Seasoned visitors to Ilot Maitre, we like to visit this small car-less island just 15-20 minutes away from Nouméa by boat as much as we can. That usually works out to about every 4-6 weeks or so. We’d probably go more often if could afford it (we like to go for the all-you-can-eat buffet and pool access which comes to 6500 CFP [or AUD 80 or €54] per adult and half price for children during the week). We love the snorkeling, swimming with the sea turtles, the food, and the relaxation that comes with getting away for a bit.
We recently spent the weekend at the Hotel Escapade on Ilot Maitre, as a special treat (thanks to the Passeport Gourmand, a discount programme which gave us a night free). It was the first time we had spent an entire weekend.
When we checked into our beachfront bungalow, our curiosity was immediately piqued. Why were there earplugs on our pillows? I had checked that there would be no particular events (the island is occasionally transformed into one big party on weekends), so we weren’t sure what this meant. “That’s nice,” we thought. The bungalow was lovely and clean (and had free wifi and English-language TV programming – 2 pluses in this country), complete with a beachfront terrace and tricot-rayés (gentle, venomous snakes) just out front. Nothing to worry about. We were the happy audience of a beautiful blue, then pink, then red sunset, vanilla tea in hand, stretched out on our chaises longues. We were amused by the bigger-than-a-pigeon, black birds that started flying in after sunset, and then horrified to see one fly straight into a tree. It didn’t move for a while.
Ready for dinner a bit later, we ventured out into what was now dark night (at 7pm), aided by well-lit, raised wooden paths. Not seconds later came my second blood-curdling scream of the evening (I was horrified for the rest of the guests – they must certainly have suspected a murderer on the island), the first being when a beautiful tricot-rayé had sidled up to me as I sipped vanilla tea. This second scream, again entirely involuntary, rose up out of my chest just as my arms flew to my face and I ducked, leaving my unsuspecting husband in the direct flight path of one of these relatively large, unwieldy birds, flying at us, clearly scared and disoriented. “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Luckily it swerved just in time.
Thankfully, dinner was divine.
Full-on night brought another series of adventures, this time almost wholly auditory. Walking back to our bungalow after dinner, we noticed quite a lot of these birds hanging out in groups of 2 and 3. They were cooing, a bit, a bit loudly. Rubbing their beaks together and cooing. “Oh, that’s nice,” we thought. Distracted by the return of my snake, slithering up between the wooden boards on the raised path to our door, I soon forgot the birds (of which there appeared to be many, digging holes and slipping under the wood, cuddling up next to our bungalow’s walls) and sprinted to the door, to safety.
Have I mentioned that I do not camp?
Now, before I continue my story, I want you to listen press play on the video below. There will be no visual, it’s just sound. Turn up the sound on your computer and listen especially from about 13 seconds. The video is only about 30 seconds. It will set the mood. If you’re particularly brave, listen to it twice. Try five times. See how you go.
Shortly after we had tucked our son into bed and I had turned on the laptop to work, this relentless bird call careened back into awareness. How had I missed it? Oh yes, the stress of the snake. The dart to the door. The laser-like focus in getting the important things done.
This lovely, unrelenting haunt of a call (commonly likened to the cry of a human baby) did not stop all night. It’s nice perhaps when you hear it once. But hours, yes hours. I think they stopped at sunrise (around 5 or 5:30), but I didn’t fall asleep until 7am. My husband and son tried the earplugs, I risked my brain health by trying to sleep with a pillow over my head. It felt like water torture; the constant cries slowly ate away at our sanity, cry by cry.
The next morning I went to speak with the staff. “I want to talk about these chirp-chirps (pious-pious in French – these little birds),” I started. They smiled. “The puffins (in French, muttonbirds in English), you mean?”
“Yes – is that what they’re called? How long do they do this?”
“Well, you’ve come at a particularly loud time. It’s mating season. It goes on all summer.”
“Yes, more or less. Right now they’re mating. Later they will lay eggs. They fly out to sea during the day and return at night.”
“They don’t sleep?”
“No, not now.”
“They don’t stop?
“No. There is nothing that can be done. They’re protected. You can use your earplugs. There are about 4 million of them in the world and they’re …”
“All here,” I interjected.
“No, about 2 million are in Australia, another million in New Zealand …”
Tip: If you can, reserve one of the over-water bungalows. As the birds are not able to dig holes and snuggle up to your beach or garden bungalow, the sound is much better (less). Though they’re expensive, you’ll sleep better! Another tip (which I found out about when leaving): the hotel has residential rates. So if you’re a local, ask for them, and for the best prices, go during the week. If you’re going between November and February, pack a couple of extra earplugs.
As for another well-kept secret, I’ve spoken about it before, and funnily enough, had completely forgotten it. Surprising, as it was pretty striking at the time.
If you plan to snorkel in November at Ilot Maitre, you may run into sea lice (or microscopic jellyfish). These invisible jellyfish have a mean sting and a meaner itch. They are seasonal, and this is now the second November I’ve been stung. They will not kill you, however. All of us were stung while snorkeling last weekend – and the worst part this time was that we were stung on the face and just above the lips. I was stung all over (we counted 42 stings on one arm), arms, face, legs, hands and feet as I spent 30 minutes longer in the water than I should have (I was swimming with a sea turtle). My son and I broke into rashes getting out of the water, and it got progressively worse. In my case, I was unable to sleep the first night from the burning on my arms.
Having spoken with locals and the pharmacist, it appears that I had had an extreme reaction – possibly an allergic reaction. Our son’s stings went down once we applied a cortisone cream (suggested by the pharmacist) for one day and had used homeopathy. It is now 10 days later and though you can still see the stings in my case, they no longer itch and are going away. I looked like a leper for the first 5 days – with the stings on my face – to the extent that my friends were afraid to broach the subject.
Apparently the best thing to do if you feel the stings in the water (and you will – they will feel like irritating pin prickles, varying in pain from bearable to OUCH!) is to get out of the water. Don’t keep swimming. You should then take a shower and wash your bathing suit well. You will be able to prevent stings in uncomfortable places by wearing an anti-UV shirt and shorts or a “combi” while snorkeling. If you feel stings on your face, just leave the water.
Not everyone will have the same reaction, and you may be fine afterwards. My husband was stung on the face and arm, but thankfully, relatively minimally and they went away quickly. The stings (which swell up like mosquito bites, and some come to a yellow head) disappear in 2 days to 2 weeks. It is very important not to scratch them (to prevent infection and scarring).
But the best part? Swimming with the turtles! If you can get to Ilot Maitre, we’ve found the turtles (usually one at a time) near the little man-made island, in front of the water activities and on the back side of the island (where people kitesurf). So, pretty much everywhere. The best time to look for them is during high tide. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the really gentle one who will just let you hang out with her. We are always very careful to not disturb them and to remain quiet while we are with them. This last time, we found a younger turtle (a very fast swimmer); we did our best not to scare him.
The last surprise of this trip was a tremendous school of fish (jaunet? – a prize goes to the person who can help us identify them) under the wooden walkways. There must have been 500 or so of them. And unlike other fish (that swim away), these fish swim at you. You become part of their school as they swim around you, making room for you. My goodness – if you didn’t know they were there, they would have been a fright. My husband came jogging out of the water, “You’ve got to see this!” He actually had been frightened by the sheer numbers, and their lack of fear. Outnumbered at Ilot Maitre!