New Caledonia is one of my favourite places in the world. It’s a distinctive mix of Melanesian and French cultures, all on ecologically unique slice of the Pacific. My first visit was in 2005 and since then I have visited another two times. One thing I truly love about New Caledonia is that it is relatively not tourist friendly, making it exponentially more rewarding when you discover its secrets. Speaking French is significant advantage when travelling around New Cal, so brush up or at least learn a few essential phrases.
Setting Your Itinerary for New Caledonia
This really depends on how much you want to see and do, your confidence in travelling around and your budget. On the islands, its mostly about relaxing and enjoying nature, if you need adrenaline filled activities and fine-dining, this is not the destination for you.
You can have an incredible trip just staying in Noumea (and surrounds) or you can explore more of the mainland or some of the bigger islands like Ile de Pins, Lifou, Ouvea and/or Mare (the latter three being part of the Loyalty Islands).
On your first visit, just seeing Noumea and Ile de Pins is a good option.
Arriving in New Caledonia
International flights arrive in Noumea Tontouta Airport. This is not to be confused with Noumea Magenta Airport, used for domestic flights. The international airport is about an hour out of downtown Noumea. The domestic airport is at least 40 minutes from the international airport, so it’s best not to book yourself domestic flights on the day of your arrival unless you leave plenty of time.
From the international airport to get into Noumea, it’s best to hop on the shuttle bus, Arc-en-Ciel (French for “Rainbow”). Normally they align their schedule with the flights arriving and you can just hop on the bus and head into town. Its not cheap, but nothing in New Cal is cheap, which generally means it avoids the hoards of tourists one would typically find in other places in Asia-Pacific. If you are a group it might be cheaper to split a taxi or shuttle.
Getting Around New Caledonia
Have a look at transport options before setting your plans down, the domestic airline, Air Caledonie, flies from Magenta Airport and you can use it to get to the islands, but will have to fly back to Noumea to travel between islands (there are some infrequent flights between islands but they do not follow a set schedule). You can buy an airfare “pass” which will allow you a certain amount of flights for a set cost, however, I’ve often found it cheaper to just book individually. You can do flying daytrips to the islands if you get the flights right, just be sure organise transport if you choose this option.
If the flights are sold out, too expensive or you’d prefer to travel by sea you can take the Betico ferry. It is best to book these tickets in advance, the website in English is lacking, so try use the French website for checking schedules and tariffs, then you can use the English website to book. Taking the ferry to Ile de Pins is a common and enjoyable option, you can even use it to do a daytrip during the summer months (check the website). The schedule is generally only released a few months in advance and there are no daily ferries, so you are best to consult the schedule. There are services between the Loyalty Islands (Lifou and Mare only) and Noumea generally tend to alternate days with services between Noumea and Île des Pins.
Things to Know Before Travelling to New Caledonia
Nowhere in New Caledonia, except for maybe one or two spots in Noumea, is it easily to find transport or taxis. This is unlike South-East Asia where tuk-tuks or any transport options will be easily available. Out on the islands there are some mopeds or cars for hire but they are few and far between and even Ouvea, which looks like a tiny sliver of an island, is far too big to traverse on foot. The further afield you go, the best option is to contact the most developed hotel on the idea and request a transfer. You can then use the hotel facilities as a base (the transfer may be a set price or could be deemed against your spend in the hotel). There are no convenience stores or roadside shops like you’d find on islands in Thailand. Outside of Noumea, you should carry enough food and water with you at all times if you go out exploring on your own. Even at the airport in Ouvea, we were unable to buy any food or water.
Before you leave home, I recommend buying and bring your own snorkel so you don’t have to hire one and you have the ease of snorkelling where you want.
Most visitors stay in the Baie de Citrons or Anse Vata areas. I generally would avoid staying anywhere else, purely for convenience reasons. Its easy to get dropped off from the airport in Baie de Citrons and Anse Vata, once there you can walk, catch buses or taxis around Noumea, get boats out to the closer little islands and access the domestic airport quickly. I’ve stayed at the Hilton La Promenade in Anse Vata multiple times and found it wonderful, particularly as it is an apart-hotel with most rooms having a full kitchen, laundry and gorgeous balcony.
Some accommodation options for Noumea are (generally in more expensive to less expensive order):
- Le Meridian
- Chateau Royal
- Hilton La Promenade(my favourite)
- Le Lagon
- The Ramada
- Nouvata – this is good budget option
Eating in Noumea
The fact the La Promenade has kitchen facilities is a major benefit in my opinion, as like many of the islands in the Pacific, the food options and produce in New Caledonia are not amazing. The soil, while rich in nickel, is not suitable for agriculture and the remainder is shipped in from France instead of the neighbouring countries like Australia and New Zealand. In fact, New Caledonia offers the world 10% of the total mined nickel, as obvious through the bright red soil, particularly in the South.
Here are some of my preferred places to eat when we did go out in Noumea:
- Rimba Juice (burgers/shakes etc)
- Stone Grill (grilled meat and veggies, in my opinion one of the best restaurants in Noumea)
- Le Roof (over water restaurant)
There is a good range of restaurants around Ansa Vata and Baie de Citrons, but note they will keep French dining hours so there will generally be set lunch and dinner times, if you want to eat an early dinner it might be more difficult
See and do in Noumea
In Noumea, there are the standard visits to the central market, Main Square and the Cathedral. The main square, “Place de Cocotiers” was buzzing when I first visited in 2005 but seems to have lost much of its grandeur. It is enjoyable looking around the shops if you aren’t from Europe as many of the products are brought in from France. If you like culture, you can visit the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, which is architecturally interesting in itself. I also really enjoyed the Aquarium des Lagons, which is easily accessible on foot in Anse Vata. There are plenty of WWII memorials and heritage sites which you can also visit.
While in Noumea, you can hire kayaks or stand-up paddleboards on the beach. You can also easily visit the nearby islands of Îlot Maître or Île aux Canards without a booking, just turn up to the foreshore in Anse Vata and hop on one of the small boats. If you’ve always dreamed of staying in an over-water bungalow, you could consider staying a night or two at L’escapade Îlot Maître, which is significantly cheaper than staying in one similar in Tahiti or the Maldives. Just make sure you confirm you have booked an overwater bungalow.
If you are on a budget, you can take the public bus 10/11 to Kuendu bay and enjoy a picnic on the beach or visit the Kuendu Beach Resort and use the waterslides etc (for a fee). This bus is also useful as it passes between Anse Vata, Baie de Citrons and into town near the market and supermarket.
Further afield you can visit Phare Amédée or organise a day trip into the south (known as the Grand Sud) for a very different landscape.
l’Île des Pins
You can catch the ferry or fly to Île des Pins. It’s a truly postcard worthy place and while it’s not cheap to get there (or stay), once you are there you don’t need to spend money on activities to have fun, the natural beauty is really enough.
I’ve always stayed at le Meridien, which is expensive but in my opinion worth it, I would strongly recommend saving elsewhere so you can enjoy it. I always book the cheapest room available and have travelled with friends so we have had a pull-out bed in our room which help splits the costs between three. The room price should include breakfast, so we would always try to fill ourselves up for the day then (and some snacks from Noumea).
It’s best to organise a pick up from the ferry terminal or airport, so email the hotel before you arrive with details. The good news is, once you are at the hotel, you really don’t need to leave and your only expenses are lunches/dinners. All activities are included,
kayak, paddleboard, pedalo. There is a gym and a large swimming pool. You can walk (check the tides) to the Piscine Naturelle “Natural Pool” and snorkel amongst more fish than I have ever seen in my life. There is also a library and pool table as well as some board games.
If it is totally out of your budget, you could do a daytrip via the ferry to Île des Pins during the summer months. It’s also possible to do daytrips by plane if there are early morning and evening flights available that day. There are a places to eat around the ferry terminal, or you could organise a transfer to le Meridien even though you aren’t staying there, enjoy the Oro Bay and visit the piscine naturelle.
If you stay at the Meridian in Noumea and here, you’ll probably rack up some loyalty benefits by the end of your stay.
Don’t be fooled by the map, this island is big! We organised pick up from our hotel – Oasis de Kiamu. We enjoyed staying there and exploring the local beaches, swimming in the pool and going for bike rides with the complimentary bikes (not that there is really anywhere in cycling distance to visit but it was enjoyable to go for a ride). There are some vanilla plantations, a church and plenty of other beaches to explore around the island, but you will need to organise transport.
We didn’t have time to stay overnight in Ouvea but it was always a dream to visit so we booked the first flight out of Noumea and last flight back. One of the best things about this (and all flights in New Cal), is how scenic the flight is. After being unable to hire a car, moped or attain any other transport, we organised a transfer with Paradis D’Ouvea in advance and set ourselves up at the hotel for the day, exploring the local area, eating lunch in the restaurant and swimming in the ocean.
That’s my basic summary of New Cal, from my experiences and highlights. Next time I visit, I’m interested in exploring more of the main island (Grand Terre), potentially staying at the new Sheraton Deva and hopefully getting back to Île des Pins with my husband and just chilling there with just the two of us for a few days.
Be sure to send me a message if you have questions or feedback on my take on New Caledonia.