For the most part my posts about the places I have visited have been positive. This is in keeping with the actual travel experiences I have had. But this post is going to be a little different as our family trip to New Caledonia’s capital city Noumea was not particularly enjoyable. Notwithstanding some of these pictures here, if I had the chance to do this trip over again I wouldn’t. At least not without some major changes, as I explain at the end. Most of my negative impressions of this trip stem from a single, but major, miscalculation. And that was to undertake a trip to Noumea in early July. Winter, in other words. The off-season.
There were a number of seemingly good reasons why I thought it would be great to travel to Noumea in July. One was convenience. I wanted to celebrate my retirement with a bit of a family vacation. Something tropical to get away from Canberra’s winter but nothing too extravagant. So I was looking for a nearby destination and the travel advertisements for Noumea emphasised that with only a short 3 hour flight from Sydney one can experience a touch of France in the Pacific. A nearby destination that is both tropical AND European! Sounded good. (Those of you who don’t think a 3 hour flight is “short” obviously don’t live in Australia. Anything under an 8 hour flight is short.) I should have thought about the ad a bit more. Why do advertisements for New Caledonia generally appear in the Australian media during our late autumn/winter? Because they promise a warm break for winter-bound Australians? That’s what I thought. Or possibly could it be because winter is when New Caledonia is desperate for tourists? Especially dumb ones. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that it was winter in New Caledonia but surely Noumea was warm enough year round for swimming because, hey, it is in the South Pacific. If anything, a bit of coolness might be desirable because my wife can be an absolute basket case when the heat gets too much. Too late I learned the average temperature for July is 20c. My threshold ambient temperature for swimming is 24c. Less than that and I am content to sit on the beach even if I find it a bit depressing to be next to a body of water without venturing in. Things did initially seem promising when we first arrived as the temperature was 27c but that was as good as it got. The mercury never rose above 22 for the remainder of our stay and one day in particular was absolutely miserable with winds and rain that made Noumea colder than Canberra. It also became readily apparent that a lot of the Noumeans had cleared out for winter. Many of the shops catering for tourists were closed with signs promising they would not re-open until the spring. So basically while we weren’t at total loose ends we definitely were restricted in the activities we could undertake during our stay.
This was a blow to my wife, Agnes, as she was looking forward to reliving her youth when as an 18 year old she first visited Noumea with a friend. At that time Noumea did seem like Paris in the Pacific because her Canberra hometown was a fashion backwater. High clothing tariffs ensured fashionable items never cursed Canberra’s stores with their presence. A lot has happened since then as the elimination of tariff walls have opened up Canberra to a much greater variety of cheap and fashionable clothes. Of course, online clothes shopping has further broadened the availability of such goods.
So nostalgia never being what it used to be, Agnes was quickly disappointed to find that the items in the fashion shop windows were of a lower standard than what she had access to back home. It also seemed that the “A Team” at the tourist information shopfront had flown the winter coop, leaving behind the B Team to tend to the boobs who chose to visit in the off-season. When we stopped by the tourist info shopfront we either received only partial information about an attraction or, better yet, information that was just plain wrong. Most egregiously we were given dodgy information about a “water park” I had read about over the internet. We were told a 45 minute bus ride would take us from our hotel in Noumea’s south to the park in the city’s north-west. It was not long after we had cleared the city centre and started heading west that the city scenery quickly turned into gritty wharfs. No worries I thought; things will pick up again as we continue westward and leave the wharf area. Granted, things did pick up marginally after we had dropped off several of our fellow riders at the prison. But then the bus started rolling along a dirt road with 2 metre high grass on either side. This lasted until we came to the bus’s terminus point. And there peeking above the growth was what looked like the top of a couple of abandoned water slides ringed inside a feeble looking fence. And of course, the water park was closed. It didn’t matter even if the park was open though because I expected that if I exited the bus for a better look-see it would suddenly disappear around a corner, leaving us to wonder if it would ever return. Instead, we sat tight on the bus for the 45 minute ride back and pondered on our wasted afternoon.
Our second beef with the tourist information office was Noumea’s highly touted “Tchou Tchou Train”. I was looking forward to taking the train as a novel way of exploring the city. Alas, the tourist office told us the train didn’t run in winter. With disappointment we accepted their word until a cruise ship arrived a few days later and the train was brought out of mothballs to ferry the ship passengers about the city. What was going on here? Were only ship passengers allowed on the train? If so, it was a bad way to do business because the train made several runs where it was obviously not fully booked. I don’t know what the issue was because we were never given any information beyond “the Tchou Tchou Train does not run in winter”.
But it would be unfair and churlish of me to just focus on the trip’s negatives because Noumea did present us with interesting attractions. F’rinstance, Agnes and I are keen hikers so after we ditched our luggage after checking into our hotel we took to the coastal foot path which follows Anse Vata Beach southward to Le Meridien hotel. Initially things didn’t look very promising as it was a Sunday afternoon and most shops were closed to keep the Roman Catholic church happy. We disregarded the lack of excitement and continued casually sauntering southward until we came to Le Meridien hotel. It is certainly a posh hotel and even if you’re not staying there it is worth a visit although it might make you sorry you didn’t splash out a bit more cash to stay there.
After exploring Le Meridien we rounded Noumea’s southern end and began walking up the eastern coast. This seemed to be where the French expats preferred to congregate when they were in the mood for a Sunday afternoon outing. Understandably so, since the absence of buildings on this side generated a relaxed “back to nature” feel as pedestrians have the ocean on one side and bushland on the other. But the most interesting excursion we took during our visit was a day trip to Amedee Island.
We were warned to leave the snakes alone (but not until we had already paid for the excursion and were on our way to the island) because while they are shy and appear harmless, in actuality they are poisonous. Fortunately, only rarely have they bitten humans foolish enough to provoke them. Still, it’s definitely not a destination for those with a snake phobia.
One activity that seems to be common to all Pacific island tours is fish feeding. And so it is with Amedee where a glass bottomed boat took us out to the fish feeding reef.
The journey to the reef even included a number of free loaders looking, not only for a free meal, but also a free ride to the reef.
The highlight of the day’s excursion was lunch. The food was fresh and interesting and the Kanak cultural display was a delight.
I’ve attended Hawaiian luaus which, while enjoyable, suffered from a lack of intimacy with patrons being jammed in next to each other. By contrast, the relatively small numbers for the Amedee excursion ensured the lunch had an intimate personal feel. During lunch alcohol was available and delivered via a seductively sweet punch concoction. Some inhibitions were shed as only “Dutch courage” could entice me to go native in front of a camera. The alcohol’s effects lingered into the afternoon, leading to a bit of risk-taking and some slight loss of dignity.
But the thing I most enjoyed were the touches of Kanak culture sprinkled across the island.
An afternoon swim with the fishes ensured the alcohol’s effects wore off my wife before we headed back to Noumea. As for me the air temperature wasn’t warm enough to entice me into the water, so I decided to wear off the alcohol in a more traditional manner. To conclude: Yes, off-season travel did have the allure of offering money-saving bargains; problem was I ended up saving money primarily because a lot of the interesting attractions and shops were closed. Given all my disappointment with this trip, am I planning on going back to New Caledonia? True, Noumea has more to offer than what I experienced on the trip. The Tchou Tchou Train for one. But there is that niggling debate you can have with yourself when you’ve explored a place but only superficially. On the one hand I have seen Noumea so a return trip would be going over old ground; yet there are areas of New Caledonia I have not seen so a properly planned return trip would include new experiences and sights. In particular, visitors speak highly of the Isle of Pines and it is possible to do a day’s excursion to the Isle of Pines from Noumea. However, it is a 4 1/2 hour round trip by boat; and an expensive one at that. These and other considerations have led me to think that perhaps the best way to see New Caledonia and its outer reaches is by cruise ship. Not only would I journey in comfort but I would also dispense with the hassle of packing up and shlepping my luggage from plane to boat to hotel, etc. A cruise ship would also have the added advantage of allowing me to visit Vanuatu on the same journey. I am philosophically opposed to a cruise whose primary purpose is to be a floating entertainment resort where the ports of call are a secondary consideration. However, my opinion softens if the cruise allows me the convenience and comfort of visiting several interesting ports that are spread out over hundreds of square miles of ocean. In this case, the destination is the primary purpose and the floating resort is very much of secondary interest.
This philosophy underlaid a Hawaiian inter-island cruise I took in January 2011. Every morning my family was able to step off the boat and explore a new island. The balmy evenings were usually spent on deck as the ship steamed to the next island. This is the type of experience I would hope to repeat on a New Caledonia/Vanuatu cruise. So yes, I do plan on returning to Noumea but under much more considered circumstances.
(If I have piqued your interest about a Hawaiian cruise it will be the subject of my next post but one. Next up is Tahiti.)