Maré: An island of surprises

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

Of the 3 Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia, Maré is now my favourite, having visited it last December. There is of course out-of-this-world beautiful, which you’ll find in Ouvéa. There is some of the most amazing snorkeling you’ll ever find  (at the Baie de Jinek), a great vanilla plantation, wonderfully friendly people  and long, white beaches in Lifou. But Maré:

  • Has a simply astounding, savage beauty about it
  • Has a plethora of amazing fish right off the beach at the Nengone Village Hotel (and the water is deliciously warm in December)
  • Is not immediately obvious (you’ll only find signs to the “natural aquarium”, the Nengone Village hotel, and maybe the airport if you look carefully, as an example of what I mean by “not immediately obvious”)
  • Requires you to interact with the locals (it’s the only way you’ll find anything; and asking permission to visit sites is a must)
  • Is unpredictable (you never know what or who you’ll find)
  • Feels much closer to true island life than other islands (when you run out of eggs, or the cook doesn’t show up, well, you have toast; when there’s a gas shortage, you ask about the only open gas station and you drive less)
  • Is authentic, charming, real, wild
  • Has reserved, friendly people who aren’t particularly driven by money or business (our car rental company was happy to pass us onto a competing company when they couldn’t deliver the car because their childcare provider had not shown up for work; we stuck with them and were happy we did, as they are a small company and we wanted to work with them).
Photo JH

Photo JH

I’ve heard that Maré started to receive more tourists in 2013 with the Australian cruise ships. For the moment, you can’t tell. While we were there, we didn’t see a ship, nor tour buses, nor an increased infrastructure (toilets, trash cans, signs in English [or very many signs at all, for that matter]). We didn’t hear or speak English, as we’ve done at Ile des Pins and Lifou. All of this, I felt, added to Maré’s authenticity, rather than detracted from its caché.

I’ve heard that some visitors have come away thinking Maré has nothing to offer, that there is nothing to do there. This was not our experience – quite the opposite! The first thing we did when we arrived at our hotel was speak with reception about their recommendations for what we should do and see in Maré. We had of course read the guidebooks and had a list (and remembered our trip of 2006), but our experience shows that the locals usually have good (and better) ideas, especially in places off the beaten track. We were surprised that reception told us we could skip the tour the hotel offered, as we had rented a car – that we could get as much out of our visit, by driving around and asking questions (for directions, for permission to visit the sites) as we would by taking the 2-hour tour.

And  right they were!

Photo JH

Photo JH

The only difference was that rather than have everything pointed out to us, and rather than be driven to the sites we wanted to see, we had to find them, ask questions and learn from the locals and our books. Just the kind of adventure we love!

If you go to Maré, here are the things we highly recommend:

  • Feed the fish at the “natural aquarium
  • Visit the caves at Padawa (ask a local to take you or show you where they are)
  • Imagine the underground world at the Trou de Bone (again, ask a local where it is – it’s not sign-posted)
  • Marvel at the Warrior’s Leap
  • Snorkel with the fish at the beach at Nengone Village hotel
  • Walk the 3-beach trail
  • Visit one of the tribal lodgings in the north of the island (we loved Seday)
  • Swim with the turtles in the Bay of Turtles
  • Walk the beaches at Patho or take a book, read under the palms, and watch the world go by
Photo JH

Photo JH

We were there only 4 days, but we would have loved to have stayed longer. The absolute highlight of this trip was swimming with the sea turtles in Turtle Bay. Interestingly enough, you won’t find mention of this bay in the guidebooks, nor of the turtles. It was one of the locals who told us where to go at high tide (the bay just north of Baie de Tadine, at Mebuet), when they would come in. There were between 5 and 7 of them, from young to old. Several times, we were swimming with more than 1 turtle at a time. At high tide, they come in quite close to the beach.

As we absolutely love swimming with turtles, we spent 2 afternoons doing so in Maré. We watched them eat the sea grass, our son gently cleaned their shells for them, we hung out and observed them. The older ones are quite happy to have you rest quietly next to them, in respectful observance. The younger ones will take you on a tour of the bay. We were very careful to not approach them too closely, scare them, or block their paths, swimming alongside or behind them at all times.

Several locals explained to me that the Kanaks do not swim with the turtles – that only the tourists do (though the Kanaks watch them from above). For the longest time, the locals did not know there were turtles in the bay (as they do not swim in shallow water – they fish deeper waters), and were surprised to see that they are in fact there all year ’round. This is somewhat odd, as this is egg-laying season – the locals did not understand why they were coming consistently to the bay, even in the warm season. After several hours, 2 days in a row, we could say that they were eating. They also appear to be very comfortable in the bay – there are very few people (even in high season). I hope it stays this way – for the sake of the turtles.

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

One local did say that the Kanaks consider swimming with the turtles almost “taboo”. I asked if we were allowed to do so. He jokingly said no. He laughed. Culturally, I couldn’t read his response, and he could see the concern on my face – the last thing I want to do is be disrespectful! He smiled and said it was okay. This being said, I would highly recommend that you ask the locals, should you wish to swim with the turtles, if you have their permission. Another local told us of several killings on the island – in which people had gone off on sacred paths without permission or a guide (including at Shabadran) – and of one recent case in which the body of a local teacher (from France) has never been found.

Photo JH

Photo JH

A few well-kept secrets about Ilot Maitre

Photo JH

Photo JH

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.

Night-time serenading

Flock of muttonbirdWhen 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.”

“Until February?”

“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 …”

MuttonbirdWhy oh why had no one ever mentioned this before? We’re spending a relaxing weekend away in a nature reserve in full mating season.

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.

Underwater adventures

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.

Photo JH

Photo JH

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.

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

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!

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

Ile des Pins: What to do and where to go

Photo JH

Photo JH

We were lucky enough to return to Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines) earlier this month. It is one of New Caledonia’s neighbouring islands, and to our minds, the most beautiful place in the world (if not the closest thing to paradise on Earth).

I’ve written about Ile des Pins several times as it is one of my favourite places, and is always a pleasure to spend a few days visiting. I stand firm by my belief that if you can get all the way to New Caledonia, the one thing you must not miss is Ile des Pins. La grande terre (the mainland) is lovely, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Ile des Pins.

Getting to Ile des Pins

It only takes 2.5 hours by boat or half an hour by plane to get to Ile des Pins from Nouméa. The boat (Betico) is a pleasant ride (as it is almost the size of a ferry) and is the best way to arrive on the island (from the perspective of appreciating the beauty of the island).

Where to stay on the island

Photo JH

Photo JH

We have stayed at the Ouré Tera on Kanuméra Bay the last 3 times we’ve been there (2007, 2012, 2013) and have loved our stay each time. The location is striking for its traquility, peace, natural beauty and the warmth of its staff.

We’ve stayed at other locations on the island, but have a soft spot for Ouré Tera. It is a great place to relax and unwind, provides a wonderful breakfast buffet as well as good lunch and evening fare. The staff are very accommodating and the bungalows clean and comfortable (even luxurious, if you’re used to camping).

Here, though, is a list of other accommodations on the island.

What to do on Ile des Pins

The first day, upon arrival, we tend to explore Kanuméra Bay, take the kayaks out (do not climb the sacred rock called Le Rocher; it is okay to swim around it, but you are not allowed to climb it), go snorkeling and appreciate the incredibly white, fine sand and palm trees. The views from the bay are paradisaical in and of themselves.

Photo JH

Photo JH

The second day, I always recommend riding on a pirogue outrigger (45 minutes) through Upi Bay, which is a very relaxing way to take in the turquoise waters, to marvel at the clarity of the water, the blue skies, the ease and silence available to anyone who is quiet for a moment. After the ride on your pirogue, and an invigorating walk through mud to the shore, you’ll have a 30-45-minute walk through the forest – a wonderful way to see another side of the island. You’ll feel like you’re in a “Survivor” or “Koh-lanta” show, traipsing through the forest, knowing there are no roads or shops, police or hospital services within easy reach. You’ll bring water, your mobile phone, good walking shoes (though I’ve seen people in flip-flops), and a good sense of humour. At the other end, you can lunch on fresh lobster or bougna (the traditional Kanak meal), fashioned in a traditional underground oven.

Photo JH

Photo JH

Once lunch is over, you can go visit the piscine naturelle (natural pool), which is a pool, just this side of the ocean. Known for its beauty, you’ll swim with hundreds of tropical fish which you can feed with a little bread (if you remember to bring some). At low tide, you can stand in the water, watching the fish swim around you. Even for those who do not snorkel, you’ll feel like you are living in an aquarium.

Your third or fourth day, I always recommend an outing with Mana Nautique (Tel: +687 90 97 61). Our guests this time said it was by far the highlight of their 2-week stay in New Caledonia.  And it is always my favourite day ever, hands’ down. It’s an all-day outing on a zodiac with Nouka and another captain (he went out with 2 boats this last time), which takes you through the thrills of swimming with sea turtles and Manta rays, sharks (if you want to), and if you are lucky, seeing dolphins. He will take you to a beautiful atoll (Nokanhui) which is only accessible when you are with him or have the owning tribe’s permission (via another provider). And you will feel like you are alone on the earth, on a strip of white sand, marooned and happily so. You will enjoy a wonderful lunch of fresh lobster or chicken or fish and time to wander.

Photo JH

Photo JH

Our last day (the fourth day), we generally relax and take in the bays and the quiet again. But you can also visit Hortense’s cave, go scuba diving up in the north of the island, rent a bicycle or a scooter and visit Voh. I hear you can go horse-riding and visit a vanilla plantation as well. Here is a site that lists the various possibilities.

Whatever you do, you’ll experience the warmth and openness of the Melanesians. You’ll inevitably find yourself wondering why we’ve chosen our lives and respecting them more deeply for having chosen theirs.

Photo JH

Photo JH

Quick, a taxi boat to Ilot Maitre!

It was a beautiful 4-day weekend in Nouméa and afar in New Caledonia this early November. With a number of events on in and around Nouméa, one was spoiled for choice.

There was a “Fete de Boeuf” in Paita which attracted over 20,000 visitors for a programme such as this:

9:00 – Official opening

9:30 – Herd of bathing animals  (pool)

10:00 – Butchering of a calf  (marking, castration)

10:30 – Country show

11:00 – Calf testicle tasting

11:15  - Equestrian games

11:30 – Couples racing

12:00 – ‘Beef on the spit’ and Paita bean tasting

12:30 – Calf-testicle-eating contest

13:30 – Rodeo

Other activities included visits to the villa museum, fairground attractions, pony rides, helicopter rides, vintage cars, food, local products, a crafts market and meat sold on site.

On the other hand, there was a lovely weekend event that renacted the arrival of 18,000 Americans in 1942, complete with baseball, fireworks, GIs and 40s music in La Foa. Apparently some 4,000 participated in the event.

But our choice, rather spontaneous as it was, was to dash out and take a taxi boat to Ilot Maitre, a wonderful little  island just 10-15 minutes away by boat. It is a coral reef reserve and as advised by local friends, it is best to go when the tide is high and there is little to no wind –  if you want to enjoy a wonderful day snorkeling in these pristine waters. Which is what we wanted – so with little to no wind and high tide, off we went!

You can get to Ilot Maitre either for the day with a package deal that includes a copious buffet lunch, access to the resort pool and deck chairs (and there is a special during the week for only 5900 CPF per adult through the end of November – which unfortunately was booked up when I called), leaving from Port Moselle. Or you can zip over on a taxi boat with your picnic lunch from Anse Vata. This turned out to be our best option.

When we arrived, and walked off the boat, our son cried, “It’s so beautiful!! Look at the water! It’s so clear! Can we live here?”

True, the water was particularly transparent that day and we could see fish swimming just under our feet as we walked down the plank to the island.

I was particularly taken by the stretch of resorts on the island and the expanse of blue before and behind them.

Mouths hanging open, as only newly arrived Parisians mouths can, we marveled at the white sand, the underwater life, the beautiful weather and heart-stopping blues. As soon as we found our friends, we donned our snorkeling gear and into the water we went. The tide was high, which allowed us to get out to the coral reefs quickly and easily. Our son snorkeled for the first time in his life (we couldn’t believe how easy it was for him to use the tuba!) and we delighted in the warm November water.

Best of all, however, was the turtle a friend pointed out to me while we were swimming. She (the turtle) was huge and graceful and peaceful. She was nibbling on the sea grass and swimming, unperturbed, through the water. We stayed with her some 10 minutes before leaving her in peace. Only to then see Picasso triggerfish, black and white striped fish, beautiful turquoise fish, and tiny yellow fish. I lost all sense of time, watching life that way.

Back on land, our little guy was fascinated with our tree neighbour, a tricot rayé (a local, lethal sea snake), who happily napped inside the tree the whole time we were there. He and his father were very pleased with themselves when they returned from a walk with a tricot rayé snakeskin in their hands …

After lunch and 2 more snorkeling sessions, it was time to go home. We packed up our things, promised ourselves we would be back soon, and ran to the boat. On the way back to Nouméa, the boat slowed to show us a dugong swimming in the waters, another first for us.

Returned home, I was exhausted, which is relatively rare for me. Perhaps it was the sun, the sea, the excitement, the swimming. The next day my arms, wrists and hands broke out into a rash. The itching was pretty intense. A little research on the web seems to indicate that I had come into contact with sea lice while snorkeling. I had felt a number of stings while swimming, but as they were not that intense, and my husband had felt it too, I didn’t think much of it. A few days later I had a rash under my bathing suit as well. I’d never heard of sea lice, and by this I mean the larvae of sea anemones or jelly fish, not the sea lice that fish (and particularly salmon) can have. As you can’t see them, there isn’t much you can do beyond get out of the water if you feel a sting (which is thankfully what our son did). After the fact, treatment includes using cortisone creams (I used aloe vera), keeping them clean and not scratching them. They can last anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks. It’s pretty uncomfortable in the beginning, but I would not take back that day for anything.

The views, the experience of swimming with a sea turtle, the peace that overcame us all as we snorkeled together for the first time as a family (okay, so my son’s flippers kept hitting me in the head, but we soon remedied that), all of those things far outweigh a few “itchy bits” (as our son calls them).

Ilot Maitre, we will be back!

Sea snakes, turtles and Napoleon fish in Nouméa

One of the best things about living in the South Pacific is the marine life. The marine life, the plants, the flowers and the colours that are found nowhere else in the world.

Another wonderful part of living in New Caledonia in particular is the amount of stuff you can get done before noon. I mentioned in a previous post that life starts early here, and early it does. For example, I was working at 7am this morning. By 10am, Pablo and I were at the local aquarium. By 12 noon, lunch was consumed and the day had only just begun!

With today’s second visit to Nouméa’s Aquarium des Lagons in 2 months, we were even more enchanted.

This time we purchased one of the aquarium activity booklets for 3-6 year olds for just over 1€ and away we went. We spent nearly 2 hours in what we consider to be a fairly small aquarium (compared to those found in Paris, Brest and Monterey), observing the fish and crabs and nautiluses very, very closely, drawing them, studying them and discovering extraordinary facts about them. We happen to love aquariums, but this visit outdid many of our other aquarium visits, by a long shot.

We solved the mangrove crab mystery we’d been pondering; spied an enormous, sleeping leopard shark, hidden from all of the other visitors; oooed and ahhhhed, stumbling in the dark, upon fluorescent coral and flashlight fish; and photographed and drew again and again the Napoleon fish, the Picasso fish and the marine angel fish (among goodness knows how many others!).

But our favourite part? The turtle (who seemed to want to escape the tank and follow us home) and the sea snakes! The aquarium had just released 45 turtles into the sea earlier that week (who will be tracked thanks to tracking technology), and this last one seemed to be at odds. We’d never seen a turtle so clearly and up close. It swam unceasingly along the side of the tank, watching our every move. We watched its eyes open and close as it came up to the surface, we observed its beak-like mouth and the way it swam and dove through the water.

We were also fascinated by the sea snakes (tricot rayés), which though extremely lethal, are very beautiful. We watched them on land and in water (they live on both and can swim underwater for 1 hour with just 1 breath), twisting and turning, swimming with grace, at times with the turtle, at times on their own. Their heads are indeed tiny (which makes them hard to bite you and thus kill you; this being said, their mouths are quite wide) and they are very easily spotted. Quite common here, the locals leave them alone, which is best (there is no antidote for their venom). Pablo spotted one in the sea here within weeks of arriving and was so thrilled to see one in the wild. I’ve promised to take him to Phare Amédée, where he will see many, many more.

If you are at all interested in marine life found only here in New Caledonia, we recommend a visit to this aquarium. We’ll most likely be back again and again, for life is so very interesting here!