Twenty reasons to visit New Caledonia

1. BREAKFAST LIKE A LOCAL

Start your day like a true Nouméen at this boulangerie near the popular Anse Vata beach area. The coffee is average (just like Paris), but L'aterlier Gourmand's pastries, almond croissants, fruit flans, to-die-for éclairs and chewy baguettes straight from the oven, will make you swoon. 141, Route de l'Anse Vata, Anse Vata, Noumea. Also, visit La Vieille France  for delectable macaroons; 77 Rue de Sébastopol, Noumea.

2. WALK IT OFF

Walk off those calorie-laden pastries by joining sun-bronzed locals on a walk to the top of the 132-metre Ouen Toro lookout. Your reward is 360-degree views over Anse Vata and Baie des Citrons, the lagoon and city. There are many walking trails offering gentle to steep ascents, including a track which starts near the northern end of Anse Vata beach.

3. STEP BACK IN TIME

Noumea has various architectural styles with quaint wooden cottages existing alongside art deco properties from the 1930s and the cylindrical volumes and flat roofs of the sixties. Take a stroll around New Caledonia's oldest neighbourhood Faubourg Blanchot for colonial mansions and the districts of the Vallée du Tir and Vallée des Colons for simple wooden cottages and colonial homes adorned with pretty ironwork and flowering gardens of hibiscus and bougainvillea.

4. A DOSE OF CULTURE

The spectacular T'jiabou Cultural Centre by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano consists of 10 wooden structures based on the shape of traditional Kanak ceremonial houses. It soars above the treetops and is named after pro-independence Kanak leader who was assassinated in New Caledonia in 1989.  It houses contemporary and traditional works celebrating Kanak culture including tribal relics and the world's largest collection of Pacific art.  Entry is 500 French Pacific francs. See adck.nc.

5. HEART OF THE CITY

Le Place Des Cocotiers is a 19th-century square at the heart of the city, which features a famous 1800s bandstand. Near the rotunda is a popular pétanque pitch and giant chessboard. Nouméens like to stroll though the luxuriant gardens with its stunning flame trees and it's a popular lunch spot for office workers. A themed street market is held each Thursday evening.

6. SEE THE LIGHT

Take a day trip to Amadee Island, a small but beautiful island just off the south west coast of Noumea. The natural marine reserve is part of the New Caledonia barrier reef - the world's biggest lagoon. Day trips to the UNESCO heritage site include glass-bottomed-boat rides, snorkelling, buffet lunch, island dance show and more. Be sure to climb the 247 steps to the top of Amadee Lighthouse for the panoramic vistas from the top. At 14,750 ($180) French Pacific francs, the trip is pricey but worth it. amedeeisland.com.

7. HAUTE CUISINE

The romantic L'Hippocampe (French for 'seahorse') is Le Méridien Noumea's signature restaurant. Headed up by head chef Aurélien Bouygues, the French haute cuisine draws on both French colonial and Pacific Islands heritage and makes the most of the fresh local ingredients such as venison, seafood and mussels, backed up by an excellent French wine list. Try the Unicorn fish poached in Malibu and white wine, served with mashed potatoes and saffron scented mussels, asparagus and broad beans. lemeridien.nc.

8. TO MARKET, TO MARKET

Head to the lively, multi-cultural Noumea Market beside Port Moselle for colourful food stalls, buckets of fresh flowers, a fascinating fresh fish market and arts and crafts. Vietnamese, Melanesian and Indonesian locals man most of the stalls, while on weekends a group of local musicians entertains shoppers on string instruments including the ukulele. Arrive early when the market is at its busiest, and head to the deli section for a French-style breakfast of buttery croissants and a short black. Daily from 5-11am.

9. A TASTE OF FRANCE

Book a morning or afternoon tour with local guide Harold Mary and sample a taste of France. The tour stops at Noumea's largest French wine shop, Le Pavilion des Vins, a specialty fromage shop and visits artisan chocolatier Patrick Morand, whose luscious creations are a mix of French technique with a South Pacific twist with exotic infusions like kaffir lime, basil and mandarin. Phone +687 96 16 95 or bluecabc@hotmail.fr.

10. SWIM WITH TURTLES

Join a Kanak guide on a boat adventure around the bays and islets of Turtle Bay and Brush Island on the Isle of Pines. Loggerhead turtles love this popular feeding spot, hence its name. On our tour we spotted one large (and fast) turtle swimming in the translucent water. If the turtles are feeling friendly, you can join them for a swim. A highlight was a pod of dolphins playing off the bow of the boat on the return from the beautiful Brush Island. Take a stroll to the end of the beach to see harmless sea snakes curled up in the rocks. Air Caledonie flies from Noumea to the Isle of Pines and other islands, while Carnival Spirit also visits the island. See air-caledonie.nc or carnival.com.au.

11. TAKE A HIKE 

The highest point on the low-lying Isle of Pines is N'ga Peak. The steep and rocky 262-metre trek to the top (make sure you wear a hat and sunscreen as there's little shade) is well worth it for expansive views of the lagoon dotted with small islets. The walk, which you start from Vao, takes about an hour to reach the summit. 

12. THE ORO BAY

This magical bay, with its aquamarine waters, powder white sand and standing rock, is arguably the most picturesque corner of the Isle of Pines, so named by Cook for its tall native araucaria trees. The turquoise lagoon with saltwater channels and white sandy beach, known as the "natural swimming pool", is also the location for the Le Méridien Resort, the island's only five star resort.

13. ST MAURICE BAY

This picturesque bay was the site of the first Catholic service on the Isle of Pines and is now one of the most photographed sites. Here a line of carved totems depicting turtles, eagles, serpents and faces with extended tongues encircle a statue of St Maurice high on a coral platform.

14. SNORKEL EMERALD WATERS

The island of Lifou's Jinek Bay offers some of the Pacific's best snorkelling with a diverse range of coral, colourful clams and more than 2000 fish species. Visitors that arrive by cruise ship need to purchase a marine reserve pass ($20) onboard, aimed at protecting the bay from the environmental impact of the Pacific Islands' growing cruise industry. There's also a viewing platform and stairway so you can see the coral formation and abundant sea life. See carnival.com.au.

15. SEE A NATURAL AQUARIUM

Locals refer to this large pool of shallow water on the largely untouched and sleepy island of Mare in the Loyalty Islands as the natural aquarium. Imprisoned by a coral wall the emerald coloured pool is replenished regularly from a subterranean source. Set in lush bushland, the pool provides refuge for fish and turtles during cyclone periods. Swimming is banned at this unearthly water hole. You can reach Mare by air from Noumea or by sea with Carnival Spirit. 

16. LUNCH AT AN HISTORIC INN 

Located in the village of La Foa, about an hour's drive from Noumea, Le Banu restaurant is a New Caledonian institution, renowned for its seafood and Gascon specialties (try the mahimahi). More than 5000 caps hang from the ceiling of the bar, while the restaurant is decked out in sixties and seventies kitsch. Even France's President Jacques Chirac dined at the historic French-style inn in the eighties when he was prime minister. Route 1, village de La Foa, New Caledonia.

17. HEAD FOR THE HILLS

Explore the rolling hills and valleys of the beautiful and largely undeveloped Deva Domain on a horseback ride with the Courie Ranch. Located about two hours from Noumea on the central-west coast of Grande Terre, the domain faces a 13-kilometre stretch of white sand beach and emerald lagoon. Wild deer and pigs are regularly spotted. The guides do not speak English so brush up on your French. A two-hour ride costs 5000 French Pacific francs while a full day is 8000.  Book through the new Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort and Spa. See sheratonnewcaledoniadeva.com.

18. ALL ABOARD

The decidedly dinky Le Petit Train is a fun way to see Noumea's main attractions. The train travels in a loop which starts and ends at Anse Vata Beach. Stops include the main beaches, Ouen Toro lookout, the Zoologial Gardens, the Tjibaou Culture Centre (on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons) and Fanbourg Blanchot district. Tickets can be purchased from the driver, from Palm Beach Shopping Centre in Anse Vata, or onboard your cruise ship.

19. INTO THE WILD

The Blue River Provincial Park, a 45-minute drive south of Noumea, offers 9000 hectares of untouched wilderness, endemic plant life, rivers, swimming sites, waterfalls and fresh water lakes. If you're lucky you may also see New Caledonia's rare national bird, the Cagou, in the wild.

20. HIT THE SURF 

At La passé de Ouano, north of Noumea, is a 300-metre lefthander said to be New Caledonia's most consistent break. The wave wraps around the reef and is surfable in most wind conditions. Other excellent surf spots include La Foa, a little further north off Bourail, or south at Dumbea with another great lefthander. Ouano Surf Camp, with its six beachfront bungalows, safari tents and camping, limits guests to 20 at a time, resulting in a relaxed, uncrowded surf experience. safari.nc/ouanosafaricamp.

The writer was a guest of Carnival Spirit 

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