Island life: An insider’s guide to life in Noumea

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Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a fitness fanatic, or a connoisseur of fine French wine, Australia’s Pacific neighbour New Caledonia has it all on offer. The first thing I remember flying into New Caledonia was the breathtaking views of New Caledonia’s lagoon – the largest in the world. The second thing was salivating at the sights of the bakeries packed with fresh baguettes, pastries and desserts (almost) too perfect to eat.

Soon added to the favourite bakery list is L’Atelier Gourmand, in beachside Anse Vata. A quick queue and it’s time to pick the treat of the day – a buttery croissant at breakfast, fresh baguettes for lunch, or a mouth-watering dessert (the cream filled choux pastries are best bought by the box).

New Caledonia may be laid back, but it retains a fair bit of French influence – lunch is strictly at midday, and it is not a meal the locals miss. Banks close, shops shut, and roads will bustle as workers and students head home for a meal, or to their local ‘snack’ – a restaurant serving up anything from tuna tartare to steak frites. Even beachgoers dutifully set out their picnic when the clock strikes 12.

It’s easy to get into the rhythm here – New Caledonians rise early, and head to work early. But that also means knocking off work early, with enough time for a snorkel at Baie des Citrons, or a walk around the stunning Promenade Pierre Vernier – a local favourite – and still have enough time to sneak in a sunset cocktail.

There’s no shortage of vantage points to spot a good sunset here, but the beach-side cocktails MV Lounge are hard to beat. Bodega’s another favourite – sitting out over the water it’s the perfect spot to graze on tapas, take in some live music, and watch the sea cucumbers and stingrays below – or a dugong, if lucky.

When it’s time for a tipple of French wines, nothing beats sitting outdoors at Domain du Faubourg or working through the wine menu at Chai de l’Hippodrome.

One of the truly South Pacific experiences is dropping by a nakamal – one of the kava bars dotted around town. Given kava’s an acquired taste, and perhaps not one I’ve acquired just yet, I love the chilled out vibes and great views at Buddha, perched on the hillside in Ducos, on the outskirts of Noumea.

When it comes to showing visitors the best on offer, it’s dinner at Marmite et Tire Bouchon after a stroll along the marina watching the locals play pétanque, or snagging a reservation at Au P’tit Café. Only open Tuesday to Friday, chef David Cano uses seasonal ingredients to rewrite the menu each week. For lower-key, but still tasty-as, Creperie Le Rocher above Baie des Citron serves the best savoury and sweet crepes in town.

If there’s only time for one day-trip, swap the touristy ferry to Amédée Lighthouse for a catamaran trip to the lagoon’s lesser-known islets. A croissant and hot coffee to kick off and it’s sails up, with stops to swim with turtles, explore the vibrant coral and reef fish, and wonder how true it is that those famous black and white sea snakes don’t bite….

There’s always a new skill to learn in New Caledonia, so if the wind’s up, it’s off the Ilot Maître for some kite surfing. Or when the air’s still, a stand up paddle around the bays. When I’m game for heading out deeper, there’s almost daily dive trips leaving from Noumea. It’s hard work keeping up with the reef sharks and manta rays, so a morning of diving is best followed by some moules frites on the balcony of Les 3 Brasseurs and a cold, locally brewed beer. The best spot’s up on the balcony to people watch the passers-by below.

For something truly unique, I love taking visitors to Le Ponton. This on-water restaurant floats above a reef, and is only accessible by boat. Making it the perfect place for a long seafood lunch, with a few snorkels to take in the sea life below.

With well-paved roads throughout the country, it’s easy to jump in the car and explore. A day trip to Dumbéa for a hike up river to Les Marmite du diables, or a trip further north to La Roche Percée, one of New Caledonia’s only surf beaches, never disappoint.

Campsites are spotted around Grand Terre, making the hardest choice picking where to go. For an adventure-packed weekend, I love heading south to Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue – a surreal landscape at day, filled with cycling tracks, hiking trails and the famous Cagou bird. Come night, and a full moon, there’s an unforgettable moon-lit canoe trip through the eerie sunken forest.

Not a weekend goes by without a fun run, trail run, ocean swim or golf tournament somewhere in New Caledonia, and there’s definitely a sport to suit everyone – even if some weekends that’s popping champagne on the sidelines.