One of our closest neighbours, New Caledonia is only a two-hour-45-minute flight from Auckland. There's nothing better than going from a cold, grisly Auckland day to a tropical French-speaking paradise – all in just over the time it takes to watch a movie. Once you've landed, there's much to explore on the big island (and the smaller ones too) but if you just want to stay in Noumea, the capital, you certainly won’t run out of things to do. Here are some options I discovered on a recent trip.
Check out the markets
Situated right next to the marina, the markets – which take the form of several hexagonal buildings and some outdoor stalls – couldn't be more prettily placed. They are a bit quiet during the week but on the weekends (especially early on) they are packed with locals buying their bread, fresh fruit and veg, and fish fresh from the boat. There’s a great assortment of brightly-coloured craft, and clothes for much less than what you’d pay in souvenir shops.
Take a taxi boat to Ȋle aux Canards for snorkelling
A five-minute boat ride from Anse Vata will get you to Ile aux Canards, a tiny islet just off the mainland. Stretch out on a lounger with a drink or get your flippers and mask on (you can hire them there) and float through the marine reserve to see all types of pretty coloured fish and other sea creatures dart and glide around in the coral. The water is insanely clear.
Take a cooking class
Sonia Clavel and her husband Christophe Lange are the couple behind the Noumea restaurant Les 3 Chefs. If you enjoy cooking, there’s no better place to learn to make a three-course French meal using fabulous local ingredients. It was a lot of fun chopping, sautéing, julienning, baking and plating, but even more fun sitting down and eating our creations on the deck with an azure sea to gaze at – and a glass of French red in hand, of course. The chef-tutors will also come to you in certain hotels, if you'd prefer a private class.
Visit the Tjibaou Cultural Centre
This fascinating art and culture complex is an absolute must-do. A celebration of modern and traditional Kanak culture mixed with art and sculpture from all over the Pacific, the centre was built as a tribute to pro-independence Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. You’ll be stunned by the incredible wooden structures – based on traditional Kanak housing and designed by well-known Italian architect Renzo Piano – which dominate the surrounding landscape. I highly recommend a guided tour as there’s so much to learn beyond what you see in the exhibitions themselves. My guide told me all about the plants, and what they are traditionally used for, on our walk through the grounds – he even let me eat a couple!
Indulge your sweet tooth
There’s plenty for sweet fans in Noumea but some of my favourites were the gorgeous pastries from Au Pain D’Antan in Anse Vata; ice creams all served in the shape of a flower at Amorino (there are branches at Baie des Citrons and Anse Vata); and the locally made chocolates at Tonton Jules in Baie des Citrons. All fabulous treats to be enjoyed by the water.
People watch at Place des Cocotiers
This is the very centre of Noumea town where all the locals come to gossip with friends or walk through the garden. It’s a great place to watch the world go by and, like the markets, will give you a sense of everyday life in Noumea.
Take a stroll, bike, or even Segway round the bays
There’s a great path right by the water where you can walk from Anse Vata to Baie des Citrons and back. I travelled it on Segway (far more relaxing than I anticipated) with a local guide – a lovely way to take in the gorgeous views while informing myself on the local area.
Hang at the beach
The beaches at Anse Vata, Baie des Citrons and beyond are delightful for a dip or some sunbathing, any time of day. You’lll see plenty of locals with their gorgeous kids splashing in the water too. One of my favourite beachside moments was a scene that is particular to these parts – Kanak men playing petanque by the water's edge at Anse Vata at sunset. A great example of the constant cultural mix that is New Caledonia.