Having lived in Australia for more than 20 years I still find it hard to comprehend how big this country is and that it takes almost five hours to fly east to west.
One of the things I miss about living in the UK is being able to jump on a flight and within an hour or two find myself in a new country with a completely different language, food and culture.
On a recent long weekend away in New Caledonia I was reminded that you can experience this from Australia.
In little more than two-and-a-half hours from Sydney, I touch down in Noumea...and I don’t even have to adjust my watch. But don’t be fooled because apart from the time zone everything else is completely different.
More than 16,700 kilometres from Paris and 1,969kms from Sydney in the south west Pacific Ocean lies a little piece of France where the locals drive on the right, eat croissants for breakfast, crepes for lunch and practice their pétanque skills in the afternoon.
It really does feel like a tropical French paradise: still relatively undiscovered and not yet overrun with tourists.
So if you are looking for beautiful beaches, fantastic food and wine, fun activities and a completely different culture right on your doorstep...read on.
Pristine, picture postcard, palm-fringed beaches, vibrant waters and exceptional marine life are all here in abundance.
It truly is a beach lover’s dream destination, with dozens of islands, the world’s largest lagoon (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008) and the second largest double-barrier coral reef. It’s also a ‘surfer’s paradise’ with fantastic waves from April to September.
In my three-day ‘entrée experience’ I didn’t get to see too many, but I did experience the fun of electric scootering around the various bays on the Pierre Vernier promenade, which stretches along the south coast of Noumea between the Anse Vata and Baie de Sainte-Marie.
It is a fantastic walking/cycling/scootering trail sheltered from the road by a fence and a fun place to stretch your legs in a unique setting by the sea with the mountains that hem the horizon.
I can highly recommend a scoot around here on a Sunday morning, especially if it’s followed by a delicious crepe at the wonderful Le Rocher cliff top restaurant. The views here are as amazing as the crepes.
Cuisine in New Caledonia is a happy marriage between island-style, Melanesian tastes and the very best of French flavours and flair. Just like in France, food, coffee and wine are all important aspects of local life and they take these things very seriously.
For a great food and wine pairing experience, visit Chai de l’Hippodrome - just a 20-minute walk from Le Meridien (Noumea’s flagship quintessential beach resort hotel where I had a two-night stay).
We were entertained with the best of French wines and cheeses in this ultra-trendy sophisticated eatery by Olivier Muller, the most charismatic sommelier of all time. It’s well worth a visit, even if you do wobble a little upon exiting!
For great coffee, visit the MV Lounge right on the beach while La Bodega on the pier is a perfect wine/tapas/cocktail stop.
If you can drag yourself away from all this fancy French indulgence, a fantastic place to spend the day is the Blue River Provincial Park located about an hour south of Noumea.
Nature and time have stood still here for millions of years. You will be mesmerised by the soaring 1,000 year old Kaori trees, blown away by the ‘drowned forest’ and enchanted by the native Kagou bird (if you are lucky enough to spot one).
It’s a magical place to come hiking, kayaking or cycling - you can even stay overnight in a treehouse.
For something completely different, head to Bourail (about a two-hour drive north from Noumea) and experience a traditional New Caledonian cattle farm.
We were greeted at Nemeara Farm by owner Cindy Baronnet, an ex-cop and double Miss Caledonia winner, who is a lot easier on the eye than the Brahman cattle she lives with!
The Bourail region is not dissimilar to an Aussie landscape and is known as New Cal’s “Wild West” (though geographically it is situated in the island's east).
The region still has a remarkable coastline and the brilliant beaches you’d expect of a South Pacific island. From here you can take a boat and go snorkelling and turtle spotting at the pristine Green Island.
But it also has rich soil and rolling green hills, which are perfect for grazing. However, at Nemeara, the livestock aren’t the only ones who eat well.
Cindy cooks up a mean, authentic bush barbecue for guests, complete with locally grown pork and venison alongside traditional Kanak-style green leaves and pumpkin in coconut broth, washed down with New Cal’s Number One brand beer, of course.
An afternoon tour of the property on the back of Cindy’s bobcat is a great way to check out the cattle, horses and rugged landscape.
For utter luxury, stay a night or two at the Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Spa & Golf Resort, which is just a short drive from Nemeara Farm.
As well as offering beautiful bungalow-style accommodation and fine fare, the resort is home to arguably New Caledonia’s best golf course. It’s also where Nick “the Bachelor” stayed in the 2018 TV series.
I stayed in a superior beachfront bungalow, a stand-alone suite with a private terrace looking out to uninterrupted views of white sand and shimmering water. The 176-room resort features two on-site restaurants, a luxe day spa and a spectacular swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Perfect after a
day at the farm.
I packed a whole lot into my time in chic New Caledonia and it showed me that in less than three hours from Sydney (two from Brisbane and four from Melbourne) that I genuinely can experience a very different lifestyle and culture with no jet lag! I will definitely be back for more.
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