New Caledonia vying to match Pacific Island neighbours
JUTTING out of the Pacific Ocean just a couple of hours flight from Brisbane is a diverse and beautiful holiday destination that offers Melanesian culture and French refinement.
Tourism is not the mainstay of this nickel-driven economy, which is surprising considering its range of leisure, cultural and geographic attractions.
A snorkel mask and a pair of flippers are the best equipment to admire the reefs around Signal Island, just a short boat ride from the New Caledonian capital of Noumea.
Captain of the Aquanature snorkelling tour boat Andreani Bernard has built a business showing people the coral reefs and uninhabited islands of the Great Lagoon Marine Park.
He said the number of fish in the lagoon had increased since the government banned fishing there.
"I used to be a scuba instructor," Mr Bernard said.
"But snorkel is open to more people."
His knowledge of the reefs and the array of life to which they are home to is extensive.
It is easy for him to pick up a potentially deadly brown and black striped sea snake and let it slither around his shoulders and neck as he describes the traits of the serpent.
He will dive to the ocean floor to tickle the fin of a resting white tipped reef shark so gawking onlookers can marvel at how it glides through the water.
Back on shore, chocolate chef Patrick Morand has transplanted the delicacy of French desserts to his Les Chocolats Morand store.
A bay window in his shop's kitchen allows the shoppers of Noumea a view of how his chocolates are made.
"It is important to show what you know and what you are doing," Mr Morand said.
He only sells from his store to avoid the deterioration that can occur in transit.
Accommodation is abundant in Noumea, with comfortable rooms and friendly service available in the bay of Anse Vata at Le Meridien resort.
A drive north of Noumea takes visitors through small towns on the way to the community hub of La Foa.
Hotel Banu is popular among local diners.
Board riders can call on the help of surfing and snorkelling tour operator Frank Pochard to find good waves and diving locations.
The Ouano-based surfer proudly boasts about the quality of waves available on New Caledonia's outer reefs.
"We have beautiful waves in New Caledonia," Mr Pochard said.
He said the swell was at its best during the winter months.
The drive into the Sarramea region brings the opportunity to experience the mountainous beauty of rural New Caledonia.
I enjoyed a relaxed two-hour horseback tour of the region's hills and rainforest fringes aboard my trusty steed Duchess.
It was in this region we made a brief visit to Tribu de Petit Couli.
A grand Kanak Chief's House was visible from the road, but visitors were forbidden to approach the house without the blessing of Kanak residents.
I was able to spend a day with knowledgeable tour guide Francois Tran in the Blue River Park, east of Noumea.
He said he wanted New Caledonia's tourism to grow to match its more popular neighbours Fiji and Vanuatu.
With a greater focus on the Australian market, it will not be long before his hope is a reality.