With a string of bays and beaches stretching along a peninsula protected by coral reefs, Noumea is a slice of the French Riviera in the South Pacific. The capital of New Caledonia and a territory of France, it's a perfect destination for gastronomes and cultural connoisseurs. Everyone from water sports enthusiasts to nature devotees can find plenty of diversion in and around this "Provencal" city.
The islands of New Caledonia, east of Australia and north of New Zealand, are becoming ever more popular stops for cruises originating in Sydney, Auckland and Brisbane, in addition to transpacific and world itineraries. Stops at Noumea might precede those at more isolated beaches on New Caledonia's islands, including the Isle of Pines, Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, and Poum to the north.
Noumea is the centre of New Caledonia's epicurean and cultural scene, with restaurants serving French, Asian and brousse (bush) cuisine, and museums exhibiting art and Melanesian artefacts. Shoppers will find top wines and other goods imported from France.
Its expansive waterfront is a sports playground for windsurfers and kiteboarders, joggers and sun-worshippers, too.
The city is also a jumping-off point for land tours to spots such as Forest Park and Blue River Park, where you might see a rare cagou bird or flying fox. You can hunt in the bushland or hike the hills that rise above the city and beaches. Other excursions include a host of boating possibilities, from sightseeing to snorkelling and diving to fishing. Noumea also offers a range of sailing options around its archipelago. There are numerous excellent mooring choices for sailors, and many sites still look untouched.
Along with South Pacific's Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands, the islands of New Caledonia all claim to be surrounded by the world's largest lagoon. It doesn't really matter. There are huge, fish-filled bodies of water between the mainland and outer reef. Noumea's unmatched waters and beaches, spans of hills and bush, as well as its vibrant cityscape, make it an enjoyable port of call.
After exiting the terminal, turn right and walk along the water to get to the daily morning market. Or turn left and then right, away from the waterfront, toward the delightful public park and shopping area known as Coconut Square. The square -- actually a series of four squares with a park in the middle -- is a great meeting place, with benches for resting, shops, cafes, the main tourist office and the fascinating Town Museum (see below). The Office de Tourism is at 14, rue Jean-Jaures on Square Olry, the closest block of Coconut Square to the ship terminal. Do not go to the tourism office to enquire about Wi-Fi. Instead, head to the booth that backs onto the cafe in the middle of the park, which is the information point for the square's free Wi-Fi.
Noumea Morning Market is open 5 to 11 a.m. weekdays on Moselle Bay. Vendors sell fresh fish, meat, veggies and racks of souvenirs and there is free Wi-Fi on offer here, too. At the edge of the market, on the waterfront, are the offices of tour operators, open from 9 a.m., every Tuesday to Sunday. Tour boats can take you fishing, sailing or on trips to nearby islands such as Amedee Lighthouse and Duck Island. The enchanting Isle of Pines, which is 2.5 hours each way by boat, will be too far for most cruise ship port stops.
The Musee de la Ville, Noumea (Town Museum) facing Coconut Square, provides a fascinating history lesson of the early days of World War II in the Pacific when New Caledonia became the primary Allied military base and naval centre in the Pacific. Open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Brochures are in English and French.
Tjibaou Cultural Centre, designed by architect Renzo Piano, explores and promotes Kanak, an indigenous culture of the South Pacific. Stories are told through exhibits and collections of ritual masks and costumes, totem poles and sculptures. A pathway lined with traditional Melanesian huts from three different regions is a must-see. Open daily. If you want a bus to the centre, ask at the tourism office on Coconut Square. Blue-line Karuia and Noumea Explorer buses run regularly to Tjibaou Centre from the city centre.
Visit the Blue River Park if you want to see plants that look like they belong in dinosaur movies. (Such movies have been filmed there.) The park is about 45 minutes from Noumea, so you'll need to rent a car. Follow the main road that winds around the mountains and valleys. Stop to look at a giant Kauri tree that stands about 120 feet high and is about 1,000 years old. Don't miss the Exhibition Building (Maison du Park) for detailed displays of the plants and animals found there. The land is 160 million years old. You may prefer to hire a guide in Noumea for this trip, which costs about XPF$12,000 (AU$147), including lunch. A guide can help you find a good stopping place to look for rare cagou birds, most of which live in the park.
Amedee Lighthouse Island, 45 minutes by high-speed ferry from Noumea, is a bit touristy, but everyone -- especially children -- seems to have a good time strolling, swimming, snorkelling and climbing coconut trees. You can take a ship's excursion or find a tour operator, either at the cruise terminal or at the waterfront next to the daily outdoor market, a 10-minute walk to the right as you exit the terminal.
On Foot: The market and main shopping areas are short walks. Other beaches are a longer walk of 30 minutes or more.
By Taxi: Taxis are available at Coconut Square, the cruise terminal and at Anse Vata beach. Rates are regulated, but prices can vary with the density of the traffic.
By Rental Car: Agencies are housed near the cruise terminal. Ask at the tourism office.
Noumea's waterfront is a series of bays with beaches. You could walk for hours.
Best beach for walking and jogging: Cote Blanche
Best lively beach with bars and restaurants across the street: Lemon (Citrons) Bay
Best beaches for watersports and watching kitesurfers and windsurfers: Anse Vata and Cote Blanche.
New Caledonia is on the world windsurfing circuit. As soon as the trade winds start blowing, a parade of sailboards flitting to and fro brings the waters of Anse Vata and Cote Blanche to life. On Anse Vata, go to the south end, near the Meridien Hotel.
Many of Noumea's restaurants feature European cuisine with a strong French influence. The multi-ethnic menus will take you on an imaginary trip to regions of France, as well as Indonesia, Vietnam and China. Meat tends to be beef, with not much pork or chicken. Restaurants specialising in island food serve deer, shrimp, coconut, crab or wild hog.
For a local taste, try bougna, a traditional Kanak dish of yams, taro, fish and shellfish. Ingredients are marinated in coconut milk and simmered in banana leaves for several hours. You may want to ask what's in each dish, as cooks sometimes add pigeons or candlenut worms. The white worms, served raw or toasted, taste a bit like hazelnuts.
A quick straw poll at the tourism office reveals that La Perle d'Eram is the best for bougna. The restaurant is located at 59 bis rue Sebastopole. It's also the go-to place for grilled lobster.
For lighter lunches of sandwiches, salads, pastries and noodles:
Au Delices de Noumea, a short walk from Coconut Square, at 29 rue Eugene Porcheron, is a gem of a patisserie, which shines with bakery goods, cakes, snacks and sandwiches. It's open daily at breakfast and lunch.
Almost diagonally across from the boulangerie you will find Boop's Cafe, where you can get a thoroughly decent coffee and killer croquet monsieur with green salad. The area is mobbed by hip, young locals and seems to be the place to see and be seen. 20 rue Eugene Porcheron.
Practise your French at Au P'tit Cafe de Noumea (8, Ave des freres Carcopino, Noumea) when you order fancy fare such as Chausson de porc a la pistache with creme de foie gras.
Atelier Gourmand, close to the Anse Vata beach at 141 route de l'Anse Vata, serves sandwiches and bakery goods. It's open Tuesday to Sunday, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For a longer or special meal:
Chez Toto, a French bistro, serves family-style, moderately priced meals. It's near Coconut Square, at 13 rue Auguste Brun.
L'Assiette du Cagou features a locally inspired menu, with veggies cooked as they would be in the countryside. The dining room is basic, but the owner mingles with guests. 15 rue Auguste Brun.
La Chaumiere House features a French menu with Asian and Pacific influences. Items like feta cheese flan, fish pasta, lamb, beef tartare and fish tartare are offered for lunch and dinner. It's closed Sundays. Reservations are recommended. It's located at 13 rue du Dr Guegan, Latin Quartier Latin. 24 27 62
The cruise terminal in Noumea is in a boring commercial section of town on Moselle Bay. The view of warehouse buildings changes substantially within a walk of 10 minutes or less, whether you head for the morning market or Coconut Square in the heart of the city. The cruise terminal has an information booth -- usually staffed when a cruise ship is in town -- with free maps and directions. Across the street is a Casino, which is not a gambling place, but a supermarket.
Sunburn. When you're outside for any extended period, wear a good sunscreen and sunglasses for protection from the powerful South Pacific rays.
While most of Europe, including France, spends euros, French territories such as New Caledonia (called "collectives") use the CFP franc. Visit XE.com for current rates. ATMs are plentiful, and they're the cheapest way to acquire local currency in Noumea. You'll find ATMs at the market and outside banks and on the corner of General Gallieni and rue Anatol France, and corner of General Mangin and rue Anatol France. Credit cards are accepted in shops and restaurants, though not at outside markets. Since many travellers now connect a PIN number to their credit card for protection from thieves, you will be asked for yours at shops and restaurants. If you don't have a PIN, you can simply sign for the charge. Expect a foreign currency transaction fee from a few cents to a few dollars for each ATM and credit card use. No one in New Caledonia is interested in accepting American dollars and most businesses in Noumea only accept the French Pacific Franc (XPF).
It's French. Yet, due to Noumea's status as a destination for Australia and New Zealand vacationers, many people -- especially in more touristy areas and downtown -- speak some English. Still, a little bonjour (hello) or merci (thank you) wouldn't hurt.
Consider the local spices from the daily Noumea market on the waterfront at Moselle Bay. You'll find unique items to bring home, such as small jars of sea salt that's been smoked inside coconut leaves over a fire of coconut husks.
Pre-dinner aperitifs are popular there, due to New Caledonia's Franco heritage. Common choices are vermouth, Champagne, sherry or a dry, light white wine. The most popular local beer in New Caledonia is named Number 1. If you're after a sundowner near to the sea, head to L'Etrave, downstairs at the Hilton Hotel, Route de l'Anse Vata, Noumea. XPF only.