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Isle of Pines

New Caledonia

New Caledonia has held a special attraction for me for many years. I absolutely loved France and was a regular visitor during my three years living in London. I often spent my weekends in Paris and had a true love affair with the city.

Le Petite Train with kids Noumea lacked none of this magic, albeit on a smaller scale. We were filled with anticipation from the moment we disembarked from the aircraft and breathed in the eclectic mix of French and Melanesian charm and culture. And of course that beautiful French accent sent shivers up my spine.

Tell people that you’re off to New Caledonia and they’ll most likely envisage you treating yourself to a romantic, very expensive holiday for two. But that’s only one possibility.

The big surprise is that New Caledonia also holds huge appeal for families wanting a uniquely relaxing holiday — of the order that only the South Pacific can serve up.

It’s certainly worth looking past initial perceptions. This oft-overlooked archipelago delights par excellence — sublime, unspoiled beaches and deserted islands, pristine reefs and friendly, fascinating locals — wrapped with a beguiling French-Melanesian twist.

And best of all, with a bit of deft planning and ingenuity, your family can savour this unspoiled Pacific gem without applying for an overdraft. Start with a value-laden package, because stitching together a DIY trip will most likely prove pricier.

NoumeaThe next trick is to go native. Pop down to the local supermaché and you’ll find delicacies like French wine, baguettes and cheeses surprisingly cheap. Next, delve into Noumea’s colourful market, and you’ll emerge with the basis of a hearty picnic for $10–$20. It sure beats prohibitively expensive restaurant meals.

The Nouvata Park Hotel is where we stayed and we enjoyed the ambience of the rooms. We could sit in the large bath with the shutters opening into the bedroom and looking out over the bay, a glass of French champagne in hand. What more could you want?

The views extend over lake-calm Anse Vata and Baie des Citrons beaches, with their windsurfers, speedboats, cafés and men playing boules tinged with a distinct Mediterranean hue. Right outside the hotel you will find a novel, very effective way to explore Noumea. Hop aboard ‘Le Petit Train’, (included in most packages) and chug through charming enclaves of colonial houses and bolts of bougainvillea to stop at key attractions, including Noumea’s low-slung, provincial town centre, the (soon-to-be-expanded) aquarium and the Botanical Gardens and Bird Park — an ideal spot for a picnic.

The ultimate intrigue however, lies within the encircling reef — the world’s second largest — abuzz with dazzling corals and mesmerising marine life. A 5-minute speedboat ride from Anse Vata gets you to ‘Duck Island’ — a protected marine reserve that offers excellent snorkelling. Even better, take a day trip to Amadée Island — a more expansive marine reserve with spellbinding underwater vistas. Be sure not to miss the fish feeding — a whirl of jewel-like incandescent colours, improbable shapes and curious expressions.

A new, unique means of getting up close and personal with the aquatic wonders is the “Sea Walker” trip, which, following a scenic catamaran ride to an outer-reef pontoon, sees you enclosed in a diving suit and a helmet linked to the surface by a hose, literally walking 5-6 metres under water. No special training is required and kids — who, not surprisingly, rave about the adventure — can lap up the fun provided they’re over eight.

Isle of Pines

Wind Surfers

It’s on New Caledonia’s outer islands, however, that the inimitable South Pacific magic really kicks in. Unscathed by industry, agriculture or mass tourism, they remain uncrowded, uncommercialised, rich in Kanak (indigenous) culture and deeply relaxing. Throughout the “Loyalty Islands” a network of “tribal home-stays” offer accommodation in traditional thatched huts, from $15 per person. Eat with the family for about $15 extra or self-cater with supplies purchased from supermarkets or markets.

Lifou, the largest outer island, is the most diverse and most traditional. Graced with long, chalky, casuarina-fringed beaches, pebbly inlets, sapphire bays enclosed by sheer limestone cliffs and psychedelic underwater scenes — it’s a water-lover’s wonderland.

Soothing to the point of being soporific, the most arduous task you’ll undertake in New Caledonia is boarding the plane home. But, with prices tumbling and a flight shorter than most movies, NOT treating your family to an evocative and replenishing escape is getting increasingly difficult to justify.

Getting There and Around:

Flying is the only reliable way of reaching the outer islands. Bikes and kayaks are often provided by hotels or can be rented for about $20 a day. Car hire starts at about $80 a day. Noumea is served by a cheap, reliable bus service. ‘Duck Island’ — about $12 by speedboat.

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