When the weather gods decide to hurl a cauldron’s brew of stormy grey clouds and wind-tossed waters at your island paradise, what else is there to do than abandon the pool lounges and endless rounds of cocktails in favour of room service and bingeing on Netflix?
Thankfully, on this occasion I’m not trapped inside a gargantuan resort. I’m on the island of Mare, one of the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia, and as the plane plonks heavily on the runway I resolve that no amount of precipitation will dampen my enthusiasm to enjoy this mysterious little island. Besides, there’s so much more to do than sun lounging. I’m about to get a real taste of authentic island life.
Our affable guide Jean Claude picks us up from the lonely concrete shed that is the island’s only airport, herds us into the mini van and proceeds to drive at break-neck speed towards our hotel. Jean Claude is excited to have five new sets of ears to hear what we expect are well-worn anecdotes, and takes the opportunity to reel off all kinds of facts about the island. He’s most proud about the bounty of produce Mare is famous for – lettuce, yams, vanilla, mangoes, avocadoes and a particular local speciality – roasted flying fox, or Rousettes.
Jean Claude turns around to make sure we’re listening. “We marinate him in red wine, onion, garlic, a touch of salt and roast him with yam. It is delicious! We catch the flying fox ourselves. I’ll make it for you.” We hurriedly agree, if only to let Jean Claude get back to driving.
The landscape blurs past, with glimpses of tangled forest. Hidden deep within are the deep sink holes, some said to be the deepest in the world. Sleepy villages with thatched hut roofs cling to the roadside, mostly inhabited by subsistence farmers and fishermen, we’re told. It looks like very little has changed within the last century. And even through curtains of rain, the ocean still glows an otherworldly blue green.
Mare is touted as one of ‘the best kept secrets of the Pacific’, and being virtually non-existent on the tourist radar has meant that the quietest of the Loyalty Islands has retained it’s reputation as a disaffected hideaway, void of the tourist strips and their fast food restaurants, malls and souvenir shops. In fact, if shopping, soy lattes and perfumed hand towels on arrival were expected, you’d be sorely disappointed. Mare does not boast any cafés, the lone restaurant is in our hotel and if you were planning on doing any shopping, well, you’d have to wait until the once-weekly produce market. I muse that what makes this lonely little island paradise for some travellers, could make it misery for others.
Our boutique bungalows are small but comfortable, and whatever superfluous luxuries they lack, it certainly makes up for in location – the ocean laps at a white sand shore just metres away from my door. We dump our bags and we’re back in the van, being thrown around like socks in a washing machine. Without warning, Jean Claude careens off the road and abruptly comes to a halt. “I want to show you all something special,” he announces. We exchange side-glances wondering if he means his latest catch of bats.
After a short hike through the thick vegetation we happen on the island’s famous Natural Aquarium with relief. Created when the Loyalty Islands rose up out of the ocean millennia ago, the emerald pool is now a nursery for all kinds of fish who come to give birth in the protected, pristine waters. The pool is teeming with all kinds of marine life. I ask if we’re allowed to snorkel to get a better look. Jean Claude shakes his head. “No fishing, no swimming and no snorkeling,” he says. “This place is precious, no? The chiefs all decide to keep it safe.” A monstrous eel soon saunters over looking for a snack of stale bread. “This means he likes you!” Jean Claude tells us excitedly. “We are lucky! He didn’t come out for those other tourists, just us.”
But we can’t linger to feed our new admirer lumps of bread all day, there are other wonders to explore. The islands rugged interior is honeycombed with grottos, inland pools and deep sink holes, which have created their own fascinating ecosystems, and Bone Hole or Trou de Bone is one of the deepest at 40 metres. The yawning rock cavity drops into a lush tropical garden and a pool that sinks to who-knows how far into the earth. It’s just one of many sinkholes that are worth the trek through the island’s interior.
If you’re planning on discovering the island for yourself, it’s worth noting that you’ll need local knowledge. For a start, very few attractions are signposted and almost impossible to find, and you may need permission from the local tribes to access their land. But the Kanaks are warm and friendly, and if you bother to learn a few phrases of French will happily lend you any help they can.
There’s no sign of the rain clearing, but I haven’t come all this way just to peer into big holes (as impressive as they might be). New Caledonia is famous for it’s diving – a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. I haven’t organised a dive, but I’m told by the local dive master, Boniface, that the water is shallow and I’ll do just as well with a lungful of air. So I snap on my snorkel, clean my mask and make my way to Pede beach for some underwater exploration of the first order. Not even grey skies and mediocre visibility diminish the majesty of this marine Eden. We spot a turtle swimming lazily by, indifferent in our presence, while a kaleidoscope of tropical fish dart in and out of giant sea fans. The soft corals put on an iridescent show when the sun can be bothered to wink through the heavy clouds.
A full day of sightseeing and underwater adventures has left me famished, and happily, the ocean serves up tonight’s bounty. The local Kanaks have been enjoying the spoils of a colourful smorgasbord of seafood, earthy root vegetables and tropical fruits for the last 3,000 years, but when the French took possession over 175 years ago the cuisine took a decidedly French turn. In Noumea you can sample the very best in fine French food by famous chefs, while on the islands, you’ll find vol au vent on the menu alongside Bougna – meat and root vegies wrapped in banana leaves and coconut milk, and cooked to perfection in an underground oven.
Mare is the fruit bowl of the Pacific thanks to its rich, volcanic soil with the many of the 70,000-odd Mare inhabitants making their living through farming which in turn supplies the whole of New Caledonia and Asian markets. The local avocados in particular are revered; earning such a reputation they even have their own festival.
And happily we’re right in time to indulge. In true Mare style, no one tells us that there won’t be any avocados at the festival (Cyclone Pam laid waste to most of the islands produce just a month prior) but there’s still plenty to look at and taste. Simple food stalls sell honey and vanilla from the local plantations, while others offer all kinds of adventurous local culinary delights such as fish, lobster and various salads and of course, root vegetables. Jean Claude, who’s bought his large family along for the day, takes this as his cue to order us a large serving of rousettes, and we’re too curious to say no.
No matter how much we’ve heard about the rich gamey flavour of his favourite dish, nothing can prepare us for the shriveled, blackened carcass, sharp teeth, rubbery wings and lolling tongue that’s served up. Creamy juices leak from the creature’s roasted remains. Jean Claude is salivating, and the visiting locals from Noumea certainly share his enthusiasm, sucking the juices off the wings.
We agree out loud that it’s delicious, lest we cause offence to our generous hosts. In truth, it’s not as bad as it looks, and tastes like a very smoky, gamey duck. Still, we happily offer it to Jean Claude to finish up as we indulge in a fresh avocado and egg salad.
That Mare is still so unchanged by the outside world is remarkable. Even more impressive, is that since 2006 large cruisers have been dumping up to 2000 passengers at a time on its shore for day trips, but through careful management, this has done little to impact the ‘unspoilt’ reputation of the island, with most locals welcoming the financial opportunities.
Guide books do warn of the irregular accommodation service for those expecting the five-star treatment. But if you can do without the scented hand towels on arrival and soy lattes, Mare’s charms add up to truly authentic experience that’s wonderfully refreshing.
The morning of our departure, the sun peeks through the clouds, and I catch a glimpse of that post-card perfect New Caledonia I’d heard so much about. I didn’t get a tan or even a hangover from multi-coloured syrupy cocktails, but I feel like this little atoll has given me something far better – prying away preconceptions of what an island holiday should be to serve up something more memorable and authentic. And while this quiet, disaffected little island paradise may be on the verge of modernisation, for now, I’ll take it just as it is. Bats and all. •
Photography by Penelope Quinn and Destination Loyalty Islands
The international airline of New Caledonia, Aircalin, operates 12 flights per week non-stop from Australia to Noumea, New Caledonia. Flights to Mare from Noumea on Aircalin operate daily.
• Air Calin: 1300-655-737; aircalin.com
You can hire cars or scooters, or alternatively, your home stay or Nengone Village can organise a tour.
When To Go
Any time is a good time to visit New Caledonia, as it enjoys a sub tropical climate year round, with maximum temperatures averaging between 25 and 30 degrees in the warm season from September to March, and between 20 and 23 degrees in the cooler months from April to August.
• The Avocado Festival usually happens in May. For future dates, check iles-loyaute.com
Where To Stay
There is only one three-star hotel on Mare, Nengone Village which offers 20 comfortable bungalows, with a restaurant and pool. Otherwise, a home stay is your other option and also gives the opportunity for an insight into typical Melanese life and valuable local insights.
Destination Loyalty Islands: iles-loyaute.com