Have you ever realised New Caledonia is Australia’s closest neighbour on the East Coast? In just a couple of hours from Brisbane, you can land close to Paradise in Noumea, the capital of the World’s largest lagoon. But don’t stop there. New Caledonia has more to offer than just Noumea. I’ve travelled a few time to this jewel and put together this resource to help you plan your travel to New Caledonia: things to do, tips and itinerary ideas.
Each time we travelled to New Caledonia, we were blown away by the beauty of the landscape. We were also touched by great human encounters and the kindness of local people we met. There are many things to do in New Caledonia and travel planning is not always easy.
New Caledonia Things to Do #1: How to choose which island to visit
The first step to find things to do in New Caledonia is to answer this question: how many islands do you plan to visit?
New Caledonia is an archipelago made of five main islands (and many other tiny small ones). They all provide a different experience and deciding which one you’ll visit will totally shape your itinerary in New Caledonia.
I’m sure you’ll want to see them all, but you probably won’t have time for that. Life in New Caledonia goes slowly, and I highly recommend travelling this way too. Take your time to visit the islands and absorb the relaxed atmosphere. It’s a waste to rush your visit. Island hopping in New Caledonia is made easy with excellent internal connections by plane several times a day that will also offer some of the most scenic flights you’ll ever get. Although New Caledonians are getting better at organisation every time we visit, you still need to allow time to travel between the islands in case something goes wrong.
Here’s a list of New Caledonia islands with a quick description of how I see them from a traveller’s point of view and the time I recommend spending there.
Grande Terre, the biggest island in New Caledonia
If you fly to New Caledonia, that’s where you’ll land. The capital of New Caledonia, Noumea, is located in the south-west of the Grande Terre.
Grande Terre means “Large Land” in French, and it’s a right description as the island represents 88% of the total size of New Caledonia. It’s 400-kilometre long and only a maximum of 64 km wide. Don’t expect to get around it quickly: it’s divided by mountains from north to south. These mountains aren’t only scenic, they also create a different climate: the west coast is more protected from the wind and drier than the east coast.
Although I don’t recommend spending a lot of time in Noumea, the rest of the Grande Terre is interesting to explore. I found it very different from the other islands in New Caledonia, both in terms of landscapes and inhabitants. The more north you go, the more natural and tribal it gets. We stuck to the South Province during our visit (up to Hienghene).
If you want to explore the South Province of the Grande Terre, I recommend staying at least for five days. And you will only have a peek at what the Grande Terre can offer. I am yet to travel to the north tip.
Driving in New Caledonia is very scenic but be aware that the roads are winding on the main island and driving times are usually longer than you expect. We planned a quick trip up there as we really wanted to dive the reputed reef near Poindimie, on the East coast. It was interesting to meet with local farmers in the central area on the way, to learn a different way of life in New Caledonia that’s not linked to the beach. The most southern region was shaped by the mines, the red ground and the dam and looked again completely different from the rest of the archipelago we visited.
Lifou, the biggest of the Loyalty Islands
Lifou (called Drehu in the local language) is the second biggest island of New Caledonia… but it’s 14 times smaller than the Grande Terre.
However, it’s the biggest island of the Loyalty Islands, a group of three islands located in the east of the New Caledonia archipelago. There are many things to do in Lifou. We stayed for three days on Lifou and it was just enough to experience the beauty of the north of the island.
I particularly loved it as we had the opportunity to share quality time for two days with a tribe in a very remote and natural place. It’s also where I found the best snorkelling spot ever on a coral reef (Jinek).
Mare, the wild and authentic island
Mare (Nengone in the local language) is another of the Loyalty Island. It’s nearly half the size of Lifou. It’s very easy to get around and three full days should be enough to visit most of the island.
When there is no cruise boat, there aren’t many tourists around Mare. The coast is splendid and I appreciated the authenticity of the places we visited. Locals were super welcoming and the island still looks pristine. It’s a perk from our point of view but some activities (especially hiking) can be a bit rough for those who aren’t adventurers.
We found there the most beautiful accommodation in New Caledonia.
Ouvea, the Paradise
Ouvea (Iaal or Uvea in local languages) is the smallest main island of New Caledonia. It’s only 122-kilometre square metres. But it’s very long so it actually takes a bit of time to explore.
It’s known to be one of the most beautiful atolls in the Pacific. It truly is an exceptional place where I recommend staying at least three days.
The north of Ouvea is more authentic than the south of the island, where you’ll see more tourist accommodations than villages. Both are worth exploring. The north-east tip is totally different from the long and never-ending beach on the west. There are boats to take you to the smaller islands on both tips, and many amazing places all around the island.
The Isle of Pines, the most touristy island
The Isle of Pines is almost as small as Ouvea. It’s not part of the Loyalty Islands: it is located in the south of the Grande Terre.
That’s the most touristy island in New Caledonia. But don’t judge it too quickly based on this. They have managed to keep the tourist development rather small. When there is not cruise boat around, it’s a fantastic place to visit and there are sites like the Upi Bay that you really don’t want to miss out. I recommend staying there three days, unless you are a scuba diver which would double the area you can explore there!
New Caledonia Itinerary Suggestions
Things to do in New Caledonia in 2-weeks
- 2 days in Noumea (arrival and departure!)
- 3 days on Lifou or Mare
- 3 days on Ouvea
- 3-day road trip to the North of the South Province (Hienghene, Poindimie, Bourail, Parc des Grandes Fougeres, La Foa)
- 3 days on the Isle of Pines
Things to do in New Caledonia in1-week
- 2 days in Noumea (arrival and departure!)
- 3 days on the Isle of Pines
- 3 days on one of the Loyalty Islands
Important things to know before travelling to New Caledonia
People in New Caledonia speak French and their own local language (they have 28 local languages in the archipelago). Those working in the tourism industry may speak English, but that’s still rare especially when you go to the Loyalty Islands or out of Noumea on the Grande Terre. If you can learn a bit French before going so you can interact with the locals, you’ll have a better trip!
New Caledonia is part of France so you’ll have great facilities there, especially on the Grande Terre. But you’ll also find a very different culture with the Kanaks tribes, that you can experience on the Loyalty Islands. It’s an amazing destination to travel to, as it gives you the comfort of modern infrastructures with the exotism of the Pacific culture.
Many people travel to New Caledonia from Australia as part of a cruise around the Pacific Islands. I know it’s a cheap way of travelling, but it will not give you the best experience of New Caledonia at all. I highly recommend spending more time than just one day on each island and avoid visiting it with hundreds of people.
If you want to enjoy your trip fully, try to stay flexible and lower down your expectations in terms of hospitality service. I met many people who complained about this. Hotels, restaurants and tours do not always provide the level of service you can expect from luxurious accommodations, and the prices in New Caledonia sometimes let you expect this level of service. Now, you know. Don’t let this impact your holidays in this wonderful place.
You’ll need a local guide to take you to many of the best natural places. Sometimes, the guide is just someone shy who will show you the way (especially if you don’t speak French), and some other times you’ll have someone willing to share all his knowledge about his land. It can feel expensive to always have to pay to access natural places and I’ve met people who found that frustrating. I personally think it’s a good way to manage these natural places. Keep in mind that you’re on a land that’s own by the tribe and that’s how they make money rather than allowing the development of constructions that would change the pristine landscape you’re visiting. It’s also a way to control the number of visitors and limit them to certain times.
Some natural places are “taboo”, which means you are not allowed to go there at all. Or sometimes you can go there but you’re not allowed to swim. I found that most of the time, it’s to protect a fragile area or an area with high cultural meanings for the Kanaks. Taboo places aren’t often indicated so try to research about a place before your visit. Guidebooks mention taboo places for example.
Map of the islands of New Caledonia