Exploring New Caledonia, Noumea and the Isle of Pines
France has long been renowned for its haute cuisine. The good news for lovers of fine Gallic fare is that traditional French restaurants can be found in the very French city of Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia and a mere two-and a-half-hour flight from Sydney, and under four hours from Melbourne.
Founded in 1854 on a hilly peninsula surrounded by sweeping bays, the city - sometimes regarded as the Paris of the Pacific - is situated at the southern end of Le Grande Terre, New Caledonia’s mountainous 500 kilometre-long main island.
The French territory of New Caledonia is also made up of the Isle of Pines, Loyalty Islands, and tiny Isle Belep.
The French influence of this corner of the South Pacific - whose 250,000 residents are an ethnic blend of indigenous Kanak people and Europeans - is evident throughout Noumea: French flags flutter from flagpoles, baguettes are sold alongside coconuts in the markets, Renaults and Citroens are everywhere, and men gather to play petanque in the evenings.
Hotels, alfresco bars, cafes, and restaurants are dotted throughout Noumea and nearby Anse Vata (the Bay of Rocks) Beach and Baie des Citron (Lemon Bay).
Around 150 different restaurants and cafes represent almost every food region of France, which innovative chefs marry with traditional New Caledonian ingredients including the freshest seafood.
La Table des Gourmets, for example, may serve foie gras and parrot fish; La Pirogue Restaurant at the luxury Chateau Royale Beach Resort may serve a duo of scallops and New Caledonia prawns with alioli sauce.
Other Noumea dining institutions include L’Hippocampe at the five-star Le Meridian Hotel, where gourmet offerings may include lobster topped with apple and papaya aspic, and cannelloni of mud crab and shellfish.
L'Astrolabe at Baie de Citrons also combines New Caledonian produce such as venison, crayfish, tuna and prawns with traditional cuisine in dishes such as crevette (prawn) ravioli. Le Roof, situated on a jetty over the water at Anse Vata with wonderful bay views, also serves classic French fare with an emphasis on seafood.
For a change of scenery, a picnic at one of Noumea’s lovely beaches or hilly beauty spots may be in order. Traditional French bakeries, including Le Fournil Gourmand in the city centre, serve freshly-made baguettes and delish sweet fancies such as chocolate éclairs.
Supermarkets stock imported French wines and cheeses, but for special fare locals head to Comtesse du Barry on Rue d’Austerlitz in central Noumea, which stocks a wide selection of gourmet foods including jams, cheeses, rillettes and foie gras.
Visit a typical, well-stocked wine store, such as La Masion Ballande or Le Pavillon des Vins, and you won’t find much that doesn’t hail from France.
At Chocolates Morand master chocolatier Patrick Morand makes a delectable range of chocolates and desserts. Ton Ton Jules is another not-to-be-missed chocolate stop where the bonbons, truffles, nougat, marzipan and sugar almonds have shoppers coming back for more.
For fresh fruit and vegetables, visit the Noumea Market held each day at the Baie de la Moselle near the port on Noumea’s beachfront. Here a range of fresh fish, shellfish, vegetables and tropical fruits such as papayas, mangoes, custard apples and pineapples are available for reasonable prices. After shopping you can enjoy a Croque Monsieur and coffee served French-style in large bowls for a few dollars.
After a repast at any one of Noumea's diners, it's time to explore the the city including the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, named for late independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou.
One of the finest examples of modern architecture in Oceania, it holds the world's largest collection of Pacific art and fascinating exhibitions on Kanak culture. A pathway lined with traditional Melanesian huts from three different regions is a must-see.
Many New Caledonian’s travel to the beautiful Ile des Pines - Isle of Pines - a 20-minute flight south of Noumea, simply to enjoy a plate of Bulime escargots. These large land snails grow amid the island’s pine forests, are endemic to the Isle of Pines, and cannot be exported to the mainland.
Most of the island’s gin-clear waters and powdery sands remain the way Captain James Cook found them in 1774 when he named the Isle of Pines after the colossal 50-metre-tall araucaria columnar pines scattered across its lowland rainforests and semi-arid volcanic interior.
With just 150 accommodation rooms available – ranging from the five-star Le Meridian, nestled on a promontory overlooking gorgeous Oro Bay, to three-star Oure Lodge on Kanuméra Bay and several gites (small local hotels) – this 141 square-kilometre paradise is quiet, relaxing and far from the stresses of modern-day life.
Expect to greeted with a friendly bonjour as you stroll or bicycle around the main village, Vao, home to several historic buildings including the priest’s house, school and convict-built church - France used New Caledonia as a penal settlement in the late 19th century, and some remains of its jails still stand, several in sight of superb beaches.
Several gites serve bougna, a traditional Melanesian dish of chicken, fish or lobster accompanied by taro and yams which is bathed in coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground.
More adventurous diners can try bulime snails, which local Kunié women collect from the island’s forests. These large escargots are cooked in traditional French fashion, simmered in garlic and wine and are adored by French visitors to the island.
- New Caledonia's national airline, Aircalin, operates 12 flights per week from Australia to Noumea. For further information and bookings phone 1300 655 737, visit aircalin.com.
- Flights take less than three hours from Sydney, under four hours from Melbourne and under two hours from Sydney.
- New Caledonia is on the same latitude as the Whitsunday Islands and has roughly the same climate.
- Food lovers can discover the best of Noumea’s dining options with Arc En Ciel Voyages whose Noumea culinary tours include French cooking classes and Flavour n' Savour tours. Visit arcenciel-voyages.nc.
- For more information on visiting New Caledonia go to en.visitnewcaledonia.com.