Unable to visit Greece this year, we settled on a short break in New Caledonia. It is the second time that we have visited Noumea, which is like a small piece of France with azure water at every turn. The overwhelming French influences, deserted white sand beaches and postcard sunsets remain a heavenly reality. Being only two hours away, it is the best way for Australian Francophiles to get a little French fix over a long weekend or mini break.
Noumea itself has remained not over-developed and it has certainly not been flooded by the 'budget travel' set. The capital is set on a high peninsula surrounded by sweeping white sand bays. The coastline is dotted with a mix of colonial architecture and the seemingly familiar Southern French style of peachy-pink coloured stucco apartments, bright shuttered windows and faded striped awnings.
There is a relatively small number of Australian and New Zealand tourists here (apart from the tiny flood of hurried cruise passengers that have an hour or two to spend around the gritty Place des Cocotiers) and a few Japanese tourists - but they are far outnumbered by French visitors. The melodic French language is being spoken all around us by visitors and locals and it is the perfect way to 'exfoliate' the mind from work and everyday life and really make you feel like you are 'en vacances'.
The local Noumean's are also extremely friendly and happy people. There is none of that famous (and charming in its own authentic way) Parisian haughtiness here - you are greeted with beaming smiles, waves and a 'bonjour' at every turn. As on our last trip here, there has been no shortage of helpful suggestions, when we have asked for advice - or offers of a ride back into town when we were waiting at one of the more remote bus stops.
Noumea is famously renowned for being 'so expensive' but in reality, like most travel, there are two ends of the spectrum depending on what you choose to have. The price of a 'fixed menu' lunch at a small bistrot is not really much different to what you would pay for a two or three course meal, with wine, in Sydney. The difference being that the food, wine and the service in Noumea is so authentically French. That is the real joy of Noumea. Apart from swimming and snorkeling in crystal clear azure waters and relaxing on sandy white beaches with a good book (and getting a little bit of culture at the Renzo Piano designed Tjibaou Cultural Centre) the real highlight, for anyone that enjoys good food and wine, is tasting the French influence.
All around Noumea you will find traditional French fare, from local crêperies with authentic flavours from Brittany, to luxurious patisseries and boulangers - where you can smell the delicious aroma of authentic French butter a mile away - before you even see where the store is. There is also the opportunity to indulge in an incredible selection of very reasonably priced French wines - most of which are not even close to being available in Australia. Then there are the stores with pâtés, terrines, fois gras, duck cassoulets and of course an array of French cheeses.
The main market in Noumea continues to offer a bounty of delights, where you can expect to see everything from amazing blue prawns and fish being loaded of small boats, baguettes and oozing fresh cheeses to the more Melanesian influenced stalls with coconuts, yams, pineapples and dark, aromatic honey to Vietnamese stalls piled high with intensely aromatic fresh herbs.
The best way to really indulge in experiencing the full spectrum of this a French food paradise is to, mix up a visit to a lunch time visit to a bistrot or two with lots of picnicking and prepare some amazing meals in your apartment - L'apero in hand - with a view of palm trees and an aqua sea. When I say 'prepare a meal' it's really more just making an artful assembly of all the beautiful French products available.
Here’s Mr K and my guide to 'self catering' your way around Noumea - from the astounding French supermarches brimming with French cheeses, pâtés, terrines and foie gras, salads, and great value French wines to boulangeries and wine stores dotted around the town:
Le Marche, Port Moselle:This multihexagonal-shaped market is beside the marina at Port Moselle has a fantastic range of fish and seafood (you will see Fishermen unloading their catch) fruits, vegetables, flowers and fresh bread and pastries. Stop for an espresso with the locals at La Buvette Du Marche. The line 10 bus (210 PF pp, per ride) stops here from L'Anse Vata use stop Baie Moselle or Province Sud. The market is open Tue to Sun from 5-11am.
Casino, Port Plaisance Shopping Centre:The supermache is located inside a mall (which also has a great bistrot - packed with locals everyday at noon). Its a very beautiful and scenic 20-30 min walk to here around the bays from L'Anse Vata (where most hotels are located). The line 10 or 11 bus (210 PF pp, per ride) also stops here from L'Anse Vata. Look for the stop "Port Plaisance."
Geant, Rue Taragnat, Ste Marie:A couple of kilometres from the city centre, this is a 'hypermarche' by the Casino chain. It's kind of like a 'big w' or 'K-mart', with a huge kitchen and homewares selection, but also clothing etc - but with an incredibly large grocery and fresh food section as well. You will need to take two buses to get here from L'Anse Vata. A bus 10 or 70 will take you to city & there you need to change onto a bus 20 (use stops 'Schmidt', 'Taragnat' or 'Listz').
Simply (super u Michel-Ange) route de L'Anse Vata:This smaller supermarche located on route de L'Anse Vata is just 10 minutes (slightly up hill) walk away from the main beach at L'Anse Vata. It has a good selection of cheeses, charcuterie and wines. You can also take the 70 bus if you prefer not to walk.
Carrefour Rue Emile Zola:This is a mini Carrefour (compared to the monstrous Carrefour further out of town) but it has a great selection of its own cheeses, charcuterie and wines although the deli section is not as extensive as the smaller Casino store at Port Plaisance. You will need to take a 10 or 11 bus from L'Anse Vata (look for stop Baie Orphelinat). The larger Carrefour is located on the Voie Express, north of Noumea - a good option to do a bigger stock up if you have a car handy.
Specialty wine stores
While the main supermarches have an excellent range of French wines, some of the 'caves' are also worth visiting for their carefully curated selections - none of which you will find available in Australia. Some of the wine stores also have a range of pâtés, terrines, fois gras etc. (At the supermarches there is also a great selection of French and local beer - the locally brewed Number One beer is seemed a very popular choice).
Pavillon des Vins, 97, route de l' Anse Vata (this store is just near the simply supermarche and an easy walk from L'Anse Vata).
Le Masion Ballande, 1 Rue Jules Garnier (this store is near the smaller Carrefour - use bus line 10 and stop Baie Orphelinat).
Terre De Vignes, 113, route de l' Anse Vata (this store is also not far from the simply supermarche and an easy walk from L'Anse Vata).
Also, it's worth noting that there is a curfew on the sale of alcohol in Noumea. It cannot be purchased after 12 noon on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
Boulangeries & patisseries
The boulangeries and patisseries in Noumea are worth the trip alone. The bread is incredible - every bite tastes of France and you can also indulge mouth-watering macarons, éclairs and chocolates. For a local twist, you can try a banana tart or beignet (similar to a donut with a banana centre).
L'atelier Gourmand, 141, route de l'anse Vata
Au Pain D'Antan, (underneath the Hilton La Promanade) 107, promenade Roger Laroque
La Mitron 2, route de l'Anse Vata, Shop Center Vata
La Mitron 2, route de l'Anse Vata, Shop Center Vata
Getting aroundOn a tip from a friend, we used the local bus service, "Karuia Bus". It was fantastic - running on time and was really easy, plus you get to meet lots of locals.
For more information on the excellent local bus service see: www.karuiabus.nc/le-reseau/plan-du-reseau
Tickets can be bought on board for 210PF or you can buy them for 190PF at the main square, Place des Cocotiers. The tickets are valid for one journey.
Bringing a bit of Noumea home to Australia
As long as you declare it, you can take more food back into Australia than you would expect - provided it is clearly labeled as produced in France, unopened and commercially packed. Time to fill up your 23 kilograms of luggage allowance with imported French delicacies (see the Australian Government Department of Agriculture website for more detail).