French language holiday: Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa

A game of snakes and ladders saves my life. Or, rather,  "serpents et echelles" because we're playing in the kids' club at Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa. 

The child carer, Emilie, insists Grace only speak French, counting the dots on each roll of the dice. Our nine-year-old is immersed in the language, after lounging by the resort pool ordering pomme frites et limonade, fancying she's on the Cote d'Azure.  

She seems settled, so I hop on a glass-bottomed boat to snorkel on the World Heritage-listed coral reef, in the largest lagoon in the world. 

The guide is superb, naming every outcrop, as we swim with clown, trigger and butterfly fish. 

Dazed by the spectacular snorkelling, I break the surface to hear a French tourist scream, "Serpent!"

We feel like we're in the south of France, waking to a petit dejeuner of crepes and pain au chocolat.

"Hmm, now where have I heard that word before?" I muse for a millisecond, before walking on water to get back on board.

Venom from "les tricots rayes" (striped sea snakes) can kill within five minutes. But they're not aggressive, and have tiny mouths, so you'd have to be unlucky. 

Still, I'm grateful to Emilie for the language lesson.

The learning begins the moment we board our Aircalin flight for the  two-hour journey to Noumea.

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The kids' activity pack includes pencils, colouring-in and a French phrase book. 

Near the airport, we stay with a local family in a small cabin off the main house, Lezard Home. 

Sonia prepares a platter of homemade venison saucissons, terrine, jams, brie and baguettes.

We feel like we're in the south of France, waking to a petit dejeuner of crepes and pain au chocolat, and Sonia is suffused with a sea of "Merci" as we practise our schoolgirl French.

This continues with our guide, Franck, who laughs that he likes our "Franglish".

It's a two-hour drive north along the west coast of Grande Terre to the resort – the first five-star built outside Noumea for 15 years.

On the way, we picnic on La Roche Percee, a gentle surf beach punctuated by the towering Bonhomme de Bourail rock.

Around the headland is Turtle Bay, with dozens popping their snakeheads out of the surf. 

But the best beach is Plage de Poe, 24 kilometres of shining sand and shimmering sea, where you can snorkel, paddleboard or jet ski.

The Sheraton is right on the lagoon near the town of Bourail, bustling with cafes, restaurants, and markets.

Stock up on supplies – including cheap Roquefort, Bordeaux and baguettes – because many of the ultra-modern suites are self-contained.

It's worth eating at the international buffet, with its eye-popping platters of cheese, cured meats, and seafood, though.

On the first night, I tell the maitre d' I'd prefer to speak French; he informs the wait staff, whose ears proceed to bleed. 

That is, until the ant incident.

Grace and I are dining in the outdoor restaurant, toes in the sand, when she says, "Ow!"

We need ice for the bite, but how do I say this in French?

"Ma fille – erm – voudrais – ah – glace – pour pied," I stammer.

"Oh, oui!" the waitress replies. "Chocolate, vanille, ou fraise?"

It's not every day you ask for ice-cream for your daughter's foot.

"Non, non crème glacee. GLACE!" I simper. "Je suis tres desole!"

Sadly, my schoolgirl French isn't what it used to be.

I think we'll have to come back here – to this marvellous melange of South Pacific charm and cosmopolitan French chic – to work on it.

Because a language trip is not only good for the kids' education: it could save your life.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Aircalin flies from most Australian capitals to Noumea, at around 2 hours from Brisbane. It operates a modern Airbus fleet, and is very child-friendly. See aircalin.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Lezard Home is one of many home stays. Test your language by staying in one of these cheap and cheerful B&Bs. Rooms start at $99 a night. See lezardhome.ile.nc.

Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa is a stunning new property with vast, ultra-modern, self-contained apartments. It was built in collaboration with the local people, many of whom work at the resort, combining Melanesian tradition with the French influence. A luxurious two-bedroom suite, with kitchen, starts at $390 a night. See sheratonnewcaledoniadeva.com.​

WHEN TO GO

November, December and January are the best months to visit, because it's less windy than other times of the year. September is the rainy season.

Tracey Spicer and her daughter travelled courtesy of GTI Tourism, Sheraton and Nouvelle Caledonie.

FIVE GREAT LANGUAGE TRIPS  

ITALIAN

Take your budding Leonardo to Florence. Arte al Sole runs a week-long art camp for kids in summer and spring. See artealsole.com. Palazzo Belfiore has beautiful apartments across the river from the old city in the Oltrarno neighbourhood from $230. See palazzobelfiore.it

FRENCH

For an alternative French immersion experience, check out Quebec City, Canada.  Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, the castle in the heart of the old city, has luxurious family-friendly rooms, an indoor pool, kids' menus, child-sized bathrobes and babysitting. Feast on tortiere – the local version of a meat pie – and loads of maple syrup, bien sur! Family studio rooms start at $340 a night. See fairmont.com/Frontenac-quebec.

JAPANESE

Pack your manga comics, buy a Japan Rail Pass and head to Tokyo. Stay in a ryokan, which is traditional Japanese accommodation with meals included, for the full language and cultural experience. Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa is close to Senso-ji Temple, museums and the Nakamise shopping district. From $340 a night. See f-kamogawa.jp.

SPANISH

Hispanophones will love watching outdoor movies at Montjuic Castle, walking the pitch at New Camp Stadium and marvelling at the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona. Classic Journeys runs a family tour including bike rides, kayaking and exploring Roman ruins, from $4425 per adult. See classicjourneys.com/barcelonafamily.​

MANDARIN

Where better to learn Mandarin than Beijing? Book a rickshaw tour through the hutongs for a glimpse inside schools and homes. The Jianguo Hotel is a 10-minute drive from Tiananmen Square, and walking distance to the Silk Markets. Family suites start at $280 a night. See hoteljianguo.com/en.​ 

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