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Mike Yardley: Colour, culture and cuisine in Noumea

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 9 Mar 2024, 1:50pm
Anse Vata Bay And Noumea From Above. Photo / NCT
Anse Vata Bay And Noumea From Above. Photo / NCT

Mike Yardley: Colour, culture and cuisine in Noumea

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 9 Mar 2024, 1:50pm

Situated on the largest island in the archipelago, Grand Terre, New Caledonia’s bustling capital proudly flaunts its oh là là influence as a French overseas territory, where European chic mingles with laid-back Melanesian charm, set amid coconut palms in the swagger of a sea breeze. If you want a tropical island getaway with a little Parisian panache and the best baguettes in the South Pacific, you’ve come to the right place. A series of referenda on independence have resulted in a majority of the population firmly opting to stick with France, despite the indigenous Kanaks making up 44 per cent of the population. And you can certainly notice the quality-of-living upsides to remaining tethered to Paris. The quality of the roading network, the healthcare and education systems are arguably the best in the South Pacific. And the retirement age is an indulgent, oh-so-French, 62.  

Noumea is an instantly appealing city with its irrepressible botanical beauty. You won’t just be fanned by coconut palms, but banyans, breadfruit trees, and the ever-present column pines - so iconic of New Caledonia. All over Noumea, you can add to the botany parade, the blazing bougainvillea and the wondrous beauty of the flamboyant trees, which double as New Cal’s Christmas tree, because like our pohutukawa, their orange and scarlet flowers are all aflame across the summer months. Yes, Noumea sure knows how sooth the senses, starting with that warm and sultry embrace when you step off the plane. 

Photo / NCT

I began my city exploratory in the heart of town, under lush palms and the radiant grace of those flamboyant trees that flank Place des Cocotiers (Coconut Square). Meticulously maintained, locals chatted and munched on lunch under the soothing shade of the trees, while some played at the pétanque pitch or sprinkled water on themselves from the statuesque Celeste fountain. Crowning the top of the square is the venerable red-roofed bandstand which routinely stages outdoor concerts. At the southern end of the square, two delightful Kanak girls played at the foot of the Peacemakers Statue. Installed just two years ago, the statue represents the famous handshake between the anti-independence leader Jacques Lafleur and the independence leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou.  

It symbolises the signing of the Matignon Accords in 1988, which brought peace to New Caledonia after several years of civil war. For a quick culture fix, I popped into cute little Noumea Museum,  housed  in colonial-style building that was built in 1874 for New Caledonia's first bank. They do a great job walking you through Noumea’s early settler history and backstory as a penal colony, principally incarcerating political opponents to the various regimes which rose to power in France following the Revolution. Nearby, the Maritime Museum is a gem, chock-full of interesting exhibits on the seafaring age. There’s a variety of salvaged objects from the wrecks of the two ships commanded by French navigator la Lapérouse, after they sunk in a cyclone in 1788 by the Solomons.  

From its hillside perch, grand old St Joseph’s Cathedral, built by convicts in 1888, casts a sentinel-like gaze over downtown Noumea, seemingly visible all over town.  There’s a generous sprinkling of colonial heritage and character villas peppering Noumea. An evocative neighbourhood to stroll through is the Latin Quarter, where storied architecture abounds and the hilltop views are epic. Take a jaunt to La Conception, a cute little hillside church which was built by Marist priests in 1874. Dedicated to Mary, it’s revered by the locals who steadfastly consider it the church of miracles. New Caledonians flock to this church asking for divine intervention from Mary. If she delivers, it’s been customary to honour her by installing a stone plaque of thanks on the walls of the church. Consequently, La Conception is carpeted with these stone plaques, as tokens of appreciation for all manner of miracles. Yes, it’s a matter of faith, but well worth a look. 

St Josephs Cathedral and Port Moselle. Photo / NCT

Close to Anse Vata, another panoramic viewpoint is Ouen Toro Hill. It’s extra good at twilight, but the strategic lookout also played a role in WWII. A pair of cannons remain up there, installed to repel a Japanese invasion. Unlike some of her near neighbours, Japan never attacked.   

Next to Port Moselle, I wandered across to the American Memorial, which pays respects to the USA’s victorious endeavours in the War of the Pacific. As a key support base, over 50,000 American troops were stationed in Noumea  (comparable to the size of the population) and many locals still affectionately remark how their presence ushered in an era of sweeping development and modernisation to Noumea. As did the nickel boom in the 1960s, which remains New Caledonia’s most important industry, despite Indonesia’s cut-price mining practices, crashing the export price, in blind servitude to the Chinese market.  As an aside, it was most reassuring to see some French warships moored in the port, given the geo-political dynamics at play across Melanesia.  

Noumea’s buzzing Port Moselle Markets are well worth a morning visit for the chance to mingle with the purveyors of the fresh produce on display, from the ocean and the land. The earlier you get here, the busier it will be as locals hustle for the catch of the day.  Mangrove crab, coconut crab, lobster and blue prawns are always hot sellers. The craft stalls are equally enticing, with an enterprising array of Kanak handicrafts and souvenirs for sale – many of which are produced in nearby villages.  

Photo / NCT

The stylised and glazed coconut shells, artfully crafted into serving dishes, are particularly good. Then there’s the profusion of artisan goods, whether you’re eager to try some local liqueurs or New Caledonian-grown vanilla beans. Pull up a stool at the unpretentious central cafe, La Buvette de Marche, whistle up a croque madame and café au lait, and soak up the Franco-Pacific vibes.  I was intrigued to discover how incredibly cosmopolitan Noumea is, with strong populations of Middle Eastern, African and Caribbean French nationals, all adding to her melting pot. 

There’s no denying a deliciously persuasive reward for visiting Noumea is the fact that it boasts some of the best boulangeries, fromageries, patisseries and chocolatiers this side of the Arc de Triomphe. Despite New Caledonia being unfairly saddled with the perception of being “so expensive” for Kiwi budgets, the cost-of-living inflationary dynamics in our country have squared up that ledger, considerably. I actually found food prices, whether in supermarkets or in restaurants, to be reasonably similar to New Zealand prices. They certainly weren’t as eye-watering, as I feared. 

Peche Mignon on Rue Jules Garnier is the fan-favourite for art-gallery-worthy cakes and pastries, while for handmade soft and hard centres, the locals swear by Chocolats Morand in the Latin Quarter. The flavour range is astounding. I also took quite a liking to the irresistible range of macarons at Passion Macaron at the Promenade Complex in Anse Vata Bay. The macaron masters of Ladurée would be suitably impressed. Truth be told, they became my recidivist guilty pleasure while staying at Anse Vata.  

Chocolats Morand. Photo / NCT

Noumea is blessed with two champagne beach strips, Anse Vata and Baie des Citrons. They’re like slices of the French Riviera in miniature, with sweeping crescent-shaped promenades, white-blonde sands and velvety lawn frontages. Unlike a lot of South Pacific destinations, what really stands out about these glossy beachside neighbourhoods is they’re so integrated with the local community, not just tourist confections. 

Fancy a wine and cheese tasting? Next door to my hotel in Anse Vata, I highly recommend popping in to Chai de l’hippodrome.  Romain Brousseau opened this convivial wine bar three years ago and as I watched the friendly locals drift in and out, this places pulses with an unmistakeable feel-good neighbourhood vibe. Romain whipped me up a fabulous flight of four wines and cheeses. The oh-so-gooey brie with a sprinkling of truffle, accompanied with a glass of cabernet sauvignon sure worked its magic on me! (If you’re wondering about the hippodrome reference, Noumea’s delightful racecourse is right across the road.) 

Here’s a round-up of my favourite dining experiences in Noumea. Le Roof is designed like a thatched overwater bungalow, reached via a long-covered pier from Anse Vata beach. Straddling the emerald-blue waters, the restaurant’s terrace seating means your dining experience is likely to be accompanied with an aquatic show. A splashy, playful pod of dolphins delivered quite the cabaret act as I blissfully breezed through a selection of dishes, spanning lagoon fish carpaccio, pan-fried shrimp in a creamy bisque and the most divine raspberry nougat ice-cream for dessert. 

Around the corner from Anse Vata, glorious Baie des Citrons (Lemon Bay) is a ravishing locale. Kick back, promenade about, and catch a dreamy sunset give her goodnight kiss to Noumea, as the water laps the golden sands of this crescent-curved beach. Awash with alluring al fresco bars, swish beach clubs and waterfront eateries, I first took my seat at Creperie Le Pastaga. If you have a weakness for crepes, you may never want to leave. This is crepe heaven with an overwhelming menu spanning over 60 choices, both sweet and savoury.  

Baie de Citrons. Photo / NCT

Savoury crepes, strictly called galettes, are made from buckwheat, which give the crepes a nuttier, slightly bitter flavour. After much indecision I plumped for a cognac flambeed shrimp crepe, slathered in crème fraiche and a spicy marinade. Aaah…magnifique! It would have been rude not to order a sweet crepe to cap off proceedings, so I ordered up their frangipane and glazed apples concoction. Sinfully good! 

Sundowners? MV Lounge has cultivated a rock-solid following among night-owls, perched on a leafy and sandy nook right at the northern crest of the bay. This beach club cum outdoor bar does great tapas, too. Also recommended, raise a glass or two at the playful pastel-hued beach hut venue, La Barca, while Les Brasseurs is a lively terraced brew pub, bathed in red mood-lighting, that pulls a friendly crowd and excellent live bands.  

For a complete change of scenery, Pacific Good Food offers a sublime chance to revel in authentic traditional, homely cuisine, with a strong Kanak influence. At the helm, local Chef Alphonse Koce, a student of the great Joël Robuchon. He honed his culinary finesse overseas before coming home, to open the restaurant three years ago. His dishes are delightful. 

Alphonse Koce at Pacific Good Food. Photo / Supplied

Pacific Good food is the ideal place to savour a speciality of Kanak cuisine, bougna. Crafted by blending pieces of fish, chicken, lobster, crab or prawns with coconut milk and a variety of root vegetables like taro and yam, the bougna mixture is then wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked over hot rocks in an underground oven. Not dissimilar to hangi or umu cooking, bougna showcases the archipelago’s unique take on this style of dish. It’s very hearty. 

Coconut crab is another culinary signature of New Caledonia. A local species that feeds on coconuts, the crabs have powerful pincers that crack into the fruit to dine on its creamy flesh. What a combo. The sweet meat of the coconut crab melts in your mouth, and it sure makes a stunning coconut curry. 

Where to stay? Anse Vata Bay has all the holiday feels with its cheerful, stylish tropical ambience, set around a palm-fringed sweep of golden sand, edged by a broad promenade, like a little French Riviera.  A block back from the beach, I stayed at Ramada Noumea which boasts super-spacious accommodations with private balconies, affording sweeping views across the elemental brilliance of Anse Vata Bay. Set within a lush garden filled with mango trees, frangipani and hibiscus, Château Royal Beach Resort & Spa lies towards the end of Anse Vata beach, which fringes one of the world’s largest enclosed lagoons. I had a fully equipped kitchen and laundry, cable TV, free wifi, plus poolside breakfast in the ground floor sports bar. Even though the sea was warm and the beach close by, the hotel’s tropical garden lagoon pool is irresistibly good. Make a date with Noumea and let the love-affair begin. https://nz.newcaledonia.travel 

Aircalin is the national carrier, flying direct from Auckland to Noumea several times a week, with flight times under three hours. Their brand-new A320neo aircraft offers a splendidly comfortable experience, with a stunningly wide array of seatback inflight entertainment for such a short flight! Inflight service was wonderfully welcoming and attentive, with a generous meal and beverage service. Air Calin is a class act, with sharply-priced airfare deals. www.aircalin.co.nz      

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings. 

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