If you’re the type of person who daydreams about:
it might be worth thinking about New Caledonia.
I’m not sure if you can do those things there, but it seems like you probably could.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a small group of islands and islets in Melanesia - forming a roughly equilateral triangle with Australia and New Zealand, where it is the Northeasterrnmost point. It’s not that far from Vanuatu, if that helps.
If you aren’t already there, it’s almost definitely a long way from where you are. We booked an AirBnB on a woman’s catamaran in the main harbor in the capitol, and she told us that a lot of people arrive by boat and fly home, ditching their vessels because it’s too much trouble to get them back to Europe or the United States or wherever they’ve drifted in from.
It's pretty sleepy, but it still does a healthy tourist trade with English speakers and people from mainland China and Japan. The main group of foreigners, though, are French. The proper official name is Nouvelle Caledonie, because since 1853 the French have put themselves in charge of things. Along with a lot of blue water, the islands have one of the richest nickel deposits in the world, and the white people there taking it are primarily francophones.
Originally though, it was a Melanesian paradise - Kanak, specifically. People have been there for 3000 years, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. They still make up 40 percent of the population, and their culture is alive and quite visible all over the islands. As is the case everywhere I’ve ever been in the Pacific, they seem to exist in a uneasy detente with their colonizers. Just before we arrived in November 2018, there was a national referendum on whether or not to remain a French colony. Kanak flags were flying everywhere, and only 56% voted to stay.
I didn't know any of that before we arrived, and our own trip to the country happened mostly on a whim. We were looking for flights between the South and North Island of New Zealand, where we were traveling from our home in the US, and noticed a cheap flight to a place called “Noumea”. We Googled it, found out it was the capital of a country we’d never thought much about, and decided “what the hey”.
We were only there for a week, and I’m by no means an expert, or even a novice, but we did dig around enough to function something like scouts for others out there who might be interested in paying a visit.
What's it like?
The country felt, to me, as much like Latin America as anywhere else I’ve been - clearly colonial, clearly possessing a strong native culture. There’s a significant amount of wealth disparity, but poverty - while present - doesn’t appear to be the defining characteristic of the population. In the Capitol, Noumea, there are plenty of upscale neighborhoods and tourist businesses, while the Cathedral’s paint is slightly peeling, neighborhoods are dotted with grafitti’d empty warehouses, and the occasional house will have a couple of chained up rottweilers barking menacingly at you as a security measure. The physical location is beautiful, and everywhere we went felt safe and relaxed. The infrastructure is solid - roads are good, beaches are clean, and the parking is closely monitored - which we found out when we got a $10 parking ticket for some infraction that I still don't understand because it was in French. It was a small enough amount to seem as quaint as it did annoying.
Outside of Noumea, the country is notably sparsely populated. Even in beautiful spots that are marketed openly in tourist information centers, it’s easy to find yourself all alone. If you want long quiet walks on a secluded beach, you have plenty of good options.
For an anecdote: at the first campsite we visited - the largest in the area where we were able to camp right on the water and which came with several recommendations - we showed up in the afternoon to a closed gate. We saw that there were a couple of people milling around in the property - two campers, and a guy welding something - so we walked around the gate - there was a clear footpath.
When we got to the back of the property, a startled Frenchman asked us, “What do you want?!” Not angry - just genuinely surprised to see us.
“We want to camp - is that possible?”
“Oh, yes. The gate was closed, right? How did you get in?”
“We walked around it.”
“Oh, did you come in a car or something?” (We were at least 20 miles from the nearest town at this point.)
“Yes, we left it outside the gate.”
“Oh. I see. Do you have any toilet paper? You will need it because there is none here.”
We did, thankfully. He opened the gate and let us in, and drove away in a pickup truck, leaving us by ourselves at the site. Before he left he told us not to worry about paying until the morning. We never saw him again, but we did find someone who I believe was his wife - a Japanese woman who spoke perfect English and spent the morning sitting in a lounge chair, staring contentedly into the mangroves and ocean that the campsite bordered.
It seemed like a nice life.
Outside of Noumea it’s also notably more Kanak, and you’re as likely to experience and enjoy native culture as French. Life closer to subsistence is more visible in the countryside. Especially on the East Coast, it’s the kind of place where it’s most common for houses to be made of corrugated metal, and normal for men to wander the streets with machetes because they’re working their fields.
Tourism sites all say that Nouvelle Caledonie is known for its delicious French cuisine. And it’s true. It’s easy to find a good cappuccino, a fresh baguette, and pain au chocolate even in small towns.
It’s not a cheap place to travel, exactly, but it’s also not ridiculously expensive. I’ve heard prices commonly compared to New Zealand, and I’d say that is roughly accurate - though I think food is slightly pricier in New Caledonia. We would typically pay between $4 - 7 US for a good coffee, $8 - 10 for a national brand beer at a restaurant and $15 - 20 for a meal. If I had to guess, I’d say cost of travel is probably lower than Hawaii or Tahiti - the other two small Pacific Island groups we’ve visited.
And whatever the costs or the quality of their fois gras, most travelers go to New Caledonia because it’s pretty.
It’s surrounded by the world’s largest lagoon, which means that coral reef protects most of the main island from the heaviest waves (There are only one or two beach breaks for surfing in the country because of this). The water tends to be shallow, warm, and swimmable, and there are endless snorkeling and diving possibilities. Boat-based activities are one of the most common pastimes, and you’ll find lots of rental and tour options if that’s your thing. It wouldn’t be disappointing at all to go there and just hang out at the beach. Some of the prettiest we’ve seen anywhere were there, at Poe and Thio, and we didn’t even go to what’s said to be the most beautiful spots, on the Isle of Pines and the other offshore islands.
To our own interests, there is also a developed trail system in the country. The jewel in the crown is the GR1 - a 100k hut to hut hike that cuts through the south of the Island - but there are plenty of smaller trail systems through every type of geography. It was easy to find beautiful places to hike, run or mountain bike on well-maintained trail.
There is a spine of mountains that runs up the center of the main island, which adds to the beauty. The West Coast is quite dry - it looks like Australia, mostly, with dry hills, red dirt and white sandy beaches. The mountains are quite wet. And the East Coast is the way I picture Polynesia - ferns and waterfalls and beautiful coastline and dramatic mountains. It’s largely unpopulated and it’s where much of the best scenery on the main island is, in my opinion.
My personal favorite unexpected perk about the country is that it had what all warm climates should - a network of campgrounds that was as extensive as their network of hotels. Like the one where we found the startled Frenchman with no toilet paper, a lot of these seemed like a family with a bunch of land in a pretty place decided to set up some toilets and let people stay for a few bucks a night. That’s come to be maybe my favorite camping atmosphere - kind of Airbnb in a friendly person’s yard. And it wasn’t expensive. $10 -15 US per person is a bit less that what I’ve come to expect to pay in North America for a similar level of service.
We found a lot of campgrounds in spectacular locations. If you dream of camping with a beautiful view of turquoise water, but don’t want to worry about getting your rental car down a 4x4 track, New Caledonia had amazing options. In Poe, our $20/night spot was on the same beach, a few miles down, from an impressive Sheraton resort. The views were just as good and it felt just as secluded, and it was easy enough to sneak into the Sheraton for a dip in their pool when we got bored of the ocean. Plus there’s very little chance a wild boar will charge through your room at the Sheraton, and we got to have that experience in our campsite. (Edit: after I wrote this, a local wearing a tusk necklace showed us a picture on his phone of a boar that he saw at the Sheraton that morning, on the golf course. True story.)
Like good hustlers around the world, a lot of these places will also cook you a meal and sell you the basics of what you need if you ask, and some will pick you up from the larger towns nearby if you call ahead.
Here are four photos from places we camped.
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For someone looking for a relaxed, budget tropical paradise, New Caledonia is as good a choice of Pacific Islands as any. Like any Pacific Island, it’s easy to spend money there on luxury and adventure tours. But it’s also an easy place to just exist contentedly - camping at the beach, hiking in the mountains, eating baguettes and charcuterie and drinking cheap beer from the grocery. If you’re a Kiwi or an Aussie, give it a go on your next holiday. If you’re reading this from the US or the UK, to be honest I have no idea how you might end up here, but if you do you won’t regret it.
Just remember to bring your own toilet paper.
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Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.