Noumea, located at the southern end of Grand Terre (the principal island of New Caledonia), has a perfect location on a large peninsula surrounded by several bays, the main being Moselle Bay. While not quite Paris with palm trees, the capital city does have a cosmopolitan feel, with French restaurants, a few luxurious hotels, and some expensive French fashions in the shops. The stunning views from a number of hotels and restaurants are also a big bonus. Visitors love the affordable French influences, like the freshly-baked baguettes served at the many cafes and the fact that the city has a Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) dotted with bistros. The Melanesian marketplace, the island time attitudes, and the coral-filled beaches do remind visitors that they're most definitely in the South Pacific.
For a romantic meal with an unusual location, Le Roof is the place to go for lunch or dinner. However, be warned that it's an expensive gastronomic experience. Covered with a thatched roof and sitting at the end of a pontoon suspended over the water, 100 meters (330 feet) from the shore, Le Roof has a wonderful setting. A big square has been cut out of the restaurant floor, allowing patrons to view the lagoon below—watch sharks, remoras (long sucker fish), stingrays, and sea-snakes swim by, along with, if you're lucky, the occasional frolicking dolphin. This is classic French fare with an emphasis on seafood, and may include coconut shrimp, crab terrine, crab ravioli, roast duck in a puff pastry, red snapper, and traditional crème caramel for dessert.
The well-heeled locals love this little restaurant in the city's somewhat grungy Latin Quarter, drawn by the excellent prices and the food to match. A three-course lunch or dinner is just 3,280 CFP, and bottles of wine start around 1,900 CFP. Do as the French do and start with an escargot appetizer, or try the goat cheese flan, followed either by joues de boeuf (beef cheeks) or duck thigh in a creamy tarragon sauce. Save room for crème brûlée or the decadent pear pavarois, with a melting chocolate center. This is the place to mix with locals at lunch and the lucky few visitors who have discovered this gem at night.
Le Miretti Gascon
This restaurant, said to be the oldest in Noumea, offers a little touch of France in the South Pacific. Here beside Anse Vata, you can try the popular native snails (or escargot)—they're fat and juicy and usually smothered in garlic. Or opt for classic French onion soup or confit of duck. The traditional menu also runs to delicious beef entrecote, crayfish stew, and lobster casserole. And to finish off there's a twist on a classic dessert: orange crème brûlée. While thoroughly French, the waitstaff speak English and can explain the menu and recommend the best dishes.
The view dazzles at this 19th-floor eatery, the only revolving restaurant in New Caledonia, which delivers an ever-changing view of the blue waters of Anse Vata Bay, the off-shore islands to the west and south, downtown Noumea, and the regional bushland areas beyond the city. The menu is French—tuck into the escargot and the stuffed lobster, and enjoy the fresh-baked baguettes. The four-course French dégustation menu (7,500 CFP) is a good deal, and it may feature foie gras, risotto and prawns, or succulent beef, while among the desserts, don't miss the half-baked chocolate cake with vanilla sauce and vanilla ice cream. Sometimes diners, because the restaurant revolves, forget which table is theirs, so the staff marks each table with different-color, brightly lit LED napkins in the evening. It's a nice touch.
If you're feeling ambitious, skip the bland fare served for breakfast at hotels and hop on a local bus to reach this wonderful market. Here you can start the day with a croque monsieur (the rich and classic French grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich) or a croque madame (a monsieur topped with a fried or poached egg), a to-die-for croissant or pastry, and steaming-hot coffee. The market is also a great source of succulent passionfruits, pineapples, and papaya. It's open until 11 am, so there's time to eat breakfast late, as many locals do, and then shop for clothes and trinkets. Situated a short walk from the cruise terminal, at the marina at Port Moselle, the market is on the hop-on-hop-off bus route and can also be accessed by taking bus No. 1 on the green bus route.
Aquarium des Lagoons Nouvelle Caledonie
Opened in 2007 at a cost of around $18 million, the Aquarium of the Lagoon is a wonderful place to while away a few hours. You can view sea turtles, sharks, stonefish, and the ubiquitous sea snake, along with 150 other species of underwater creatures. The trophy is the nautilus, an ancient mollusk with a hard, spiral shell. The original aquarium (opened in the 1956 and the forerunner to this new building) was the first in the world to display a nautilus in captivity. Exhibits are arranged with a variety of themes and tanks—freshwater, lagoons, mangroves, coastal, the open sea, and the ocean depths, which is where the nautilus dwells. The fluorescent living corals are a popular display.
Ile Aux Canards
You won't find any ducks on Ile Aux Canards (Duck Island), which is just a few hundred meters off the mainland, but you will encounter fantastic coral and a good underwater snorkeling trail. A yellow taxi boat transports day-trippers from Anse Vata Beach (1,200 CFP round-trip) to the island. There's not much to do apart from snorkel or sit on a deck chair under an umbrella and take it easy (there's a fee for chairs and beach umbrellas). A café serves burgers and other lunch items, but it's best to pack your own picnic lunch—buy a few items from a local grocery store. To get there take a local bus from Noumea to the Anse Vata beach and look for the water taxi. Pack reef shoes as the sand is full of broken coral pieces, and avoid going to the island when a cruise ship is in port, or you'll be invaded by day-tripping passengers.
Le Petit Train
A quaint, and rather cute, way to get around town is aboard the Petit Train, which travels along roads (rather than rail lines) to Noumea's main sights. The little train, painted red and purple, has been running since the late 1990s and runs throughout the day, traveling in a loop beginning at the Palm Beach shopping center (near Anse Vata Beach) and ending at the Zoological Gardens at Forestier, just a little north of the city center. It calls at the main beaches, the Place de Cocotiers (Coconut Place) right in the heart of town, Ouen Toro (a hill with WWII cannons and great views over the lagoon), the Tjibaou Culture Centre, and the district of Fanbourg Blanchot, which is known for its colonial mansions. Purchase tickets from the driver or from Amac Tours at Palm Beach shopping center, also known as Galerie Palm Beach.
Isle of Pines
Situated about 107 km (62 miles) south of Noumea, the Isle of Pines is nothing short of gorgeous. Named after the thousands of Araucaria pines growing everywhere, the island has powdery white-sand beaches, azure water, rocky off-shore islets, coral, and fish by the score. It's possible to take a day trip to the main island in the group and swim and snorkel in three of its lovely bays and lunch at another. A day package through Alpha International includes a flight out of Noumea at 8:20 am and a return flight, leaving the island at 4:55 pm. On arrival there's a short drive east to Oro Bay, known as the "natural swimming pool" for its calm turquoise waters and abundance of fish and coral. After plenty of free time, trips head west for lunch at Oumea Bay and then drive south to the delightful beaches of Koto and Kanumera. Typical food served at lunch include bougna (meat and vegetables wrapped in leaves and cooked underground) and big, juicy escargot (snails) endemic to the island. You could also visit the island more cheaply by ferry (10,700 CFP round-trip), on the Betico 2—but it's a 2.5-hour trip each way. In addition to Alpha International, a handful of Noumea travel agents conduct day trips.
Tjibaou Cultural Centre
Named in honor of charismatic independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, this wonderful building high on a peninsula overlooking the ocean is a must-see. The design, by acclaimed Genoese architect Renzo Piano, is stunning: a row of 10 large, conical pavilions shaped like shells stand on a 250-meter (820-foot) ridge on Point Tinu, about 8 km (5 miles) northeast of Noumea. Each pavilion is a different size and dimension, and each contains either a permanent or temporary exhibition, such as "The Spirit of Oceania" in one, and a selection of Kanak art dating from the 18th to the 20th centuries in another. The center celebrates the culture of the Kanak people, Melanesian natives of New Caledonia, who were the inhabitants of the country when France annexed it in 1853. While the exterior of the building is breathtaking, and the Kanak Trail that links a series of huts and sculptures in the gardens is interesting and informative, some have criticized the interior for its lack of exhibits and inadequate English-language commentary. To reach the center from downtown Noumea, take the number 40 bus.