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Downtown Noumea is like a grown man wearing a boy’s T-shirt; it’s bursting at the seams. It’s hemmed between hills and harbour and is all buildings and busyness.
Sam and I drive around looking for a carpark but soon realise we should leave the car on a hill and walk. From the hill above St Joseph’s Cathedral the city looks tiny, pretty and more manageable. The harbour is shiny blue. White boats are in neat marina rows, and a kayak flotilla looks like a flock of floating seabirds.
We walk down the hill to the city gardens, passing what would be a buzzing restaurant and bar area at a different time of the day. It reads like a culinary collection from French colonies; Zanzibar serves international cuisine, La Kasbah is Moroccan and there’s a Vietnamese restaurant too.
In the band rotunda, where concerts are held on weekend afternoons, a grandmother is teaching a cute little girl to walk, holding her hands as she trots around. Nearby gardeners weed to reggae music and lads lay about on a big shiny chessboard; its giant pieces are nowhere to be seen.
At the end of the square, where the city buses come and go, people chill out, passing the time. It’s a multicultural mix. Indigenous Kanak women wear bright floral missionary dresses and float along slowly in sandals. French girls wear tight jeans or sassy trousers and totter in high heels. Tourists stroll in shorts and sun hats and businessmen walk briskly - smart casual - with black attache cases.
The market is a linked cluster of round halls next to the boat harbour and a row of fishing boats is pulled up to the pier. Neatly stacked piles of large black crabs, still alive, their eyes swivelling on storks and their big front nippers immobilised by a thick rubber band, are stoically waiting for purchase then pot. Prawns of many sizes and shapes are displayed next to mullet, tuna, squid, bream, mahi-mahi, sole and barracuda. Here, and in the fruit and vegetable hall next door, women of every size, shape and colour are busy selecting, buying and filling up their baskets. The fruit hall smells of ripe pineapple and I’m fantasising about a salad of prawn and pineapple with coconut cream, lime juice and a coriander garnish; it’s all here.
Outside on seats under flame trees, people sip tiny black coffees, eat chocolate croissants, chat, smoke and pass the time while reggae music plonks away in the background. We loop around through the smart-shop, French-chic part of town. Boutiques sell stylish French clothing with a sunny Pacific twist, jewellery shops glow with black pearls and chocolatiers display dainty creations that cost lots. From a seat in the window of Betty Boop’s and over coffee and tarte citron, we watch the world walk by. And a fairly relaxed world it is. Other than a few fast-talking businessmen, some lost looking tourists and a beeping double-parked delivery van there is not a lot happening.
Just a few hours ago, when we were trying to find a parking place, this part of town was clogged-up craziness. We suspect, as it’s the middle of a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, that most people have chucked in their working week and gone to the beach. Sure enough the cafes and bars that line a nearby beach, Baie des Citrons, are amping up. School escapees eat waffles and lick icecream, elegant woman sip wine and exchange secrets, groups of friends chat and laugh and men lean back on their chairs and admire the women walking by.
Over the road the beach is busy. Families have gathered for picnics, a dad teaches his little boy to play boules and children paddle and splash. Two beautiful bikini-clad women in their taut, teen-prime come from the sea and stroll nonchalantly along the beach. Most heads swivel following their progress. That’s a hard act to follow so I wait a while before I swim. There are coral-covered rocks at each end of the sandy bay and though the corals aren’t in the best condition they provide a habitat for tropical fish: zebra-striped angelfish, little darting bursts of bright blue, Nemo’s extended family, black sea slugs and sea eggs with unusually long spikes, all there to be marvelled at.
I join Sam at a bar’s pavement table and watch the sun go down. We chink glasses to celebrate being here. French flair and Pacific style work well together and there aren’t many capital cities where one can swim with corals and tropical fish just 2km from Main St.
Sharma Smith, House of Travel’s Assistant Destination Manager for the South Pacific, shares her top tips on how to make the most of your trip to New Caledonia.
1 Best snorkelling: Take day trips to Amedee Island, Duck Island or Ilot Maitre, which is surrounded by an 81ha marine reserve. 2 Great nightlife: La Bodega del Mar, MV Lounge, L’Endroit and les 3 Brasseurs. Try the local brew, Number 1. 3 Colonial style: The former prison on Nouville Peninsula now houses a university, language school and theatre in elegant sandstone buildings, considered New Caledonia’s best-preserved colonial architecture. 4 Side trip: Ile des Pins’ turquoise lagoon and powderwhite sand. A 20-minute forest walk to Oro Bay uncovers wonderful beaches and a natural swimming pool formed in the coral. 5 Eat treats: At a supermarket, stock up on French treats such as baguettes, cheeses, wine and chocolate for the perfect beachside picnic.
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