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


24 thoughts on “Maré: An island of surprises

  1. We enjoyed Mare the most too and for the same reasons but to be fare we only have Isle des Pins to compare to. We heard about Turtle Bay but didn’t succeed in finding it – a reason to return 😉
    Thanks for all the wonderful reminders of NC. I love thinking back on our year there from Tasmania.

    • So nice to hear you loved Maré as well, Sarah. Isn’t is beautiful? You were so lucky to be here a year; I’m sure you remember it fondly. Hoping you can get back for another visit! – All the best, Julie

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  3. I have been to Mare 4 times this year out of choice and twice last year. I have been to most of the other Islands around the South Pacific where the cruise ships go. Mare is absolutely the best for snorkelling. Get off the jetty, turn left, walk the coast road (unless you get picked up in a car from a local) for approx. 3kms till you can see sand on your left. The walk is fantastic and scenic in itself. Best beach and snorkelling spot on Mare. All the best David V

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  5. Hi, we are planning on spending our Christmas holiday break again in beautiful New Caledonia. I have read your posts on Mare and Ouvea. We were planning on a day trip to one of the Loyalty islands and initially had though Lifou. Since reading your posts I think I have changed my mind.
    For a day trip trip which one would you recommend? We are happy to hire a car to get around if we need to.

    Thank you 🙂

  6. Hi Sussan – I love ALL the Loyalty Islands and find something wonderful on all of them. I particularly love Maré because it is so wild. Nothing is signposted! One has to rely on the kindness of strangers, which is just wonderful. If you speak French, then Maré will be perfect – nothing beats swimming with the turtles in Turtle Bay. For just one day, I would opt for Lifou (spectacular and easy snorkeling at Jinek Bay, along with turtles at the bridge), which has out-of-this-world views, long, white-sand beaches and the kindest people (I wrote more about Lifou here if you’d to see photos: or Maré – depending on what you like to do. Both will require a car rental for just one day. Keep in mind that as of next week you will be able to fly from one Loyalty Island to the next (without flying back to Noumea). If at all possible, you might try to do both!

  7. Thank you for your blog. We will be visiting Mare for 6 days this year and your blog is better than any travel guide I have found.

    • Many thanks for your kind words, Simon – they made my day! Have a fantastic time in Maré – and let me know if you get a chance to swim with the turtles. Kind regards – Julie

  8. Hi Julie,

    We are thinking of going in August, 4 of us for about 2-3 days. We don’t know how to drive so we are thinking of hiring a scooter. I heard they are relaxed about that and don’t ask for a deposit of license, is this so?

    Also regarding your trip, can you tell us the name of the caves at Padawa? Are we allowed to enter and explore without a guide? We’re not keen on using a guided tour.

    Can we swim at the Trou de Bone, and what are the conditions of entry here?

    I can’t find the 3-beach trail on my map, where is this and how long does it take to walk?

    I’m the only one who knows French, and even then it’s a little lacking. Do you think we will be okay?

    I’ve been in NC for just nearing 2 months now.

    Thanks in advance!

  9. Hi Jai,

    It will be very important to respect the local culture while in Maré and to ask for permission (faire la coutume) any time you wish to visit something. You cannot go to the caves at Padawa without a guide. It is not a guided tour like one you would find in New Zealand. It would be with a local who would be sharing his/her culture with you. It would not be a commercial endeavour, but a “partage” (if the guide agreed to take you).

    You cannot swim in the Trou de Bone. When you see it, you’ll understand why.

    When you are there, ask the locals to show you Les Trois Plages. If I remember correctly, it takes a few hours to walk it.

    You’ll be okay if you speak basic French and are respectful of local customs. Maré is the most authentic of all the Loyalty Islands and the least accustomed to tourists. It would be a privilege to see it, and should be approached in this way.

    Hoping this helps,


  10. Hello, we are planning on going to Mare and I was wondering if you knew the name of the car hire company and if there is any way to contact them prior to arrival. We are travelling from Australia

    • Hi Zoe – I’m so sorry, but I cannot remember the name. If you are flying in, I believe they may have a few car rental places at the airport. They will definitely have cars you can rent at one of the hotels. Good luck! – Julie

      • Hello Zoe. We are in Noumea now on holiday and going to Mare in 2 days, we hired a car from Golf location. Ring Josephine on 45 09 42. I do not know if she speaks English as we speak French to her. It seems no-one in Mare has email addresses so you have to ring. Hope that helps. Simon.

  11. Thank you again Julie for your blog. We had an incredible time during our 6 nights in Mare. Swimming with the turtles was of course one of the highlights, we did it 4 times! The snorkelling everywhere was phenomenal – right off Seday where we were staying there was some of the best I have seen in the world. Another highlight is this. A lot of the locals get around Mare by hitch-hiking. I strongly advise you to give them lifts if you have room. We gave a ride to one man who was preparing for his wedding. We ended up ferrying him to a few places to get supplies, in return he invited us to his house where we had a massive feast, so huge I was embarrassed. We met his brother and brother’s wife with whom we spent ages discussing life in Mare, it was very special. Another man who we gave a lift to resembled a child’s drawing of a cannibal – no shirt, big afro hair and big beard. He was a true gentleman – shook everyone’s hands, said he was “enchantee” to meet my daughters. I found his French hard to understand – I realised he had no teeth!
    Mare is a very special island, as Julie says, you will need to understand that it is remote and undeveloped (and I hope it stays that way!). The cruise ship which arrives weekly is an interesting observation in social differences – we were very keen to distance ourselves from the people getting off it, even though we come from the same country. But those passengers all get bussed to Wabao beach so just avoid that beach on the ship days and learn the phrase “nous ne sommes pas de la bateau!”

    • Oh this is just wonderful, Simon. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! You are so right to mention picking up hitchhikers (remember, folks, there are not a lot of cars on the island). We also did so and had such wonderful connections with the locals when we did. And some of them didn’t have any teeth, either, but their smiles were so very lovely. I share your wish that Maré stay the way it is – though my son tells me that it will be the first of the Loyalty Islands to slip into the ocean (he’s been watching documentaries on the topic). Our time there will truly have been extraordinary. Thanks again for your writing to us about your visit – I almost feel like I am there again. (SO HAPPY THE TURTLES ARE STILL THERE!)

    • Hi Ena – If you’ve never been to New Caledonia or the Loyalty Islands, I would suggest Lifou. It is bigger and there are more facilities for those travelling by cruise. Enjoy!

    • Hi Ena, whichever you choose, please bring money and spend it on the island. There are few jobs as we know them on the islands and a lot of people depend on the cruise passenger income. I recommend if possible to decline the tour offered to cruise passengers and see if you can get a local or a taxi to take you somewhere special. You may need to speak French for this of course. Enjoy! Simon.

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