South Seas Thrill
A destination less trodden, New Caledonia is a playground for all types of explorers writes Tatyana Leonov.
With its rich red soil, azure seas, and bounty of natural features, New Caledonia is a wonderland for the outdoor enthusiast. And as relatively few visitors venture to this French-influenced island territory in the South Pacific — last year saw just 112,000 tourist arrivals — you won’t have to share the terrain with hordes of fellow travelers. Though local tour operators don’t tend to have their own websites, you can book your experience in advance through the new Caledonia Tourism office (office-tourisme.nc).
New Caledonia boasts one of the largest lagoons and coral reefs in the world, ensuring that diving opportunities here are plentiful and thrilling. The sites are especially superb off the Isle of Pines, just 20 minutes from the tiny capital Nouméa by plane. It feels like a world apart from the city with its long powdery beaches, turquoise lagoons, and bays that all have their own personality. Head to Ouameo Bay, where the Kunie Scuba Center (kunie-scuba.com) can help organize everthing from cave dives to night dives.
Ride the waves
On arrival in Nouméa, you’ll quickly notice new Caledonians’ love of kiteboarding; the peninsular city is surrounded by bays that are routinely filled by board-riders taking advantage of the area’s ideal conditions. Anse vata, Pointe Magnim, and Côte Blanche are particularly good spots to watch — and try — this extreme sport; the Nouméa Kite School (noumeakiteschool.com) can show novices the ropes, and also offers lessons in wakeboarding and skateboarding.
Take a hike
Ocher mountains, thick bushland, placid lakes — New Caledonia is a hiker’s paradise, particularly along the 120-kilometer Grande randonnée trail. Starting at the old mining village of Prony on the southern tip of the main island, Grande Terre, the route winds northward through the red-earth terrain ofthe Great South region and the forested expanse of Blue River Provincial Park, before finishing at Dumbéa Dam, just north of Nouméa. Most hikers opt to do to the trek without a guide as it’s well signposted and divided into seven sections, each of which represents an average day’s walk. It’s well worth doing the full trail if you have a week to spare and there are campsites along the way. But there are also many departure points that are accessible by car, so you can pick and choose individual sections as you like.
Dotted with niaouli trees, the western plains of Grande Terre is New Caledonia’s cowboy country. Horse-riding excursions can be organized from Nouméa, La Foa, Dumbéa, Bourail, Thio, and Koné, and these vary from short rides to major expeditions that can involve cattle wrangling and camping under the stars. Les 3 Boucles (office- tourisme.nc), located about an hour’s drive northwest of Nouméa, offers trail rides that can last from an hour to an entire day, including a stop by a picturesque waterfall for a picnic lunch.
Head to the jungle gym
The scenic Mont Koghi region is a great spot for hiking, swimming, and kayaking. A fun and offbeat way to explore the network of forest trails here is by getting right in among the trees. At Koghi Parc Adventure (office-tourisme.nc), just 30 minutes by car from Nouméa, you can swing, glide, and jump through the dense foliage using custom-built equipment — Tarzan-style swings, ladders, rope bridges, and even floating logs are all part of the high-flying obstacle course. There are three different routes and 40 platforms which will keep you entertained (and puffing) for hours.
Overlooking the azure waters of Answ Vata Bay, the 245-room Le Méridien Nouméa (starwoodhotels.com; doubles from US$240) makes an ideal base for exploring Grand Terre; the Promenade Pierre Vernier, a palm-lined jogging and walking track, lies just beyond its driveway.