New Caledonia is a feast for Francophiles and turtle lovers.
If you take a cruise to the South Pacific, there's a good chance you'll make port in New Caledonia. And probably more than one. Many cruise ships drop by the idyllic French overseas territory on their oceanic laps from Australia to take advantage of the languid lagoons, superb snorkelling and fabulous French-ness.
An overseas territory of France, Nouvelle-Caledonie is a Melanesian archipelago, dominated by the main island Grande Terre. It is 1200 kilometres from Australia and 16,000 kilometres from France but the culture, language and cuisine are very much French, with a soupcon of Kanak influences.
Most of the shore excursions focus on the islands and the most beautiful is Isle of Pines (Ile des Pins) on the southern tip of the archipelago. Isle of Pines is surrounded by the New Caledonia Barrier Reef and our excursion begins in Kanumera Bay, where we board high-powered speedboats and zoom across the lagoon to Turtle Bay. Between iridescent smiles, our guide Jerome points out a few notable landmarks but most are partially hidden by palm trees and it's hard to look away from the impossibly blue water. We reach Turtle Bay and slow to a crawl as Jerome and his mates stand and stare into the water.
After a couple of minutes Jerome dives in and fetches up a loggerhead. His name is Star and he handles this intrusion with appropriate savoir faire. As Jerome gently supports him on the surface, he tells us Star is about 50 years old is one of 20 turtles in the Bay. He is used to being handled, says Jerome, and we are invited in to join them in the shallows. Everyone gets a turtle selfie. The children are especially delighted and happily wave goodbye to Star as the placid reptile bids us adieu.
The speedboats then carve their way to Brush Island and we spot a reef shark and a pod of dolphins along the way. There are pine trees at just one end of the island and from a distance it absolutely looks like a hair brush sitting in the ocean. We land on a beach of such pristine beauty it's hard to believe the island is uninhabited. We snorkel, loll in the warm water and walk along the beach while avoiding the snakes, and make the first footprints of the day.
We return to Kanumera Bay and find a bar/cafe a short sojourn up the road. A sun-drenched balcony hangs over yet another perfect beach and cocktails, pomme frites and swimming fill the balance of a perfect day. The toilet is guarded by a formidable woman who is charging 100 South Pacific Francs for admission for non-customers, s'il vous plait.
At our stop in Noumea we opt for another island adventure, this time a trip to Amedee Island, or Phare Amedee if you're starting to get into the lingo Franca. Following a bumpy 45-minute ferry ride, we are welcomed onto the tiny island by a sign which proclaims Profitez d'une journee inoubliable (Enjoy an unforgettable day, according to my wife's high school French). Bien. Among with the palm and banyan trees and the birdsong and breezes are a collection of beach lounges and large umbrellas and these are quickly staked out.
Amadee is another turtle habitat and we see a few on the glass-bottom boat tour and more when we snorkel over the sea grass and coral reef. One particularly friendly green turtle lets us tag along with him for about 20 minutes. We swim, paddleboard, jump off the jetty and climb the lighthouse, building up a healthy appetite. Our buffet lunch is a sumptuous affair, French-themed with a tropical twist and comes with song and dance from a talented bunch of locals. After lunch the kids dive in for some more watery fun while the adults take to the lounges.
Another regular port-of-call is Mare, where the only option is a bus transfer to Yejele Beach. Once the bus drivers finally get their act together, a winding trip delivers us to white, grainy sand, excellent snorkelling and lashings of tropical sunshine. It gets a bit crowded as bus after bus disgorges its passengers but, hey, you're on a cruise ship and used to the esprit de corps. Seclusion is possible if you're prepared to walk a few hundred metres. The locals do a roaring trade from their lean-to shops lining the road along the beach. It's mostly fast food, drinks and stuff from the supermarket but a couple of stalls are knocking out clever leather, wood and metal crafts.
Some cruise ships also put in at Lifou, a coral atoll in the Loyalty Islands. Excursions here focus on the coves, limestone caves, grottos and compressed coral cliffs, as well as Melanesian cultural encounters, the vanilla plantation and, of course, more beaches. Jinek Bay Marine Reserve is so popular numbers are now restricted to preserve the delicate ecology.
Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend are based in Australia during the summer months. Fares for an eight-night New Caledonia itinerary start at $949 a person quad share interior.
Mal Chenu was a guest of Carnival Cruises.