Northern New Caledonia: A haven!
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post. Such is the way with work, with school holidays, with being caught up in the whirlwind of routine, even in the South Pacific. I do apologise to my regular readers. I have not fallen off the edge of the Earth (though as of late, you will have found me under water) – just busy. I hope to return to my regular weekly posts, as I do missing checking in with you and reporting on life here (and boy do we have life to report – 3 car accidents this week, taking the life of a 2-year-old and a young fire worker as well as another 33-year-old man; a pronounced move to make the sale of guns that much harder as we’ve had 8 deaths by guns so far this year; and oh yes, bushfires in Koumac and La Foa).
An adventure up north
But, back to life on this beautiful island. Last weekend, we braved our (or my, rather) fear of New Caledonian road accidents (you are 4 times more likely to die in a road accident here than in France) and drove up to the north of New Caledonia. We were told to expect to do it in 5 hours (from Nouméa to Poum – for those of you who know the island well). We left at 8:15, had 2 short breaks that amounted to about 1 hour’s break, and arrived in Malbou at 14:30 – so just over 5 hours.
There are several great things about the drive up north:
- The incredible mountain views – and the green, green, green of the rainforest/forests;
- The sense that you are in the back of beyond (our first traffic light, between Nouméa and Poum was found in Koné, a good 3.5-4 hours north of Nouméa);
- The kindness of the people the further north you get (with waves and horn-honking with passing cars and trucks);
- The ghost-town feel of the one-road villages/towns that you drive through and would miss if you blinked;
- The silence and isolation (with so few people on the roads).
I had been concerned about the state of the roads, having driven down south to see the whales (and not having enjoyed the hole-ridden roads), but was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the roads in the north. Once we got past La Foa and Bourail, it was as easy as pie. The road between Koné and Koumac was as good as, or better than, any you’d find in the United States (we’d been told this road was wonderful – and we were not disappointed).
Malabou Beach Hotel
In view of the fact that it was a 3-day holiday, we were only able to reserve 2 nights up north. A month in advance I had started calling around and everything had been booked (such is the fate of a small island and not enough facilities for the population). But we were more than happy to arrive at the Malabou Beach Hotel and to have 2 nights stretched out in front of us.
We loved our stay at the beachfront hotel for the following reasons:
1. The food was excellent! The dinner menu was especially copious – an all-you-can-eat buffet of fresh seafood (caught locally), beautifully cooked vegetables, brochettes, salads, desserts. The head chef was particularly accommodating, offering not just comments on the food, but tips on things to do in the area. Though dinner was served a little later than we would have liked (19:30), we were able to eat quickly so that we could get our sleeping son into bed. The breakfast was not included (and on the expensive side), but was again an all-you-can-eat buffet of both warm and cold platters (eggs, sausages, hash browns, fresh fruit, crepes, pains aux choocolats, etc.). Lunch was served on the water, in another location, at a “snack” connected to the hotel – and there we had the best hamburgers we’ve ever had in our lives!
2. Though not always 100% efficient, the staff made up for what lacked in efficiency with kindness, a “can-fix” attitude, pleasantness and warmth. By the end of our short stay, we were on a first-name basis with several staff members (and in a good way!).
3. The price. As we found just a few days later when we stayed in Bourail, you could pay next to the same price in a far inferior room/location. The Hotel Malabou Beach is excellent value for money, when you consider other hotels on the island. The bungalows go for about 13 000 CFP (AUD 156 or €109) a night. They are clean, fairly well-equipped and come with a small terrace overlooking the beach. There is also free wifi all over the hotel grounds (and in the bungalows – which is not always the case in other New Caledonian hotels). The bungalows are currently being renovated (all of them are to be finished by the end of 2014; they are renovating them in batches), which will drive up the price. But from what we’ve seen of the planned renovations, it will be worth it. If you’d like the cheaper price, do try to go before the end of 2014.
4. All the free activities! You can play mini-golf, kayak, play table tennis, jump in the pool, go for a hike, explore a mangrove and snorkel for free. You can also scuba dive, go horse-riding or take a boat to a small islet (turns out the islet you are taken to is the very same islet that hosted the 11th season of Kohlanta [a “Survivor”-type TV reality programme] in 2009 and broadcast in 2010) for the morning or day. We mini-golfed, kayaked, played in the pool, went for a hike, explored a mangrove and explored the islet in the 2 and a half days we were there. If we could, we would have stayed a third night and driven up north to explore the top of the island, where I’ve heard you’ll see wild horses.
As for the islet (Ilot Tiambouenne), we walked around it in less than an hour and then went for a snorkel. Oh my goodness! We’ve done our fair share of snorkeling, but this was extraordinary. I’ve never seen such a range of coral in such good health. The colours were stunning (and it was a cloudy day) and the variety was amazing – from blue forests to large yellow coral (with lots of light-blue fish) to pink, to orange, to purple. It was everywhere! We were very careful not to damage any of it, enjoying this amazing underwater world. The fish were also wonderful – almost as good as at Ile des Pins (but not as plentiful as you’ll find in Lifou). A turtle was spotted (though we missed him), as well as an octopus.
Blue bottles, deer and fires
Following our amazing desert island experience (where we saw our first Blue Bottle – and did not touch it, thank goodness, as it has a particularly painful sting and “their toxic nematocysts can remain potent for weeks or months in moist conditions”), we headed back down south. We passed the deer we had seen on the way up (being bred for hunting?) just outside Koumac, and 3 hours later we found ourselves in Bourail for the night, which was a marvelous stop over (and the subject of another blog).
As we had driven through fires between Koumac and Poum on the way up (why they don’t close the roads when fire is that close, I don’t know), we were not spared a similar drama the next day at La Foa, on our way back to Nouméa. This time, at La Foa, the police stopped traffic and asked us to turn back. Blocked for 2 hours, we were happy to have plenty of food, water, games and charged iPhones and iPads. It could have been much worse!
Though this was our first trip up north since 2007, it won’t be our last. We look forward to exploring even further north and crossing over to Heinghene in the months to come. With regard to the best time to visit Poum, the locals tell me the end of November through December.
The beauty of the north is breathtaking – and to my mind, much more representative of New Caledonia than Nouméa alone.