A laid-back city on the ocean with French flavour

Noumea is an intoxicating swirl of contradictions. Urban but with an island time vibe; in the South Pacific, but with character traits from the other side of the world; beachy but surrounded by thickly-forested mountains. It also has a strong time warp factor – it could be a forgotten French resort city from another era.

On the main island of Grand Terre and by far New Caledonia’s largest settlement, Noumea’s businesslike centre sits next to a yacht-filled marina, before giving way to beachside neighbourhoods and green hills. From the top, look out over the world’s largest lagoon and Noumea’s exceptional natural beauty is instantly apparent.

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The world’s largest lagoon and back-to-nature adventures

To get your bearings, begin a trip with a visit to the Parque Natural de’Ouen Toro. Dotted with old military guns and crossed by walking trails, the Ouen Toro hill rises up from the restaurant-lined Anse Vata beach. From here, the panorama reveals the spindly green arms of the rest of Grand Terre reaching out into the turquoise-teal waters. Îlot Maitre and Île aux Canards are both a short boat trip away.

Slightly further to the south stands the Amédée lighthouse (it was France’s first metal lighthouse and has a 247-step cast iron staircase), a justifiably popular islet for a day trip. The Mary D boat heads out to Amédée’s white sand beaches, close-to-shore snorkelling spots and glass-bottomed boat coral viewing outings. Just beyond Amédée is the reason for the lighthouse: a small opening in the reef surrounds Grande Terre, creating the world’s largest lagoon.

As you’d expect, the island has plenty of French influences. Noumea is a city of bistros, bakeries and wine shops, while the waterside market in the centre sells Breton pancakes alongside fresh mullet, mud crabs and pineapples plucked straight from the trees. But the indigenous Kanak culture is by no means crowded out, and the architecturally extraordinary Tjibaou Cultural Centre is the best place to dip into it. Designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, this striking masterpiece features ten wooden structures based on the shape of traditional Kanak houses, all lining the horizon like giant warrior’s shields. Inside are thoughtful displays on Kanak heritage and exhibitions of art from across the Pacific Islands.

If this gives a taste for how New Caledonia was before the French arrived, then taking a drive around the south of the island should add to the feeling of stepping back in time. The Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue is home to towering kauri trees and several rare bird species including the comically Mohican-crested indigenous cagou. The waterfalls at La Madeleine, meanwhile, are a mini-Niagara. After getting close to nature, Baie des Citrons is the closest Noumea gets to wild. It’s more a relaxed glass of wine kind of place than a hub of raucousness, but here cocktail bars and microbreweries line up along the promenade opposite the beach. It’s laid-back and unpretentious – and facing in precisely the right direction for watching one of those archetypal island sunsets over the lagoon.

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