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An adventurer’s guide to New Caledonia

An adventurer’s guide to New Caledonia

New Caledonia deserves its reputation as a blissful Pacific archipelago, perfect for those looking to idle on beaches. But for others who prefer their holiday high-octane, there are plenty of adventures to be had, as Natasha Dragun discovers.

With its cloud-topped peaks, hidden green valleys, lagoons and the sweet fragrance of the tiare flower, New Caledonia is the Pacific you’ve always imagined. There’s a charming mix of French and Melanesian culture: warm hospitality sitting beside European elegance, gourmet food beneath palm trees, sand, resorts and bungalows. And it’s a tropical playground of rainforest and reefs, where adventures are writ large on ridiculously untouched landscapes. Read on for five ways to channel your inner explorer while seeing all corners of this incredible archipelago.

© Ethnotrack

Swim with the fishes

Covering 1.3 million square kilometres, New Caledonia’s Natural Park of the Coral Sea protects the world’s second-longest double-barrier reef and the world’s largest marine lagoon, surrounding the main island of Grande Terre with every hue of blue, green and turquoise imaginable. Close to shore, the water is so crystal clear you’ll think someone has taken the spectacles off your nose and polished them clean for the first time.

It’s an underwater colosseum where the level of endemism is off the charts, with spectacular shoals of coral – free of the bleaching and crown-of-thorns starfish infestation affecting reefs throughout other parts of the South Pacific – creating habitats for an extraordinary number of marine species.

Around 25 kilometres south of the capital, Noumea, and only accessible by boat, Amédée Isle is arguably the best place in the country to take it all in. In the heart of a reserve protected from any type of fishing, the island’s waters are home to a surprising number of green turtles, not to mention delicate feather starfish and dugong; New
Caledonia holds the world’s third-largest population of the marine mammal. Whether snorkelling or diving, you’ll also spot rare bump-headed parrot fish, yellow sea perch, clown fish, big sweetlip cod, huge toothy groupers and the serene butterfly-shaped fish from Finding Nemo, known as Moorish idol.

Get a bird’s-eye view

On the west coast of Grande Terre toward the island’s northern tip, Koné is the gateway to one of New Caledonia’s most emblematic sights. Just offshore, a mangrove swamp has developed some unusual natural designs, the most intriguing a perfect heart shape known as La Cœur de Voh (‘the Heart of Voh’). It’s so pretty it made the cover of Earth from Above, a book of aerial imagery by renowned photographer and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

There’s a track up Mt Kathépaïk to a viewing point at an altitude of 400 metres (two hours’ return), but the Heart is best seen from the air. Strapped into a tiny two-seat Pipistrel plane, a type of ultralight monoglider, you’ll skim over palm trees then mangroves, circling over Voh with the windows down – it’s a thing in these planes. You’ll then head out over the lagoon, a coral patchwork so vivid and piercing it’s as though a filter has been applied to the landscape.

The Pipistrel dips and glides over the water, at times getting so close you’ll spot leopard sharks and clusters of manta rays among the pockets of coral. And then you’ll linger over the Hanawa Blue Hole, where the ocean floor sinks from 10 metres to 300 metres in an instant, creating a dramatic smudge of inky black in the middle of the azure.

© Travel Me Happy

Lace up your boots

You’ve heard of the Grande Randonnée, Europe’s network of long-distance hiking trails. And now New Caledonia has its own great walk, the epic multiday GRNC1. Taking you from the old mining village of Prony on Grande Terre’s southern tip to the beautiful Dumbéa region outside Noumea, the trail weaves through dramatic mountainous terrain across six scenic stages; at the end of each there’s space for camping. You’ll need to carry all trail provisions with you, because this part of the country’s highlands are wild and remote and about as far from Pacific civilisation as you can get.

The places you’ll visit along the way – from waterfalls and winding streams to temperate forest and high valley passes – can only be reached on foot, which means you’ll be among the coveted few to experience this postcard-perfect part of the island. And the course is extremely varied: at times you will be walking through dense forest, reaching picturesque peaks with views over the ocean; at other moments you’ll drop into botanical reserves like Madeleine Falls, home to some of the archipelago’s most important floral species including seven types of primitive conifers.

You’ll likely spot a few twitchers on the path, as this part of the world is a popular route for viewing New Caledonia’s critically endangered kagu, a crested, long-legged and bluish-grey bird endemic to these dense mountain forests.

The Heart of Voh is a naturally occuring phenomenon in mangroves

Saddle up

Statistics show that New Caledonians love horses so much, there is one across the country for every 20 people. Needless to say, there are plenty of places to jump into the saddle. But for a true cowboy (or cowgirl) experience, you should head straight to Grande Terre’s wild west coast.

Not far from Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Spa & Golf Resort – a collection of beautiful thatched-roof bungalows designed in Melanesian tradition – are Ranch du Carré 9 and Ranch de la Courie: sprawling estates that give you access to the rolling hills of the Deva Domain and Deva Estate outside Bourail. The estate is the largest expanse of dry forest on the island, a protected area home to nearly 450 species of plants, most of which are endemic.

The countryside tiers gently down to the coast, which means that minutes after galloping through grasslands you can be on powdery white sand, taking in views of an intensely hued stretch of sea and sublime barrier reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During spawning season, several species of turtles breed on the beaches in this area, and locals unite to help tag and guard their nests from predators.

© S Duncandas

Make a splash

Known as Kunié to the Melanesians, Île des Pins (Isle of Pines) is a blissful union of turquoise bays, white-sand beaches and tropical vegetation, 110 kilometres southeast of Noumea. Kanak tribes lived here for more than 2,000 years prior to Captain James Cook’s visit in 1774, with missionaries following before it became a French penal colony in the 1870s; it’s difficult to comprehend that this slip of land, known locally as l’île la plus proche du paradis (“the closest island to paradise”), was once considered a hardship post.

Covering less than 20,000 hectares, it’s easy to explore on foot or by kayak. But the ultimate way to take it all in is from the bow of a pirogue (traditional outrigger canoe), as the Melanesians have done for centuries. Over the course of three hours you’ll slip through water so blindingly hued it resembles an Ice Mint, with a postcard-perfect backdrop of columnar pines jutting from jagged black rocks.

The wind will guide you to the peaceful blue lagoon of Upi Bay, dotted with jungle-laced islets that could well be Jurassic turtles. Slip into the bathtubwarm water and you will see actual turtles, not to mention dolphins, rays and all manner of tropical fish. A short walk through the rainforest is Oro Bay, where a natural basin cut out of coral is the perfect pool for paddling before lunch in the sun.

This article originally appeared in volume 32 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

LEAD IMAGE: © S DUCANDAS. ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF NEW CALEDONIA TOURISM.