It’s a summer’s day off the coast of Ile Verte (Green Island) in New Caledonia and the sun is high in the sky, gilding the sea and making it glitter. I’ve spent the past hour snorkelling off the island on a day where the waves are wearing jaunty white caps and strong winds have rendered the seas effervescent.
“This is the New Caledonian life I love,” smiles guide Emeric Amice, as he wades through the waters of the island’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed lagoon.
“Today, you are snorkelling in the largest lagoon in the world,” says Emeric who, like the majority of Caledonians, shares both Melanesian and French heritage.
“The lagoon is home to seven sea turtle species and one of them you might see – the green sea turtle – nests on Green Island,” he says.
Emeric is co-owner of Gecko Evasions, a tour company that invites visitors to discover the diverse landscapes of Bourail (pronounced boo rye) – in the southern province of New Caledonia – and meet its colourful inhabitants.
While the emerald seas that bracelet the island are usually quite gentle, a change in the wind’s mood has meant the pace of the undertow has picked up. Today, snorkelling is like underwater speed dating where, despite your eyes being drawn this way or that, you are at the mercy of the current. You literally have seconds to pucker up to that purple-lipped clam or ogle that friendly reef shark. Our speedboat is skippered by Nekwata Surf Camp owner, Manu Hernu, who charts a course through the chop of the lagoon to Secrets, a fast left-hander wave that wraps around the lenticular reef. “The waves in New Caledonia are the best because they are uncrowded. Sometimes I see turtles in the water when I’m surfing,” says Manu, one of the best surfers in New Caledonia.
“The first wife of my ancestor was a Kanak woman and the turtle is part of my clan … turtles are like my brothers and sisters,” he says.
While much of New Caledonia’s beauty is centred around its stunning beaches and lagoons, there is also a range of experiences that offer a taste of everyday life in Nouvelle-Calédonie. Our day trip with Emeric includes a detour to La Ferme de Nemeara, a cattle station surrounded by rolling farmland where stockmen and women have worked the land for more than 150 years.
Here, we meet former policewoman and fourth-generation farmer Cindy Baronnet to get a taste of New Caledonian cowboy (and cowgirl) culture. Cindy is a former beauty queen – crowned Miss Caledonia 1997 and 1998 – but, these days, is more likely to be found parading around in an Akubra and steel-capped boots than a tiara and stilettos.
“We are a family with strong links to the land dating back to my great, great grandfather. After 10 years of being in the police force, I wanted to come back to my roots. When I returned to live on this property 12 years ago, I really felt free,” says Cindy, who manages the farm alongside mum Jocelyne, husband Marc, brother Ludo and sister Nath.
For the past four years, the Baronnet family has developed an agri-tourism venture, treating visitors to a lavish French-Melanesian bush barbecue under a 100-year-old blackwood tree, showing them how to crack a whip, commune with the cows, and climb a multi-storey treehouse hidden on the 40-hectare property.
Exploring La Riviere
We learn even more about the French territory known as New Caledonia when we join guide Edouard Bourguet, on a Toutazimut Eco Tour. Edouard is a French expat with a Master of Ecology and he can tell the name of an unseen bird by its song, wax lyrical about New Caledonia drifting away from the Gondwana supercontinent 66 million years ago and point out a grand kauri tree around 1,000 years old. During our visit to Blue River Provincial Park, we also spot the cagou bird, endemic to the area, and kayak around a sunken forest created when a dam flooded the valley in 1954.
It’s while kayaking around the trees, all twisted limbs reaching for the sky, that Edouard talks of the bitter irony of being somewhere so beautiful that was borne through an act of destruction.
“Something bad was done here to create something very beautiful. But through that destruction has come a commitment to protect the remaining rainforest. The population of the cagou has tripled since the ‘70s, which means we have been somewhat successful,” he says.
Food for thought
Exploring the food and wine scene in New Caledonia also feels like an adventure. We feel it clinking glasses during a sommelier-led tasting of superb French wines at Le Chai de l’Hippodrome, devouring savoury crepes at Creperie Le Rocher, enjoying a rustic bush barbecue, and scarfing down baguettes stuffed with jamon beside the Riviere Bleu. While New Caledonia has long been a popular place to vacation for the French, the number of tourists from Australia has also been steadily growing for about a decade. The fact there’s a flight time of about three hours from Australia on local carrier AirCalin means we can enjoy a taste of this little piece of French paradise on our doorstep. Although it’s often dubbed ‘the Paris of the Pacific’, in reality, from where I’m sitting – in a kayak admiring cottonwool clouds stuck to a cornflower blue sky – New Caledonia feels worlds away from the French capital.