Travel New Caledonia

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Dolphin below surface in early morning off Ilot Uo. ©Chesher
Ilot Signal Tower. ©Chesher
Snorkeling on Mary D Reef. ©Chesher
Kanak woman at local festival, New Caledonia. ©Chesher
Carved driftwood Shrine of St Maurice. ©Chesher

By Louise Watson

New Caledonia, a French overseas territory named in 1774 by British Royal Navy captain James Cook, lies halfway between Australia and Fiji and includes the Grande Terre and the smaller islands that surround it: the Belep archipelago to the north, the Loyalty Islands to the east, the Île des Pins (Isle of Pines) to the south, and the Chesterfield Islands and Bellona Reefs to the west.

Glass-bottom boat over reef.

The area has a long and sometimes troubled history, well documented in cultural centers and preserved historic sites. The indigenous “Kanaks,” who originally arrived from Papua New Guinea 3000 years ago, have fought to maintain their autonomy and preserve their traditional culture. They make up about 45 percent of the population, and most of the rest are Europeans, the majority of whom were born in the islands.

True Dive Paradise

New Caledonia has what many divers and snorkelers seek: pristine reefs, lagoons, a profusion of marine life--and no crowds.

All of the diving centers in New Caledonia are members of the Association Nouvelle Calédonie Plongée, an organization that prides itself on its commitment to environmentally sound practices and diver safety. Their website lists a number of dive operators and provides links.

Dive centers are likely to offer scuba lessons, snorkeling, night dives, fluorescent night dives, and/or helmet dives. At Lagoon Safaris, on the beach at Kuendu Bay near Noumea, guests can go day sailing on a 17-meter yacht and be treated to an island barbecue, then bunk down in beachfront or over-water bungalows.

In addition to scuba diving and snorkeling, visitors to New Caledonia can choose from a seemingly endless list of activities ranging from canoeing, parasailing, and kayaking to hiking, horseback trekking, and rock climbing. The natural beauty of these islands is stunning: the terrain ranges from gorgeous white-sand beaches and coastal plains to dense tropical forests, 1,600-meter mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. The temperate climate makes for excellent year-round swimming and outdoor activities, although the winter months see much more rain and flooding is not unusual.

New Caledonia is only two and a half hours by air from Auckland, making it a choice destination for Australians and New Zealanders. Tourists can delight in the “Paris of the Pacific” capitol, Noumea, with its fashionable boutiques, night life, and harbor full of private yachts, strike out for the rugged and mountainous central region of Grande Terre, or travel by ferry or plane to one of the smaller, outlying islands to enjoy spectacular beaches and experience something closer to the traditional Melanesian culture.

Outlying Islands

The Isle of Pines, which the natives call Kunié, is noted for its gorgeous sandy beaches and traditional Melanesian culture. Here you can ride in a traditional outrigger canoe, visit a tribal fishing ground or a storied cave, or take part in a Kanak feast and eat food cooked in banana leaves over hot stones—and still sleep in a luxury hotel that night. On the darker side, visitors may still see the ruins of a penal colony run by the French government from 1872 to 1912.

To have a truly unique taste of the Kanak culture, stay at a “tribal lodging”—a very reasonable alternative that consists of a hut or campground with traditional food—on one of the three Loyalty Islands: Ouvèa (which boasts one of the most-beautiful beaches in the South Pacific), Maré, and Lifou.

Here are a few links to start your travel research.

The Best Travel Information

Dives and Eco-Tours

Places to Stay

Dengue Fever Alert

There is currently an epidemic of dengue fever in New Caledonia. Before planning any trip to the islands, travelers should check out Pacific Islands Report and updated information from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta CDC Report.

See Also

  • Still Wild—Discovering World Heritage French Lagoons and Reefs
  • New Caledonia: Aquatic Species List

Online Map: New Caledonia Map