +687 35 11 18.

AIR FRANCE KLM oficces

À l’aéroport.

Bookings

— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis la Nouvelle-Calédonie :
Tél. +687 41 48 48.

Car rental

Hertz, à l'aéroport

Tél. +687 35 12 77.

www.airfrance.com/cars

Further reading

Le Petit Marcel Illustré
Bernard Berger, éditions La Brousse en folie.

Le Calédonien de poche
Christine Pauleau, éditions Assimil.

Nouvelles calédoniennes
ouvrage collectif, éditions Vents d’ailleurs.

Nouvelle-Calédonie
Le Petit Futé.

Nouvelle-Calédonie
Lonely Planet.

Remerciements

Bernard Berger, Simanë, Sammy Ihage, Hélène Nimbaye et Lino Ijezie.

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© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only