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Noumea, New Caledonia's capital is a bastion of French culture and often referred to as the St-Tropez of the Pacific. Arriving in Noumea creates a feeling that you have arrived somewhere very colonial, very French and where most everything works, except between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. when everything is closed. Yet just down the road, the indigenous Kanak people dress in colorful ankle-length dresses and fish the reef with spears for the evening’s meal. This stark contrast of modern and ancient cultures illustrates the dichotomy of paradise: the natives who have survived a century of repression, and the French settlers who represent the last surviving stronghold of colonialism in Melanesia.
Not far off the coast, the longest barrier reef in the world shelters 350 species of coral and 1,500 species of fish. Inland, a full third of the world’s reserves of nickel is mined, as well as other minerals such as cobalt, copper and manganese.
Captain Cook was the first European to arrive on the island's north coast in 1774 and, because the land reminded him of the Scottish Highlands, he named his discovery New Caledonia. Years later, the French arrived along with Protestant missionaries. To keep order, Napoleon III sent one of his admirals who declared New Caledonia a French Territory in 1853, followed by the establishment of a penal colony. Noumea's location was selected in 1852 by an English sandalwood merchant, James Paddon.
Noumea's modern history has been dominated by World War II and the discovery of nickel, which created land tenure problems. Many Kanaks were forced into reservations. The territory became an important Allied base in 1942, and after the war the Kanak people were given French citizenship. However, pro-independence Melanesians have continued to clash with pro-France settlers, and during the 1980s, these head-on collisions often resulted in bloodshed.
Outside Noumea, many of the 60,000 Kanaks continue to lead the lifestyle of their ancestors. The system of chiefs continues in tact and it is still customary to present a small gift to the chief when entering a Kanak village. French is the official language, although English is common and various forms of Melanesian are still used in the villages.
Noumea is a pretty city with sidewalk cafes and little bistros, and if it weren't for the climate, you could be in a French provincial town. It looks its best from November through January when the Poincianas, or flame trees, turn red.
The ship is scheduled to dock at Quai des Longs Courriers, which is located in the town center. Taxis are not readily available; they will only come to the pier if ordered by telephone.
Best buys in Noumea are imported goods from France, with duty-free shops offering savings of 20 to 30%. On December 26 most shops are closed. The local currency is the French Pacific franc.
Noumea boasts over a hundred restaurants. Along with French, there is a wide range of cuisines reflecting the town’s polyglot population. Prices may be somewhat high, since many ingredients are shipped in from New Zealand or Australia. Service generally moves at a tropical pace, but in most cases, the fine food more than compensates.
Other SitesPlace des Cocotiers
This lovely square is the hub of the city. From here at kilometer zero all distances on the island are measured. The focal point of the square is the Fontaine Monumentale.
St. Joseph's Cathedral
To the left of the square stands this church, built in 1893, with its two square towers.
Botanical Garden and Zoo
Located three miles northeast of town, a variety of colorful parrots, some flying foxes and the curious, flightless cagou, which is the national bird, can be seen.