Exploring New Caledonia
New Caledonia is home to the world’s largest fringing reef. Needless to say, the best way to explore our South Pacific neighbour is by water, as Natasha Dragun discovers firsthand.
There’s a moment, flying low over The Heart of Voh, when my pilot takes his hands off the control wheel to turn up the volume. We’ve been circling the world’s most photographed mangroves listening to Journey, and as the chorus to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ kicks in, the captain cranks the music and sings along. It’s an apt soundtrack to the experience, which sees me strapped in a tiny two-seat Pipistrel plane exploring the postcard-perfect west coast of New Caledonia, a patchwork of intensely hued blues and greens only broken by the white of waves rolling over the lenticular reef to the sea. A perfect natural heart-shape formed in emerald-green coastal swamps, Le Coeur de Voh is a spectacular sight, hemmed between coconut palms on land and water so clear I can see manta rays and turtles gliding between coral outcrops.
France in the Pacific
A cluster of islands in the South Pacific, around 3300 kilometres east of Australia, New Caledonia is a heady mix of Melanesian and French culture. Open-air stalls selling fresh coconuts sit beside graceful colonial mansions; warm baguettes with brie are just as likely to be on the menu as bougna (a combination of yam, banana, sweet potato, taro and chicken, all mixed with fresh coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked under hot stones in an earthen oven); pétanque is played under palm trees; and in supermarkets, champagne is as cheap as cava. It’s all enveloped by the largest lagoon and the second-longest double-barrier coral reef in the world. And needless to say, the marine biodiversity is astounding: some 9000 rare and endemic species thrive here in around 23,000 square kilometres of water. The lagoon is also home to major nesting sites for marine turtles and breeding areas for dugongs, humpback whales and seabirds.
Crossing Grande Terre, the largest of New Caledonia’s islands, reveals the similar diversity of the terrain; as we leave the sunken tree marshland of the west behind us, we pass through an interior of waterfalls and craggy mountains before arriving on Poindimié’s palm-lined stretch of sand on the central-east coast. The laidback coastal commune is home to dozens of Kanak tribes, the original Melanesian inhabitants. (Annexed to France in 1853, the islands became a French overseas territory in 1956, with Kanaks still accounting for around 40 per cent of the population.)
Aside from visiting small Kanak villages, the main lure of Poindimié is its extremely accessible reef. Strapping on flippers and a mask, I slip into the warm water and within minutes I am admiring reef sharks and turtles, giant clams and trevally, barracuda and eagle rays, drifting above vibrant coral that forms rifts, arches and canyons.
Exploration by superyacht
The country’s capital, Noumea, is only 200 kilometres south, but the shallow lagoon here offers a totally different underwater experience. From my room at the palm-ringed Château Royal Beach Resort & Spa – known for its 300-square-metre Aquatonic pool with 12 hydro stations fitted with jets to massage different muscles – I gaze over a windswept stretch of sand, popular among the world’s kitesurfing community. A short distance from shore is special marine reserve Amédée Island, along with Île aux Goélands, a tiny lagoon island that is closed to visitors from November to March, the breeding season of the roseate tern.
We cruise past the tiny slip of land aboard Masteka 2, a 37-metre superyacht based out of Sydney Harbour and the first foreign-flagged yacht to be granted a temporary charter licence to operate in New Caledonia’s waters from April through December for a three-year period. The sleek yacht towers over other boats cruising the archipelago; unsurprising given the extensive facilities across her polished decks.
We drop anchor off Amédée and snorkel with green sea turtles and clown fish.
Having spent a year in dry-docks receiving a multi-million-dollar makeover, Masteka 2 sports an interior that is all dark wood and white leather, marble and mirrors. There’s space to sleep 12, and cabins come with ensuite bathrooms, including a window-side spa tub in the master bathroom.
In between meals – crab salad, Pacific oysters, prawns, freshly baked baguette, foie gras and platters of French cheese – there’s plenty of time for water sports around New Caledonia’s southern islets. We drop anchor off Amédée and snorkel with green sea turtles and clown fish before climbing the 230 stairs that lead to the top of the island’s whitewashed lighthouse. It’s an effort, but the views from the top are almost as impressive as those from the petite Pipistrel enjoyed earlier in my trip.
Back on Masteka 2, the crew of six, including captain Matt Stafford, are pulling the cover off the bridge’s Jacuzzi and setting up the water sports station; water skis and wakeboards, kayaks and a jet ski are all at our disposal, along with opportunities for diving and fishing. The sound of a Kanak drumming band on Amédée drifts over to the yacht as Stafford’s team pours champagne and serves coconut macaroons. It’s cultural whiplash, but of the finest kind.
Masteka 2 charter rates start from US$100,000 per week, excluding meals and beverages. Local taxes of 6 per cent also apply on the weekly charter fee.
This article appeared in volume 28 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.