New Caledonia: Where you can get a taste of France without leaving the Pacific

So this is how another perfect, sunny, all-action, day in the South Pacific island paradise of New Caledonia ends: not with a whimper but with a bumper barbecue in the lush countryside of Nemeara far from the madding crowds.

Farmer Marc Levy and his wife Cindy – a former policewoman and a two-time winner of the Miss New Caledonia contest – have brought together family and friends, old and very new, from around the world.

From Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Vanuatu, Estonia, Brazil and, of course, "homeland" France, they have come, to gather under a 100-year-old blackwood tree, set against a backdrop of the sparkling Southern Cross.

As the French locals say, "life is best when it is shared".

With his cattle dogs Nanette and Apple at his feet, Levy – who was born in Vanuatu but has several relatives back in outback Oz – cooks up a countryside storm.

There's chicken, beef, venison; "special" onions, pumpkins, potatoes and unimaginably tasty chokos; an authentic Caledonian barbecue, that mixes country French and traditional Kanak styles.

All consumed outside, all washed down by the local Number One beer, brewed in the national capital of Noumea, and remarkably cheap, good, imported French wines.

"Grapes simply can't cope with the islands' humid climate," explains Marc, who offers farm-stay holidays – some offering French lessons – and plans soon to open a surfing camp down on the coast.

Our slap-up, "brousse", or bush barbie beneath the stars, comes at the dark end of a dazzling day of excitement, spent at the nearby Bourail Fair.

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For most of the year, Bourail (population 5500) slumbers in west-coast comfort, too lazy it seems, to justify its jokey, cheeky, self-styled tag of "Queen of the Pacific".

But every August for the past 30 years the sleepy town – a leisurely two-hour drive from NC capital Noumea – wakes up, puts on its boots, springs into action and stages a three-day fair. Today, it attracts more than 20,000 visitors to a vast site cast across lush, rolling countryside.

Appropriately, the local newspaper carries a front-page picture of two excited children chasing a cow, and in big type welcomes the world to come, see and be a part of "Bourail en folie!" That is, the town going crazy.

Where to start. For the children, there are animals to be stroked, petted and ridden; electric dodgem cars to race; "Simpsons Family" castles to bounce around in; footballs to kick, pedal cars to ride, high-flying drones to spot.

For the local farmers, the three days are a mix of work and play: each day there are deals to be struck, local gossip to be exchanged, cattle, horses, geese and sheep to compare and, of course, prizes to be won.

Throughout the long, steamy-hot day there's a constant parade of losers and winners, ranging in shape and size from giant, cantankerous bulls to lithe, wannabe Bourail beauty-queens. From nippers to 90-year-olds.

All across the vast site, there are other competitions: throwing axes, kicking footballs, shearing sheep, driving rusty old, open-top stock cars and, for the "real cowboys of the bush" crazy, horse-races up and down the hills.

It's hair-raising stuff. "The bushmen's race is a real, tough event," says Marc, our guide for the day. Fortunately, today, only one rider has to be treated by the medicos after a spectacular fall. Fortunately, he is able to limp away.

And, of course, there are the canteens, restaurants, booths, marquees and stalls, offering fast and slow refreshments, clothes, plants, handicrafts, carvings …  all against a background of live music and excitable event announcements.  

Appropriately, the highlight of the day is saved until late afternoon, when the sun-dried crowd seems to move as one across the site to watch the rodeo.

For more than an hour, the cheering, chanting, fair-goers watch mesmerised as cowboys come and go, laughing or limping, after rounding up stock, and riding – or falling off – bucking broncos.

Just when it looks like it's time to go home, the commentator invites the kids sitting on the surrounding hill to come forward and sit on the surrounding metal fence. There's a rush to the "ring-side".

Once they are in place, a gate opens, and … yee-haa!! a piglet is released and runs for his life across the ring, chased and eventually cornered by 200-300 kids.

To even greater amusement, the event is repeated for women spectators (as chasers not chased). 

It's all great fun, though sadly the piglets are unavailable for interview. Indeed, within minutes they're probably being loaded into the back of utes on the way home to the winners' barbecue. Otherwise, everyone goes home happy.

The Bourail Fair may sound like the Sydney Easter Fair or the Royal Melbourne Show. But it's breezier, barmier and, best of all, is one of many reminders that New Caledonia remains a "dependent territory" or "collectivity", of France, and as such a heady mix of the chic, the cosmopolitan and the countryside.

Native Kanaks may have other political priorities. But as one businessman in Noumea explained, "To be honest, it's just like France … but without the cheese", pinpointing the one, luxury import unavailable on the main island. 

Frenchiness is, of course, New Caledonia's major attraction, promoted by tourism officials as more up-market (and expensive) than potential South Pacific rivals such as, say, Bali, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

"It's an ideal destination for travellers looking for something 'different but not distant'," says one tour operator, pointing to the convenience of a flight time of about three hours from Australia on local carrier Aircalin.

Tourists from Australia increased by more than 15 per cent, and from New Zealand by 24 per cent in 2015. Even on a relatively short, three-night, five-day stay, it's easy to see why.

As well as going crazy in Bourail – now so popular that local accommodation is sold out months in advance – we cram in stimulating, fascinating, fun stuff.

Wining and dining. Walking and biking (at least through the extensive grounds of the Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Spa and Golf Resort). Swimming and snorkelling. 

Driving back to Noumea, along roads better and cleaner than are found in outback Australia, we stop off in Farino to visit its famous Sunday market for local crafts, vegies, fruits, charcuterie and, a local attraction,  live "bugs".

Fortunately, I am "umm, still full" from breakfast, and have to pass on the offer of the local "crunchy" grubs, which were being excavated from rotting trees by local children using crow bars.

Far more appetising – and filling – is the cheerful, traditional Kanak cuisine of local vegetables, meats, fish and fruits served up at the nearby, picturesque Aux Delices des Jumelles, surrounded by the bush.

Back in Noumea, there is time to relax in the seaside pool at Le Meridien, walk on the beach and dine at Le Roof, a restaurant built on poles over the sea, which seems to be teeming with … sharks?

"Reef sharks, monsieur. How you say: 'armless'," local swimmers explain, unconvincingly.

The next morning's activities start early, and somewhat decadently, as we drop in to the new Domaine du Faubourg bar for some serious wine tasting and some "what's hot, what's not" Noumea talk, with owner Romain Lochen.

Apart from an extraordinary range of wines and spirits and imaginative nibbles, the bar is itself a work of art, adorned with paintings, sculptures, amusements and real-life, colourful characters.

"We've gone unashamedly for the 'wow!' factor," says Lochen, as he cracks open another round of old, red wine, rum and, pour moi, sparkling lemon-and-wine mineral water.

All still relatively sober and ship-shape, we head off to nearby Port Brunelet to board our Dal'Ocean Charter catamaran Timie 2.

Against the backdrop of swelling, black, storm clouds, skipper Jannick takes us swiftly out to the Goeland Island reefs for some snorkelling, followed by a fine salad and seafood lunch.

The fish are many and come in dazzling multi-colours. More important, there are no signs of hungry reef sharks.

Undaunted by choppier seas and heavier, more menacing clouds, we move on to another snorkelling spot, before turning for home, out-running the coming rain.

There's still much to do in Noumea, including a visit to the local Kanak cultural centre named after assassinated leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. But the rough-sea ride back to the capital provides a spectacular conclusion to a wonderful, South Pacific adventure.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

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GETTING THERE

Aircalin has regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne. 

STAYING THERE

A wide choice from camping to luxury hotels. The author stayed at the Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Spa and Golf Resort and Le Meridien, in Noumea. For details of the farm-stay contact Cindy Baronnet: La Ferme de Nemeara @FB La Ferme de Nemeara 

John Huxley travelled as a guest of New Caledonia Tourism

See also: 20 reasons to visit New Caledonia

See also: Beautiful Castaway Island's comeback

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