France's most idyllic piece is 17,000 km away from Paris
The air is sweet with sandalwood, vanilla, cinnamon, and exotic flowers. Bright-coloured
soaps and tiny eccentric bottles full of perfumes and aromatic liquids are carefully
arranged on the street-stall. There is an extraordinary couple standing behind it: a dark,
stubby man in his 60s and a younger one who could have been his son if only he wasn't
tall, blond and elegantly looking.
IT’S THE SUNDAY MARKET in Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. The overseas territory of France placed in a charming corner of the Pacific Ocean is famous for its jewels and all kinds of products decorated with pearls and mother-of-pearl. Hidden in the shadow of the tents, women wearing artistic hats are stringing up beads and pearls in necklaces and bracelets, and colouring scarves and dresses made of silk. They are friendly, cheerful and smiling, and they wouldn’t bother you unless you are the one to start a conversation. You choose to buy something from them – that’s OK, you decide not to stop – you are the one to lose. Prices are amazing. After all, everything they offer is hand-made and not a large-scale production made in China. And New Caledonia ranks among the most expensive tourist destinations in the world.
MY TOUR ENDED back at the stall of the two perfume sellers. Before I even opened my mouth to ask them for a body treatment pack, the older man surprised me with a question: “Do you speak Russian?” I explained I came from Bulgaria and then I heard the most unusual question I have ever been asked abroad: “Do you bring canned sprats?”.
Tigran turned out an Armenian who once spent a summer in Sunny Beach resort and remembered two things: the pretty women and the canned sprats. Then he found happiness in Paris. Today he lives in New Caledonia with his daughter who married “a local good-looker” – Tigran laughed pointing at the younger guy. The old man is not planning on going back to Paris: “Paris is dead, with all these emigrants, uncertainty, and dirt… Here you can find all that is French as it was before”.
IT IS A BEAUTIFUL JANUARY DAY in Noumea (it’s mid-summer in the southern hemisphere) and temperature is heading towards 40 degrees Celsius. Yacht ports, private clubs, and luxurious residential buildings take turns along the seaside just like they do along the French Riviera. They all seem oddly deserted. The shutters are closed, the verandas are empty. It’s Sunday. Everybody is having a rest. The locals have set sail to the Isle of Pines or have gone fishing in the open sea. The rest, along with the flocks of Japanese newly-married couples who came here on a honeymoon, are either lying on the beaches or strolling along the main tourist street which is close to the Lemon Bay (Baie des Citron).
RESTAURANTS ARE OPEN on Sunday there, and they offer everything – from pizza to snails. Citroens and Renaults are crossing the street, and the French banner is waving at every corner. The French cuisine is dominating, too – although with a definitely Pacific design: lobster covered with apple and papaya, cannelloni with crab, foie gras and parrotfish, fruits of the sea with asparagus, and French wine, of course. In the evening the parks get full of elderly gentlemen wearing straw hats, playing petanque or strolling slowly around the monument of Charles de Gaulle.
Yet, France’s charm has not entirely influenced the local Kanaks who sit beneath the palm trees shouting in perfect French. Dressed in modern jeans discoloured by the sun, T-shirts with world brands logos and Che Guevara’s face on them, bare-legged and their hairs in plaits, they can still be distinguished from the heirs of the Gauls. The separation can be noticed even on a rest day.
IF NOUMEA IS ELEGANT and aristocratic, the Isle of Pines leaves a very different impression. A favourite place for sitting in the sun and walking around for Australians and Caledonians, a heaven for diving and bicycling lovers. In fact, pines is not the best word to use because the beautiful coniferous trees are actually Araucaria columnaris, a species that is endemic to New Caledonia. It is also called l’île la plus proche du paradis (the island closest to Heaven), and it is easy to see why.
The island was discovered for the Europeans by Captain James Cook who saw the high pine-trees on the mainland during his second sailing to New Zealand in 1774 and called it the Isle of Pines. Yet, he never landed there. Much later, in 1840, the Protestant missionaries arrived, followed by seekers and dealers of the precious sandalwood. In 1872, the island became a penalty colony for 3000 French men sentenced for taking part in the Paris Commune. The colony was closed in 1880, when the deportees were pardoned.
SHOULD YOU WANDER for some twenty minutes inwards from Kuto, you may still see some ruins from the penalty colony and the cemetery of the prisoners who died on the island. Most of the tourists here are passengers from cruise ships or divers from neighbouring Australia (the New Caledonian barrier reef, one of the most spectacular under-water views, is in the coastal water here). The island is also home to the longest and most attractive Gecko lizards in the world.
But what is most impressing is the lagoon which warm water shines with all nuances of blue. You see strange fish, party-coloured seaweed, and rock formations even with the naked eye.
A SPECIALITY SERVED BY ALL self-respecting restaurants here are snails cooked with garlic and wine. The snails are gathered by local people in the wood and then sold to the restaurants at extreme prices. This is the only place where you can eat them which makes them really expensive. On the beach you can also taste bugna, a traditional Melanesian dish made of chicken, fish, or lobster, soaked in coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in the embers. You smell the freshly-baked baguettes and croissants everywhere, mixed with the enchanting scent of pines spread by the warm ocean breeze.
The sun is going down slowly. Children keep jumping in the sea from the branches of a huge tree, filling the lagoon with screams. Sellers of fruit and fresh juices are bringing in their carts, tourists are boarding the boats that will take them to the cruise ships. We remain on the deck staring at the island, champaign babbling in our glasses – just another evidence that despite its 17,000-km distance the archipelago does carry a piece of France’s spirit inside.
What you shouldn’t miss:
The Tjibaou cultural centre. One of the best examples of modern architecture in Oceania, it possesses the world’s largest collection of Pacific arts as well as enchanting exhibitions of the culture of the local Kanaks.