Thursday, 15 July 2010

Who are you, Nouméa?

So I’m home again from my travels, with plenty to tell you about New Caledonia. It was my first time there, and as the plane neared the island, the coral reef became visible – the reef that encloses the world’s largest lagoon, so I’m told. Outside the reef, choppy winter blue seas roll up and crash onto the divider. Within, pale sand shines through to form the brightest, purest turquoise colour, dotted with giant corals.

Coming in to land, great green slopes rise up around the aircraft. You thought New Zealand was lush? Well, it is, but it’s got nothing on New Caledonia in the wet season. "Wet" being a short downpour every fourth day or so. Tall folds of mountains clothed in rich forests wrap the road to the city. Soon I am alighting at Anse Vata. But I’ve already told you about that; go look at last week’s post if you haven’t already.

At first it was hard to grasp the character of Nouméa, a place both thoroughly tropical and thoroughly European – a contradiction in terms. But the island’s natives are all citizens of France, and the bakers produce fresh bread all day long as French custom requires. Of course the brand of French spoken here has its own quirks and is a little different to standard language – much like New Zealand English differs from British or American, I imagine.

Nouméa boasts just on 100,000 inhabitants, spread out across the hills and valleys of a sizeable peninsula in the southwest of the island of New Caledonia, just 350km long in the vastness of the Pacific. Locals never lived on this promontory before the coming of the Europeans, who settled there because of the deep harbour.  Later, during World War II, many thousands of soldiers passed through since Nouméa was the U.S. Army headquarters for the Pacific.

The local currency is Pacific Francs, of which you need a couple of hundred for a loaf of bread, and a couple of thousand to dine out. The cost of living is high, but you can haggle for bargains at the waterside markets where there is a building especially for fish, one for meat, and several for fruit, vegetables, baked goods, and handcrafts.

The gentle winter sunshine makes this the perfect escape in July, although it’s mostly too cold for swimming at this time of year. Wild and refined, stylish and rough, simple yet sophisticated – a unique place indeed.

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