Saturday, May 27, 2017

New Caledonia

Y'all ever heard of a country called New Caledonia before?  I sure hadn't, prior to moving to Australia.  Here it is:

Nouvelle-Caledonie (parlez-vous francais?) is a mere two hours from Brisbane, halfway between here and Fiji.  You can't get anywhere in Australia by flying two hours!  Yet you can get to France.  Actual France!

One country, two flags
Wikipedia tells me that New Caledonia is a "special collectivity of France" and if my spellcheck is to be believed, that isn't even a word, so let's just make it simple and call it a territory.  Because it has all the French things.

French bare necessities

French indulgences

French elections!

The people of New Caledonia are legit French citizens, members of the EU.  Citizens who, as it turns out, can be trusted with a democratic election!  God bless 'em.

So full of surprises this place is.  This being France, everything's written in French and they're reluctant to use their English.  They're quite frosty towards the idea of hosting tourists and you can buy baguettes literally everywhere.

Despite its obvious French-ness, it is also so different from France.  First of all, it's ridiculously tropical.

Yet has pine trees all over the place.

So comes the name Isle of Pines, a tiny island (off the main island) that is on the next level of natural beauty.

Here we went on a boat trip to see what natural wonders lie above the water.

And below it.

Look at that gigantic stingray!  It was HUGE!  Adult human sized, probably longer than I am tall.  That sighting alone made the trip to Isle of Pines completely worth it.

But I was shocked by how casually our guide (and several guests) swam down and poked the damn thing.  I mean, seriously people, has history taught us nothing?

Here in Australia we know not to eff with nature!  Well, some of us anyway.

Though 99% of the time I am very pro leave-nature-alone you better believe I was all up in this:

Our tour guide jumped out of the boat to snatch up this turtle for our petting pleasure.  Which she does everyday, so it's not like the turtle was scared or surprised by this.

Childishly, I think I got more enjoyment out of this wildlife encounter than the stingray or turtle:

Crabs!  Hundreds and hundreds of crabs the size of your fist.  Crawling along, going (as far as I could tell) nowhere in particular, leaving really awesome sand art in their wake.

They were just delightful!

Back on the mainland we continued our exploration of all things French-meets-Pacific and spent the day touring the sites in the capital of Noumea.

Despite being relatively un-touristed, we were not the only tourists by a long shot.  Do you know why?

Cruise ship passengers.  By the boatload!

Several times per week a cruise ship from Australia rolls in and unloads heaps of tourists onto the city for the day.  Tour busses fill up and the streets are filled with backpack wearing holidaymakers.  I'd like to think we blended in a little better than your average tourist, since we wear our sandals without socks.  Because we're fancy.

We spent a good chunk of our day in Noumea at the WWII museum.  In my old age I fancy myself a bit of a WWII buff, and New Caledonia's role in the war is actually quite fascinating, (well, to me anyway).  With its strategic, close proximity to Australia and, get this - no malaria - it was the perfect place for American servicemen to start their overseas tour to get acclimatized to a tropical climate.

Over a million Americans passed through New Caledonia during the war.  Spoiler alert: we won.

Noumea is also where we did our best eating of the trip, and holy crap was it good.  Authentic French bistro food is so, so good!  I haven't had French food in a long time, and I haven't eaten this well in as long as I can remember.  It was nothing short of fabulous.

And don't forget the escargot!

Snails es muy delicioso.  Didn't see frog legs on any menus, though, which is an exotic French dish I've never had but want to try.

If you go to New Caledonia and see nothing but the inside of restaurants it will be time well spent.  If you've stumbled on this blog while looking for travel tips (resources are quite sparse; my apologies you've had to stoop to this level) I implore you, eat at Zanzibar.  A top meal of my entire life.  I have 3 words for you: Duck. Fat. Fries.  Let me tell you what, it changes a person.

We headed to the northeast coast, an area that's less populated, completely devoid of cruise ships and more lush than the west coast.

There we hiked up a literal mountain - in flip flops - to get to this waterfall.

Upon first inspection it might not look overly impressive, but check out the guy in red on the bottom right!  It was pretty darn big and exceedingly difficult to get to.  Holy shit were we out of our league with that hike!  The selfie game was worth it, though.

Just barely.  Uff da it was a hard slog.

I think the main reason Martin insisted we rent a car and drive across the country was to experience...wait for it...

A barge.  A really simple, 24/7, free barge that briefly replaces the highway and took less than 60 seconds to cross.  Tourist attraction of the century, people, step right up!

The area is undoubtedly nice, though.

Even more so than the super "exciting" and "interesting" barge we were there for one thing.

Squinting required
The first and only manta ray sighting of our lives!

But this was literally it.  A singular manta ray, that we had to chase, in a fairly dangerous current to view in poor visibility.  Worth it?  Debatable.  But damn it after our failed attempt at seeing mantas on Lady Elliot Island we can at least tick it off our bucket list.

Of approximate excitement to the manta ray we also saw a rock shaped like a chicken.

Wild times on the east coast of New Caledonia!

New Caledonia is, unfortunately for us, expensive.  Legitimately expensive.  This is the reason there are very few tourists besides cruise ship passengers, because getting around, hotels and eating cost the same - if not more - than Australia.

That's a tough pill to swallow for Australians when Bali is three times farther away but ten times as cheap, but as a friend pointed out, it keeps the bogans away!

For white trash-free travel in the southern hemisphere, in a tropical climate where everybody smokes and the food is out of this world, now you know just the place.

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