Last year in September, I managed to find some nice cheap flights and accommodation in New Caledonia, so I went there for a short holiday. This is how it went down.
Tuesday, 9 September
After spending the night in Auckland, I flew on to New Caledonia. It’s a nice short flight – only two and a half hours – and soon enough I was touching down at Tontouta Airport and on the bus to Noumea.
Noumea smells like stale cigarette smoke, which reminds me of my childhood – grandparents and just that smell you use to get in the olden days, prior to the Smoke-free Environments Act.
I checked into my rather nice hotel room and strolled along Anse Vata beach to the aquarium.
It had been remodelled since I was last there. My memory of the old aquarium was of it being small but well designed and laid out. The new one is larger but had a very generic aquarium feeling to it. I could have been anywhere.
The best bit was the shark tank, due to the tiered seating in the room, so people could just sit down and watch the shark. Little kids would excitedly urge their mums to “Regardez! Regardez! Regardez!” at the funny looking sea creatures.
I went for a long walk and ended up at a supermarket in town. The booze section not only had a fine selection of French wine at pleasingly cheap prices, but also had a spirits on the shelf. Yeah, Kahlua and Bacardi at the supermarket.
Dinner was some fromage, a baguette and some of that vin rouge stuff. Dessert was an incredibly good coconut yoghurt I found at the supermarket. Miam miam!
Wednesday, 10 September
It’s hard to find coffee. When I say coffee, I mean your standard Australasian espresso-based coffee. But it even seems hard to get a cafe au lait. And why do places make coffee from those pod machines?
My big trip today was the Tjibaou Centre, one of my favourite places in the world. It’s partly a Kanaky cultural centre, and partly a gallery showcasing contemporary art from the South Pacific indigenous artists.
The building exists in part as France’s way of trying not to be colonial oppressors, and they called in Italian architect Renzo Piano to build it and he did a superb job. It uses elements of traditional Kanaky case (what they call a whare), but isn’t trying to emulate it. It is brilliant on its own terms.
It’s strange to think that hiding away by a mangrove swamp on a peninsula outside of Noumea is this incredibly good art museum with an excellent selection of contemporary art. There’s nothing like it in New Zealand, even.
Thursday, 11 September
Museum triple shot:
1. New Caledonia museum
This has a really strong focus on Melanesian culture. There are lots of wooden objects and carvings, including penis sheaths. Don’t worry – these days the native fellows wear underpants.
2. Noumea museum
It’s in an old house near the town square. It was pretty much unchanged since the last time I was there. There’s a big focus on World War II, which had a huge impact on the town.
3. Maritime museum
As established when I visited Disneyland Paris, while pirates are cool, French-speaking pirates are better, so imagine my delight to discover a special exhibition on pirates, including an eyepatch simulator. Yarrrrrrque!
There’s a big old Catholic cathedral atop a hill in town, and I also visited that. I get this weird mild claustrophobic with large enclosed spaces like cathedrals so whenever I visit one I have to spend a bit of effort being calm, added to the fear that I might breach some sort of churchy protocol. Nonetheless, it is an impressive building (Catholics seem to do that well) that also offers splendid scenic ocean views.
Every Thursday there’s a market in the town square, Place des Cocotiers (Coconut Square). This week’s market had an Asian theme, so there were all these Asian community groups selling their wares. I bought some phat Thai (which I assume is the same as pad Thai) and a curious glutinous rice sweet rolled around a caramelly inner, wrapped in a banana leaf.
Saturday, 12 September
It was my last full day before a morning flight home on Sunday.
It rained a bit today, heavily and plentifully, but it was totally OK to be out among it. Unlike Wellington, the rain in Noumea wasn’t accompanied by wind, so my umbrella kept me dry.
In the morning, before the rain, I got the bus out to Nouville, where the old town’s prison was.
Actually, the new prison is out that way too. I was the only whitey on the bus and I was surprised when it stopped outside the prison and about three-quarters of the bus’s passengers got out to visit their uncle in the slammer.
But further along were the old prison buildings. There wasn’t much to see. I wandered around, took a few photos, told a lost courier “Je ne parle pas francais!” and got the bus back to Noumea, where it preceded to rain.
I had a look around a few homewares shops. I noticed that most selections of sheets, towels, cushions, curtains and other such items came in colourful, tropical shades. Contrast this to New Zealand where it’s all about beiges, blues and greys and dark colours. But in a way, both places decor colours reflect the palette of their landscapes.
So many of the buildings around town have quite solid facades. It took me a while to realise this is for cyclone proofing. There can be no giant windows. Instead there are shutters and grills designed to keep flying debris out. Perhaps that’s another reason for the gaily coloured decor items – to brighten up an interior that might not get much sun.
I saw “Babylon AD” at the movies, along with a whole lot of teenage boys. It was directed by the awesome Mathieu Kassovitz and featured a few French actors – Gerard Depardieu, Mélanie Thierry, and Charlotte Rampling – but the film was shot in English and so this version was dubbed in French.
Sometimes foreign-language films are easy to figure out, but being a shithouse sci-fi action thriller, “Babylon AD” had tons of expository dialogue, so I missed out on a lot of whats and whys and just decided to sit back and enjoy all the explosions and action.
Finally, I did a bit of exploring of the old Club Med. When I was in New Caledonia in 2000, the Club Med was a thriving resort, but now it’s an empty concrete shell, covered in graffiti and overgrown with weeds. It could possibly be considered an eyesore, but it’s a bit of an urban playground for local teens.
I went for a walk along the beach by Club Ded and took some photos of the ruins. I spotted a building named “Squash 1”, implying there was a second squash court somewhere else. Who would travel all the way to New Caledonia and spend all the time playing squash. Many people, it seems.
I’ve never really been attracted to the idea of a resort holiday. I could never be satisfied sitting around a pool all day – not when there’s so much else out there to experience! Even the simple act of going on a city bus through the suburbs of Noumea is more of a thrilling adventure for me than all that “relaxing by the beach” business.