Maré: An island of surprises
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).
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!
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
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.
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.