Across endless turquoise-blue our Kunié captain sails, weaving our vessel among the waves and unveiling the islets that make up the ‘sparkling jewel’ of the South Seas.
And yet, huddled together on the boat, the wind whipping our faces and the ocean spraying us with brine, we can’t help but question our decision to explore the paradisical Isle of Pines so early in the morning.
It’s the cool season in New Caledonia, and while the sun does show its face this time of year, rain and chilly breezes are equally likely to make an appearance.
We grumble and grimace as we battle the elements, cackling as we watch each other get drenched and trying (unsuccessfully) to capture the moment on our cameras en route to Turtle Bay.
A loud cry snaps us out of our mischief, and we follow the pointed hand of our guide as he slows the boat, beaming at us.
“Regardez!” he repeats.
Like the most obedient of children, we jump up and dash starboard, scanning the translucent water until we spot it. We fall silent.
But it’s not the beauty of the world-heritage lagoon that holds us.
It’s the giant sea turtle coming up for air not ten metres away.
Speckled brown and flecked with white, it surfaces for but a second before resubmerging and gliding away, unperturbed by our squeals.
It’s a sight with which all New Caledonians are familiar. The archipelago, after all, is home to four species of turtle – green, loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback – all of which we’re told are accustomed to human observers.
Image Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast/Flickr
To us, however, the turtle remains a novelty, a riveting topic for discussion that sets the bar high for the rest of our expedition.
Our next stop on the agenda is the atoll of Nokanhui, a smudge of sand at the southern end of the Isle of Pines where we see crabs and birds and timid tricots rayés undulating in the shrub. It’s quiet, calm, and save for our boat bobbing by the shore all signs of the outside are absent.
We amble along the beach, some of us stopping for a dip; others continuing on, content to let the waves lap at their feet.
The water here is shallow but startlingly cool, an invigorating prelude to our island-style lobster lunch at the tip of the islet. We eat our fill of fresh seafood and vegetables and, somewhat incapacitated by our full bellies, doze off on the sand.
Image Source: PierreJean SCHWALM/Flickr
“Alors, on y va!”
Too soon we’re summoned back to the boat. It’s low tide, and in order to reach the vessel we have to zigzag our way around now-exposed seaweed and rocks that glisten despite the grey sky.
The spectacle of stumbling and profanity that ensues has our seafarer guide in stitches, but we eventually clamber aboard, out-of-breath but more or less unscathed.
Even so, our little troupe unanimously agrees that our ordeal entitles us to some more R&R, and we retreat to nearby Îlot Brosse, whose lofty pines and powdery white sands partly explain why locals deem the Isle of Pines ‘the closest island to Paradise’.
Uninhabited and presently devoid of other travellers, we claim the islet for our own, snorkelling and ‘sunbathing’ (it’s still overcast) and strolling along the shore.
Image Source: bilbo_en_ballade/Flickr
As our day trip draws to a close, it’s only too easy to see why New Caledonia draws over 100 000 holidaymakers each year.
With its untouched – almost utopic – reefs and atolls, exceptional biodiversity and azure waters, it’s a natural wonderland that appeals as much to those in need of an escape from urban life as it does to beach enthusiasts looking to bask in the Melanesian sun.
That said, there is more to this South-Pacific archipelago than heavenly geography.
For one, it is unmistakably French, offering tourists (particularly those from Aus. and NZ) a taste of ‘the Hexagon’ without the hassles that go hand in hand with long-haul flights.
Indeed, it is intriguing to think that just 2.5 hours from Sydney, people speak French and play pétanque, quaint colonial-style buildings recall Old-World sensibilities and baguettes, gooey cheeses and artisanal pastries abound.
And yet, as we traipse about the capital, visiting everything from the local markets to the Place des Cocotiers and the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, it becomes clear that the ancient customs and teachings of the indigenous Kanak communities are just as important in New Caledonia as its French heritage.
In fact, in alongside the official French, 28 dialectical languages are still spoken in the archipelago today.
A unique fusion of Gallic and Melanesian that permeates culture, art, cuisine and architecture, and only amplifies the charm of an already picturesque destination.
So what are you waiting for? Allez en Nouvelle-Calédonie.