An array of fresh crusty bread stands before me, the smell of baking scents the muggy air. There are very few places in this world I’d rather be then in a French bakery. As I stand in line, desperately trying to make a choice, I watch the bakers weave in and out of the shop with trays of delights – pastries, brioche, croissants. When it’s my turn, I bring out my rusty French to order and am handed a pain au raisin; the smell intoxicating, the bread warm. By Bridget Gourlay
Despite this very French scene, I’m not in Europe at all but much closer to home – Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. Outside the bakery, palm trees wave in the wind, the sun beats down on the sparkling sea.
There’s no doubt about it, the essential Pacific ingredients of sun, surf and sand exist here giving it a double appeal – it’s both a slice of France a few hours from Auckland, but also does the Pacific Island paradise thing very, very well.
Although it is one of our Pacific neighbors, I and many other New Zealanders probably don’t know as much about New Caledonia as we do countries like Fiji and Tonga. But it has a rich and fascinating history that greatly impacts on its politics today.
Until 1755, New Caledonia was home to the Kanaks, a Melanesian people who hunted and fished on the exquisite islands. When it was colonised by the French, it was turned into a penal colony and many of the indigenous people were rounded up and enslaved in sugar plantations in Queensland, Fiji and Samoa. This practice, called “blackbirding”, is one of the ugliest moments in the history of the Pacific.
A century and a half on, New Caledonia today is home to a mélange of cultures. Firstly, there’s the French fresh from Europe that work on the island, usually in the top jobs like running hotels, in the military and in the lucrative nickel industry.
Then there’s the New Caledonians descended from the 18th century prisoners and other French settlers – a mix of white, African and Arab people, and then the Chinese and Indonesians who arrived over a century ago.
With the indigenous Kanaks, all these cultures live together in Noumea; the country’s humming capital. As you explore you’ll see Buddhist temples and Catholic churches, typically French treelined boulevards by the sparkling Pacific Ocean, menus that have Asian, French and Kanak food.
To really soak in Noumea’s charm, chill at the Place de Cocotiers. That’s the grassy square right in the city’s heart; lined with trees and humming with cicadas. There’ll be children playing, heat-exhausted tourists seeking shade and locals napping beneath the trees. In the middle of it stands an historic rotunda where bands frequently play, there’s a giant chess set in one corner, and – of course – a petanque pitch.
They say never judge a book by its cover, and I believe you should never judge a city by its capital. France is filled with friendly people and a slower-paced lifestyle, which you’d never believe on a trip to Paris.
The same can be said about London and England or Madrid and Spain. Walking in Noumea you could think you were in a small French city, but you’d never make that mistake in the rest of New Caledonia. In the countryside, there’s lush rainforest, crystal lagoons and some of the best beaches in the world.
That’s why I visited Amedee Island, only an hour’s boat ride from Noumea but truly a world away. The tiny island’s centre has an historic lighthouse, which the more energetic climb for an amazing view, while other visitors laze on the beach. It’s a tourist hub, and locals enthusiastically put on a number of demonstrations; there’s dancing, and an enormous buffet. But the thing that will forever be burned into my mind was an encounter with one of the island’s reptilian residents.
I was standing under the shade of a large tree watching a Kanak man climb a coconut tree to the top in the lazy, effortless way we might walk a couple of metres. He was helping a tourist try to do the same thing while we cheered them on.
Suddenly, a foot long snake dropped out of the branch in front of me, hung in mid air for a second, looked me right in the eye, then fell to the floor. They say travel is about finding yourself; and I really never knew I could yell so loud or run so fast.
Worst of all was catching the look from the group of Australians next to me, who hadn’t moved an inch throughout the entire hullabaloo. There was a smirk on their faces that seemed to say ‘Kiwis. A foot long slightly-venomous snake is nothing.’
It wasn’t until I was on the boat riding back to Noumea, reflecting on the day at the barely inhabited island, that I realised the incident with the snake had actually been a highlight of the whole trip. Because, just for a moment, I’d looked a wild creature right in the eye.
Sure, I’d made a fool of myself and my country by screaming my head off, but that didn’t really matter. I sat on the roof of the boat, watching the imposing island lighthouse shrink to a pinprick in the distance. A local pointed out a giant turtle to his son, and later dolphins swam alongside us.
It’s not everyday a city girl gets that close to nature. Just for an instant, I forgot the hustle and bustle of Noumea, the traffic that awaited me, and was simply overwhelmed by the wild animals, the noise of the waves, the blue and endless sea.
New Caledonia is not one of New Zealand’s main trading partners. Nickel (a key ingredient for stainless steel production) accounts for over 90 percent of New Caledonia’s export earnings – it is the world’s third largest producer with an estimated one quarter of the world’s nickel reserves.
New Zealand tourist numbers to New Caledonia have grown steadily as a result of the opening of a New Caledonia Tourism Promotion Office in Auckland in 2004, although numbers slowed in 2008’s recession