“… a sparkling jewel in the Pacific Ocean.”
If Moorea was an unspoiled, and largely undeveloped, paradise then Noumea is a gem which has been polished to a sparkling jewel in the Pacific Ocean. My goodness what a fabulous place this is and I can see why it is known as the ‘Paris of the Pacific’. It is more like the South of France in appearance with its palm trees and beautiful bays but infinitely nicer (fewer traffic jams and very polite locals).
However, before I start thinking in terms of it being a future holiday destination and mentally awarding it 5 stars on Trip Advisor, I need to give myself a very stern reminder that the only way to get here is to fly from Australia or Japan. In common with the South of France, it is also ridiculously expensive.
We arrived at the spectacular archipelago just as dawn was breaking but had a long transit along the river to Noumea, the capital city of the French special collectivity of New Caledonia.
Did I know that the barrier reef off these islands is second only to Australia’s Barrier Reef? Absolutely not. The islands of New Caledonia have a sub-tropical climate and at its coldest, Noumea’s average daily maximum temperature is still 28C. Today was much warmer. Our welcome was nothing short of ‘hot’ with a display of drumming and war dances from grass-skirted warriors enthusiastically performing on the quayside before the ship could properly dock. Once clearance was given, people were keen to go ashore and, for me, the chosen tour of the island was via one of the brightly coloured, open-carriage little trains – locally known as ‘The Choo-choo’. It was absolutely perfect as the day just got hotter and hotter.
We did the sights and saw bay after bay of beautiful aquamarine water. Some were breezy and perfect for kite surfing, whilst others provided calm waters for safe family bathing. People in New Caledonia are passionate about sailing, which is obvious from the number of yachts and huge variety of crafts filling the marinas and at anchor in the bays. Each family owns at least one and they are used for visits to the other islands, visiting friends and just enjoying life. Generally speaking, Noumea has an up-market population and buying a house with a sea view here costs over US $1m for something basic. Very few are basic.
“Education is incredibly important…”
Different races live happily side by side and some have intermingled. The Melanesians, who were here first, have been joined by Polynesians, Europeans, Indians, Vietnamese and Chinese. The Indians and Vietnamese came to mine the nickel which was discovered here and two huge nickel mines feature on the island’s landscape. The Chinese came and developed their China Town. It never ceases to amaze me that almost everywhere I go in the world, I can be sure of Dim Sum and Sweet and Sour! Of course amongst the early settlers were white missionaries who brought both Catholic and Protestant religions to the islanders. Today 55% of the population is Roman Catholic, 35% Protestant and 10% Muslim (the latter being courtesy of prisoners who were shipped here from Morocco when Noumea was a penal colony).
But religion ‘bends’ a little more here. We saw a fabulous looking fish restaurant which is owned and run by nuns! Apparently you can go and have a delicious lunch and sing an Ave Maria with them at the same time.
Education is incredibly important and schooling begins at 3 years old. When children go into Primary School, at the age of 6, the school day is from 07:00 until 16:00. When they are in High School or University, the day stretches from 07:00 until 18:00 or 19:00. The children all wear bright blue shirts as their school uniform. Skirts and trousers seemed to be grey or blue. It doesn’t matter which school you go to, the uniform is the same across the island and, just like children everywhere in the world, passing visitors were an excuse to forget the lesson, rush to the windows and wave furiously.
French ‘chic’ is much in evidence amongst the European population. Everything is put together with style and elegance and the shops cater for lovers of French designer goods and matching prices. The native population is also ‘très jolie’ with vibrant colours and flowing garments. Bars and restaurants offer local brews and delicacies but our morning treat, on board The Choo-choo, was a delicious pastry and some local ice cold cider, enjoyed whilst gazing out onto the world’s largest lagoon. Not quite your average Friday morning!
After a lengthy wander along the promenades and through the parks, a visit to the beautiful Lemon Bay rounded off my day perfectly. Waiting for the sun to drop behind the distant hills in a water’s edge bar, with a glass of chilled Chablis, served with canapés and a flourish, was a perfect time to reflect on some of the quite outstanding experiences of this trip. And still there’s more to come! Hop on the shuttle bus back to the ship and Australia next stop.