Fun family activities in New Caledonia

by Guest Author, Marie Nieves

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Photo credit: Bruno Moure

If you’re planning a vacation to the South Pacific gem of New Caledonia, you won’t be disappointed. If anything, it will exceed your expectations. Many people who have visited New Caledonia feel this way and are excited to return. Most importantly if you’re traveling with kids, you’re in for a holiday that’s not only about all-inclusive luxurious accommodations, but absolutely fascinating islands to explore, and a chance to revel in the world’s most beautiful – and largest – coral lagoon. You’ll also get the chance to get to know a different culture, and a different way of life; so it wouldn’t hurt to acquaint yourselves with this informative New Caledonia etiquette guide beforehand.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some ideas for where to go to or to take your kids for additional holiday fun. No matter how long your stay is, be sure to check them out, in addition to other well-known attractions.

Visit Duck Island

Ile aux Canards is a very family-friendly excursion location and a favorite tourist spot. It’s okay to sometimes stay away from conventional and crowded sightseeing places and enjoy your own DIY excursion, but some are truly worth a visit. Especially if they’re classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a snorkeling paradise that will make you feel like you’ve entered the set of “Finding Nemo”, or at least your kids will. If you’re located in Nouméa, this island is only 5-minute boat ride away from Anse Vata beach. Do encourage your kids to have a dive and enjoy a mesmerizing sight of corals and many other sea creatures, like multi-colored fish, sea turtles and more.

Another breathtaking New Caledonia experience is whale watching. Be sure not to miss it if you’re planning your trip from July to September.

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Photo credit: -epsilon-

Horseback riding

If you ever get tired of snorkeling and lying around on the sandy beaches (as if you would), or a more likely scenario, if the weather is a bit colder, or simply because your kids would enjoy bonding with animals (especially if they like horses), then this might be the perfect option for you. Horse clubs in New Caledonia have courses for all ages and levels. You can visit Thio and the Koné villages or Yala Ranch in Dumbéa, which is not that far from Nouméa. Your little ones can enjoy a few circles on a pony, or if you’re up for a bit of adventure, organized tours over the river and to the mountain range, ending with camping in the mountains might be your cup of tea.

Golfing

Why wouldn’t you want to play golf surrounded by splendid forests, and crystal clear seas? Hey, why not in New Caledonia? It might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but since there are so many beautiful golden terrains available, why not check the nearest New Caledonia golf clubs and sign up for a course that’s friendly for your kids and your budget? Your kids can play separately, in kids’ groups, or you can all play together, whether you’re beginners, or if you want to teach them.

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Photo credit: Michael Coghlan

Kite surfing

New Caledonia is a wind/kite surfing mecca for windsurfers. It’s a big step to enroll in this activity for anyone who isn’t professional, even with all the surfing schools and courses. But kite surfing on one of the open shores can be a great way to spend your day. It’s a simple pleasure that will grow quickly on any kid, plus it’s very affordable and available practically everywhere. You can sit back and take a few scenic photos of your kids kite-surifing as a memory. You already have the perfect background.

About the author

Marie Nieves is a student and a blogger who loves unusual trips, gadgets and creative ideas. On her travels she likes to read poetry and prose and to surf the Internet. Her favourite writer is Tracy Chevalier; she always carries one of her books in her bag.

You can find Marie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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Best northern New Caledonia experience ever with Brousse O’thentik

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Looking for a bit of the “back of beyond”, marooned on a desert island, with only a knife, matches and a little salt and pepper to get you by? Have we got the adventure for you!

A few weeks ago, we ventured back up to Poindimié for a long weekend. It’d been a while since we’d been up north, and we missed it – the crashing waves at night (and the niggling feeling, “Will we be swallowed up whole in our slumber?”), the fresh air, the friendly people, the break from everyday life. With the aim of doing some geocaching and discovering the Poindimié area a little more, off we flew on our next island adventure.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Casting about for something to do on our first full-day visit, our hotel (Hotel Tieti) advised against visiting the waterfalls (nearly all dried up due to a drought), but suggested a walking adventure or a tribal visit. We opted for a bit of both with Alain, of Brousse O’thentik. Though we had visited the Oua Tom tribe 18 months before, this visit was as instructive, if not more so. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet the chief (and faire la coutume – offer our gifts, show respect and ask for permission to visit his lands), but Alain spent all morning with us explaining many of the Melanesian traditions and customs (and showed us the lands anyway (leaving the gifts with the chief the next day), ending with a lesson on making bougna and properly throwing a fishing net).

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

In the north, the tribes live very simply. Ernest (the chief), had for example, only just purchased a kitchen stove (as you can see in the photo). Retired, he and his family had lived for years with an outdoor fire to cook their food. No electricity, no warm water, no running toilet, no washing machine (and he is considered prosperous, as he is a chief and owns quite a bit of land, which he cultivates with bananas, root vegetables, coconuts, etc.), a visit puts our lives into perspective. No books, no toys, one mattress, one hut where the four family members sleep, a hose for a shower, no refrigerator, no car, but organic food (he uses natural, rather than chemical, pesticides), access to fresh fish and a strong community.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

We were very impressed to learn more of Kanak law during our visit. The Kanaks have their rules and punishments in addition to the French law, and to my mind, they are much stricter. Alain gave us an example. Recently some youth stole the pastor’s 2 pigs. According to Kanak tradition, the pastor is a highly respected member of the community. Any harm to him or his property is gravely punished – the only more highly respected member of the community is the chief. Just after the 2 pigs were stolen, the 200 members of the tribe were summoned by the chief: he pressed them to identify the guilty parties (or to come forward). Eventually, 2 young men came forward. They were publicly beaten within an inch of their lives.  Alain tells us they were right to come forward early, for it they had not, if they had ever been found out, they would have been banished from the tribe. To regain their place in the tribe, they would have had to replace the pigs, repay the pastor via work or other ways, request forgiveness of the pastor and the chief and the community, and make an offering to each member of the tribe. Alain explained that rather than face banishment, youth (and adults) go away to work to be able to repay their debts and rejoin the tribe – as being ostracized results in much harder lives (homeless, without work, no support, hungry, etc.).

Having learned so much with Alain, we decided to spend another day with him the next day. Brousse O’thentik provides cultural visits in the north in an “a la carte” fashion. If you want to go biking and learn how to fish for shrimp, Alain will take you. If you want to go hiking up the mountains for an incredible view of the lagoon, he’ll take you (and you’ll learn about all the plants on the way). Is canoe-ing and net fishing your deal? He’ll take you. How about doing stand-up on wooden rafts or discovering the waterfalls or discovering the countryside on a horse? Alain and his brother offer all of these visits at reasonable prices – and he is not only professional, but funny, personable and a fountain of knowledge. Does he do these visits in English? He assures me he’s been working on his English. If you speak a bit of French (even if only a little), my guess is you’ll be able to communicate and you will learn a lot from him (he has a pedagogical, hand-on approach, which accompanied by gestures, will make sudden sense in context – throwing a fishing net, climbing, doing stand-up, cleaning fish, etc.).

So what’s this adventure I’m talking about?

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Well, before the adventure (and the one I have for you), I am somewhat ashamed to say that I didn’t know how to:

1. Fish with a net

2. Make a meal on a desert island.

Many of you may be experts in the field, but fishing and cooking with nothing are not among my skills – well until now. We had a survival course of sorts during our one-day outing with Alain to Ilot Tibarama the next day.

We met Alain at the dock at 7:45am with protective shoes, bathing suits, sun protection, snorkeling equipment and plenty of water. He provided all the rest (breakfast, lunch supplies, a few wooden bowls, chopsticks, a net, more snorkeling equipment, table, coffee, water, lemonade, matches, salt and pepper, a knife or two) and off we went to a sliver of an island (I like to think of it as “Gilligan’s Island”), 5-10 minutes away by boat.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

When we landed, we off-loaded the boat and said goodbye until 4pm that afternoon. Things stored away, off we went around the island in search of fish (which Alain taught us to look for, not on land or in water, but from the tops of trees). Parrot fish dine on coral and when eating in shallow waters, their beaks dip down and their blue tails stick out of the water – this is what we were looking for. We were also looking for schools of sardines. Unlucky at 8am, we collected coconuts and wood for later.

Back at “camp”, Alain taught us to clean some fish he had brought, in case we were unable to catch any ourselves (we did later that day, but after lunch). They had been caught 2 days before on another outing. Cleaned fish, we chopped it up for Tahitian salad, which is a raw fish salad. Table installed in the water on the beach, we chopped and seeded cucumber, chopped a carrot, sliced half of an onion, squeezed a lemon, and checked and double-checked the fish for bones.

 

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Then, we learned how to make coconut milk. Alain cracked open the big coconut exterior (this is bigger than the coconut you are imagining – it is its exterior). You want the brown coconuts for this, not the green ones – and you’ll need to make sure that when you shake them, you can hear liquid sloshing about. Once he had the coconuts out, he cracked them in two with a machete – best to do with a very sharp knife or a hammer at home. This is the hardest part done. Then, we grated the coconut flesh into a bowl. Finally, we put the flesh into a tea towel and squeezed it over another bowl – out came the most delicious coconut milk you have ever tasted in your life! Who knew?

Having “cooked” the fish in lemon juice, we now added the carrots, onion and cucumber, and added the coconut milk last of all. Et voila! Tahitian salad!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

We then set to grilling fish on the fire in papillottes (wrapped in aluminum), made with the wood and fronds we had gathered, and shortly, everything was ready. Tahitian salad, freshly grilled fish, another salad prepared by Alain, lemonade, water, and my, it was the most delicious meal made fresh we’d ever had.

The afternoon saw more fishing adventures, and this time, we learned how to catch parrot fish with a net. Having spotted schools of parrot fish, Alain went gingerly out into the water and placed a huge net around an area. When he gave the signal, my husband was to make a lot of noise splashing his hands in the water and shouting, to drive the fish into the nets. My son was to throw rocks to scare the fish into the direction of the nets, and I, wearing white, was to run up and down the beach waving my arms (apparently white – moving quickly – can be picked up by the fish and scares them as well). What a sight it was! A communal effort, and after several tries, we caught 4 fish and threw a 5th one back. We replenished the stocks and would feed another family.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

With time at the end, after coffee, for some snorkeling in pristine waters, the day was one of our best yet. Our little Robinson Crusoe experience had taught us some new skills, brought us together as a family, and made us a new friend. We learned even more about Kanak traditions and customs and walked away the wiser in body, mind and spirit!

If this sounds like something you’d like to do – an all-day outing on a desert island, learning about life in New Caledonia and gaining some survival skills – or if any of the other activities mentioned above strike your fancy, do contact Alain at Brousse O’thentik (email: brousseothentik@hotmail.fr | mobile: 97 59 69). Tell him I sent you!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Geocaching in New Caledonia

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Geocachers’ delight: Treasures on Pleasure Island – or New Caledonia, for those of you who like exact locations. Geocaching, as many of you know, has been around for years now (14 to be exact) as well as for about 5 years in New Caledonia.

What is geocaching? According to the official geocaching site, it’s “a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.” In other words: great fun, for kids and adults alike – about 6 million of us worldwide!

 

Imagine my geeky excitement when on the back page of a newspaper I recently discovered that there’s a geocaching game going on in Northern New Caledonia. Way to go, North Province Tourism! Really! What a way to get people travelling the island, discovering its gems, and learning more about the country beyond its amazing outlying island beaches. With just your GPS (or smartphone, with or without the app), you can go off on an adventure to discover North’s most incredible views and wonderful people.

What’s the general idea of the New Caledonia geocaching game?

According to the North Province Tourism’s official site:

The Passport for the North Geo Tour is made up of 20 geocaches, numbered from 1 to 20. You can attempt the full circuit, in either direction. Allow 7 to 10 days if you want to look for all the caches. You can also concentrate on a single region depending on what you fancy.

Set out to look for the best-kept secrets and the most amazing spots in Northern New Caledonia, using the 20 geocaches hidden around the province. As you find the geocaches, complete your Passport for the North, so you can win collector geotags and holidays in the North Province.

Where are the geocaches hidden on the island?

geo4_petroglyphesAll over the island, but the geocaches in the game are found in the Northern Province – in Canala, St. Thomas, Poindimie, Hienghène, Koumac, Ouaco, Foué Beach, Col de Tango, Col de Poya and more. Wow!

The full geocache list is here.

What can you win?

Holiday packages in the North and maybe even a collector geotag. I mentioned a few months ago how much I loved Poindimie. Well, in December, you can win a one-night stay for 2 adults in a beach bungalow in the Tieti hotel with breakfast. That’s just an example! The full list of prizes is here.

How do you win?

Well, you need to find at least 5 geocaches to participate in the monthly random draw (for the holiday packages) and 10 geocaches to win a collector geotag.

geo18_tangoEach geocache found will win you 1 point. When you stay, or dine, in participating hotels and restaurants in the North, you will earn 3 and 2 points each, respectively.

When you have 20 points, you can drop in your completed Passport. The first 100 forms with at least 10 completed caches will receive a collector geotag (the game started in August of this year). A random draw takes place on the first Tuesday of each month, to win holidays in the North.

Even if you don’t collect a geotag or a holiday in the draw, honestly, speaking as a geocaching lover, you’ll win a wonderful way to have discovered the North, just by participating.

And if you don’t manage to get up North soon, you can certainly start in Nouméa or wherever you are. Check out the geocaches at Ouen Toro and Fort Tereka – and elsewhere in New Caledonia (including on Ilot Canard) here!

geo9_hiengheneIf you’re new to geocaching, I recommend reading the tips and tricks and starting with a fairly large, traditional geocache. Take a pen or pencil, and something to leave behind in the cache, and have fun!

We might just see you out there.

 

Making chocolate in New Caledonia

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

If you had told me a year ago that not only can you make your own (healthy, yes healthy!) chocolate in expensive places like islands in the South Pacific (where much is imported and little is mass-produced locally), but that you can do so easily, I would have said, “Do you have another bridge to sell?”

I’m here to tell you that I have no bridges, and I am no salesperson, but I can attest that chocolate can not only be made easily, but that it can be made by persons as young as five. Yes, indeed. (The chocolate we made is also healthier, tastier and cheaper than what you can find in the stores – can you get better than that?)

Just yesterday we attended a specially designed chocolate-making workshop for children by two extremely experienced and knowledgeable people here in Nouméa, Kimberly Grace and Sylvain Broucke. From the beginning, we were welcomed with friendly smiles, enthusiasm and kindness. We were 5 children and 4 adults, excited and happy to be learning something new.

Cacao fruitFirst, we were introduced to the different properties of cacao, or cocoa bean, which provides the basic ingredients for chocolate. We learned about its different parts (cocoa butter, cocoa powder), the fruit it comes from, where it grows (yes, it grows even in New Caledonia, though it is not for sale). Then we learned about the other ingredients we use in chocolate and had a number of interesting taste tests of the individual ingredients (some quite wonderful, others, well, surprising).

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Then onto chocolate making! We worked first in groups through all the steps (melting coconut oil and cocoa butter being more like a science experiment – so fun!), patiently measuring out the ingredients (including learning about flat tablespoon measures), whisking, tasting (tasting is very important!) and setting in the freezer and finishing up in the fridge. We then moved on to working individually, the children choosing which chocolates they wanted to make.

Most importantly, we used organic products and products as close to their natural state (our children now know what refined and unrefined are and why this is important) as could be found (all of which can be found in Nouméa). Truly a boon, when thinking about our health and the curative properties of chocolate. We made a milk chocolate without milk (substituting in almond butter instead), dark chocolate and white chocolates.

We left with our children-friendly recipes in English (including one recipe for treasure chocolate, another super-easy chocolate mousse and a great chocolate sauce), and more recipes for the adults (in English or French). We left, that is, after more conversation, a last surprise taste-test, and packing away our chocolates into our coolers.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Truly a magnificent morning well spent (especially on a rainy day) – and one that you, too, can enjoy by contacting Kimberly and Sylvain at kgbeaudoin@gmail.com. We’d be up for doing the workshop again, if anyone would like to join us (or you can contact them independently of us, of course). I believe the workshop can be done in English or French, that the minimum age for children is five, that each child should be accompanied by an adult and that the maximum number of children is five. The price is very reasonable per participant (3 500 CFP), given the workshop lasts 2.5 hours and all ingredients and equipment are provided. The price doesn’t even cover all the fun you have learning together!

You might like to check all of the above with Kimberly and Sylvain when you sign up. Do so quickly – they’re leaving New Caledonia indefinitely on further adventures in mid-October.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

 

Pikinini Festival: A little fun for everyone

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

With a 2-week school holiday period approaching in a week, and long summer holidays in France, Nouméa appears to be emptying out. Europeans and “metros” return home to see family or travel to neighbouring countries to combat island fever during our winter (July and August, here in New Caledonia). But every other remaining family seemed to show up this weekend for 2 days of family fun at the annual Pikinini Festival at Centre Tjibaou (30 July, 2-3 August).

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

With our first visit to the festival we were pleasantly surprised by the wealth of activities and free shows planned for a single all-day entry of 1,500 CFP (AUD 18 or €13) per person:

  • Bingo for children as young as 3
  • A Kanak dance performance (“Wetr Kreation”)
  • Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts show with children and adults
  • A clown duo (complete with whip, which was slightly frightening)
  • Japanese tales
  • Fable stories
  • Poetry, dance and yoga
  • A 45-minute, 3- interactive-workshop activity for children 5-12 years (on the history of LU cookies)
  • A 30-minute workshop on creating art out of recycled cans
  • A puppet show about protecting Mother Earth
  • A fun hip hop show
  • An impressive Vanuatu fire show (when night fell and people started walking on, and interacting with, fire)
Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Other shows and workshops were also available for just 800 CFP each (AUD 10 or €7). One could learn a bit of Capoeira or hip hop, get his/her face painted, buy lunch and coffee, watch a rendition of Snow White, hear a chorus sing Disney songs and attend a host of other shows.

The weather was stunning and just perfect for a day outside. We loved watching the Kanak dance performance as well as Capoeira with the group our son is taking classes with (it’s so fun to see young children master high kicks, handstands and controlled movement in space). There was a lot of singing, clapping, smiling and picture-taking. We learned that anyone can have fun at something new!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

We also checked out the Recycl’Art and did the LU activity. Though we felt they could have been better organised, they were both interesting (I’d send older kids to Recyl’Art and stay with younger kids during the 3 ateliers for the LU activity).

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

All in all, it was a fun day which left us over-stimulated and tired. Although we were unable to stay for the fire show, we heard amazing things about it. So our recommendation would be to go for a whole day – and not miss the fire show. Take plenty of water, cameras and patience for when things are a little less well organised than you might have hoped. You’ll be sure to leave with smiles on your faces and happy memories of a day well spent.

Fort Tereka: A worthy excursion

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

June is a beautiful month in New Caledonia. The light sparkles and the temperatures dip slightly to highs of low- to mid-20s (Centigrade). Though we love to get out, we’ve been bound to Nouméa with a broken-down car on the one hand and a new series of positive discipline classes on the other (a very exciting development!). Busy as we’ve been with activities, the 2014 World Cup, preparing classes and school holidays, we were happy to get out to Nouville yesterday and up into nature for the day.

I’ve written about Fort Tereka in the past, but I just wanted to share it briefly again with you. It has become one of our favourite, easy-to-do outings – with just a short walk up to the top of the hill overlooking Kuendu Beach. You can find more about how to get there here. I always recommend walking up, taking a picnic, and enjoying some time up there with the views – of the expanse of blues, the outlying islands, the sailboats and the parachutes.

Photo Laurent Guiader

Photo Laurent Guiader

For those who love or who are just discovering geocaching, there is also a relatively easy-to-find geocache, which is a great way to get the kids out and exploring. They may complain a little about walking up, but it will be well worth the walk up. Take along something to leave behind and a pen, along with your GPS or a phone with the app on it. You won’t be disappointed!

There is also a cave to walk through to the other side (take a torch or a phone with a strong flashlight), cannons and small holding areas or cells to explore. How in the world this was built in 1878 is a mystery to me, but intact it remains. A real treasure for anyone interested in history or the Clash of Clans.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

If you walk up, you’ll really enjoy the walk down through the forest. There are several paths down (we discovered the Sentier des Legendes on this last trip, quite by mistake) and they are more than do-able for people of all ages. The pedagogical walk is well sign-posted (Sentier pedagogique), is fun for kids and is shaded (as opposed to the walk up, which requires hats and sun screen).

It’s probably 20-30 minutes up, depending on how quickly you walk and 30-60 minutes down (again, depending on how quickly you walk). I always take a camera, a phone and lots of water.

Every time I come back, I feel refreshed and nourished again. So close to Nouméa, and yet so far away in spirit, I really do recommend it for an afternoon, morning or both!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

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