Underwater caves, Isle of Pines escargot, hatching turtles and French elegance – there are countless reasons to visit the South Pacific paradise of New Caledonia.
With its gleaming white-sand beaches, exquisite French and Polynesian cuisine and one of the world’s largest barrier reefs, a trip to New Caledonia doesn’t take much convincing. This tiny but mighty jewel-like cluster of islands in the South Pacific is a tropical playground of psychedelic coral systems, traditional culture, world-famous isles and road trip adventures that beckon travellers from across the globe. If you need any more reason to visit New Caledonia, keep on reading.
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1. Indulge in French-inspired food
New Caledonia’s cuisine is a harmonious marriage between sophisticated French flavours and tropical, local ingredients. Try the bulimes – large snails found only on the Isle of Pines, cooked in a traditional French style (simmered in garlic and wine, then stuffed with parsley and garlic butter). If you’re a lover of seafood, get your hands on a vol au vent packed with mussels, New Caledonian prawns, fish fillets and scallops, combined in a cream sauce and encased in a delicate puff pastry casing. For a dessert treat, discover an abundance of Parisian-inspired pastries to satisfy your sweet tooth: think coconut cream eclairs and sweet banana danishes.
2. Witness a turtle hatching
Every February, Roche Percée beach at Bourail takes centre stage for turtle hatching season, a magical spectacle for lovers of wildlife and conservation. Adult turtles lay their eggs throughout December and January, creating a nest in the sand (a task that takes around three to four hours). The Lagoons Aquarium and the sea turtle protection association Bwärä Tortues Marines organise special 5am visits to the beach to watch the tiny turtles emerging from their nests at dawn and setting off on their journey to the sea.
3. Experience the Kanak culture
The Kanak people are Indigenous to New Caledonia and make up 44.1% of the archipelago’s total population. Immerse yourself in its rich culture, ancestral rules and customary rituals through tribe visits, home stays and vibrant island festivals. Sometimes the best way to get to the heart of a culture is through its food: pay a visit to a local tribe and sample traditional dishes with the locals during a feast. A must-try is Bougna, a dish made from meat, fish and vegetables wrapped in coconut leaves and slowly cooked on hot rocks.
4. Visit the Isle of Pines
Crowned ‘the closest island to paradise’, this quintessential natural wonderland is home to sugar-white beaches, turquoise lagoons and lush, green pine trees. Accessible via boat or plane, the island’s the perfect place to pause from the everyday and reconnect with nature. Spend an afternoon lazing on the pristine beaches of Kutu, Kanumera and Upi, go snorkelling in the crystal-clear natural swimming pool of Oro Bay, or opt to hike N’Ga Pea peak and admire 360-degree views cross the entire island (this takes an hour, starting from Kutu Bay).
Le Méridien Ile des Pins
Pamper yourself with a visit to the spa, which offers massages, body treatments, and facials. After a day at the private beach, you can enjoy other recreational amenities including a 24-hour health club and an outdoor pool. Additional features at this hotel include complimentary wireless internet access, concierge services, and babysitting (surcharge).
5. Hike Mont Dore
Speaking of epic hikes, Mont Dore, east of Nouméa, offers spellbinding views and a chance to take a break from the city. Take a bus straight from Nouméa to Ninette and follow the blazing red dirt trail towards the clearly marked summit. The path is steep, but what awaits at the top is well worth your efforts. This three-hour roundtrip hike is rewarded with postcard-perfect views of the bold, blue ocean, lush mountain ranges and surrounding islands. Take an Instagram-worthy snap at the top before returning to the city (where you’ve earned an ice-cold Number One beer).
6. Take a glass-bottom boat tour
There’s something magical about gliding across iridescent waters aboard a glass-bottom boat, watching a rainbow marine haven pass by without even having to get your hair wet. On a day trip to Amedee Lighthouse Island, catch a glimpse of large sea turtles gliding by, see schools of tropical fish and watch neon-bright coral reef systems unfold before your eyes. On land, encounter local traditions and island entertainment including fire and ‘Tamure’ dances, sarong-tying demonstrations and coconut tree climbing.
7. Get lost in unique landscapes
The main island is a world in of itself, with countless jaw-dropping landscapes all packed into this pint-sized atoll. Nouméa, the New Caledonian capital, offers a taste of the French Riviera in the South Pacific, with beachside hotels and cafés, a yacht-filled marina and restaurants buzzing with locals and visitors. For a world of blue on blue, Bourail lagoon offers out-of-this-world snorkelling and diving. The western region is very Wild West, characterised by long, dry grassy plains and paperbark-covered savannahs. If you have a penchant for secluded beaches and hidden underwater caves, the Loyalty Islands take the prize.
8. Take an epic self-drive road trip
One of the best ways to discover a new destination is to keep close to the ground and explore the terrain at your own pace on a thrilling self-driving road trip. New Caledonia’s well-maintained roads and signage make a road trip around the island easy. Plus, being the captain of your own journey means you can stop and stay wherever and for however long you like. Start in Nouméa, where you can peruse the stalls at the bustling Port Moselle market (a great spot to stock up for lunch), before continuing to La Foa for a boat ride up the Nera River through the mangrove forest. In Bourail, stop at the well-known Turtle Bay for a quick snorkelling adventure, before hitting the road to continue your journey around the island.
For more island inspiration, check out The South Pacific: Which Island is For You?