Noumea, the capital of French New Caledonia, has become a popular tourist destination from Australia and New Zealand especially as more and more cruise lines dock their ships there for a day as part of a cruise itinerary.
Can you see it all in one day though? I would say no. It is possible to see quite a bit if you plan it out well.
There are a lot of shore tours available through the cruise line, and a lot more available from the cruise terminal in town. Depending on your interests you can pick through these, and some of the sight-seeing options like the Tchou Tchou Train or hop-on hop-off buses give you the option to see a lot of things in the short time you are there.
Depending on the size of the ship you are travelling on you will be disembarking directly at the cruise terminal in town if you are on a smaller ship. If you are on a larger ship like Voyager of the Seas then you will be docking at the container port and will be taking a shuttle bus into the cruise terminal, so it’s important to keep this in mind when planning out your own trips as it will take up about 15 minutes of your time each way getting to and from the ship.
At the terminal where you are dropped off there are a number of facilities including a market, tour operators and currency exchange. If you intend to spend money in town, a lot of merchants do take Visa and MasterCard credit cards, as do a lot of stall holders in markets. A lot of merchants and stall holders also take Australian dollars, and depending on the deal you strike up that could work out better than paying in local currency. We had been told previously that we needed local currency for the water taxi across to Duck Island so we used a credit card to purchase some South Pacific Francs (XPF), the local currency.
As for the rest of the day, we hired a car and took ourselves to the places we wanted to see. I have an Avis Preferred account and get reasonable discounts with them, so I booked the car with Avis. Unfortunately the depot is about 2km’s from the terminal in town where the shuttle dropped us and takes about 25 minutes to walk to and from. My experience was that unfortunately the service was rather slow, and even though I had booked in advance and have a Preferred account the car was not ready and it seemed like they were not expecting me.
So it actually took about an hour to get the car from the time I got to the terminal in town. About 25 minutes walk and about 35 minutes for the attendant to do the paperwork and prep the car. That said, she didn’t speak much English and I speak even less French, but she was very polite and accommodating doing everything she could to ensure things happened as quick as possible. In fact if it wasn’t for her super friendly and helpful service I’d probably be writing an unhappy letter to Avis corporate about it.
There is actually a small market on the waterfront on the way to Avis so my party decided to stay there and checkout the markets while I went the rest of the way to pick the car up, and I think it’s just as well. There was one large hill that had to be climbed and I know that would not have been well suited to my party. We got there in the end though.
From there we did some scenic driving down to Anse Vata via Baie de Citrons and found a few French military installations by accident. We parked right at the water taxi stop at Anse Vata Beach and caught the water taxi across to Duck Island. We had read before going on the cruise that they only took local currency at the water taxi and that the cost is 1200 XPF return, so we paid using the currency we had purchased at the terminal. Interestingly though, at the water taxi terminal they did have a sign up indicating they also take Australian dollars and that the cost is $15 AUD or 1200 XPF return. I did some sums based on the current conversion rate and paying in XPF actually cost us a little over $16 AUD plus the percentage of the exchange fee, so it’s worth thinking about before you get local currency. Check the conversion rates, it may be better value to pay in AUD.
The water taxi’s are very regular. There are two running all day and it is about a 10 minute ride so it’s normally only about 5-10 minutes between taxi’s. Each taxi seats about 10 people and if it’s full it is pretty cosy. Again though, it’s a short ride and it is absolutely worth it.
We spent a couple of hours on Duck Island. We had read on Trip Advisor that it is worth having reef shoes when walking on the island, and that there is not much shade for sitting unless you are willing to pay for it. The first is true, 100% true. Reef shoes were worth every cent just for this beach. The beach is covered in broken coral and it is very rough and very sharp. Definitely wear reef shoes. As for the shade, frankly, you are there to snorkel, do you really need a shady beach? That said, it is true that all the covered deck chairs must be paid for. However, the centre of the island does have a lot of trees. If you need to get out of the sun for a bit you can just wander in there, go to the toilet perhaps or check out the bar. There are seats at the bar which does also serve a limited food selection and is completely undercover. So even though there is no shade on the beach itself unless you pay for it, it is possible to find shade without much difficulty.
The island is actually quite well setup. From what we had read and been told by others that had been there we were expecting there to be virtually no facilities on the island and that it was only worth going for the snorkelling. Now while the only reason to go is for the snorkelling, the island itself is well setup and there are plenty of locals that come over for a day trip and bring eskys full of food and drink for a picnic. So let’s do a quick run down of the island facilities.
There are toilets on the island, they are composting drop toilets, but they are the cleanest, nicest smelling composting toilets you will ever encounter. They are nothing like the ones you find at rest stops on the side of the highway in Australia. There is a bar/cafe with a limited food selection and from what I could see quite a wide drink selection. There are lots of tables and chairs undercover at the bar/cafe. There are speakers and projectors so it looks like they can run parties and clubbing events on the island. There are stacks of deck chairs with umbrellas on the beach itself, but you do have to pay for these. There is mobile service on the island, if you have a local SIM card or are using roaming on your phone. Last but not least there is snorkel hire available if you didn’t bring your own. So while it’s not somewhere you can go and stay or expect to find all the facilities of Noumea, it certainly does have most things you need for a day trip to snorkel and see some absolutely stunning coral reefs and marine life.
The reef itself is accessible basically as soon as you hop in the water where you get off the water taxi. There are a series of buoys that lead out from the island with little signs on them telling you about that particular spot in the reef. Those signs are only in French though so you may have a little trouble reading them if you don’t know French. There is a map on the island that shows you the direction and recommended route to follow the buoys. I’d recommend doing this. We didn’t see the map until we got out of the water, and we actually missed a couple of buoys. As a result we accidentally swam over a section of the restricted reef area where you aren’t meant to swim. It is stunning, but it is actually nearly impossible to swim there because the reef is so big and comes right up near the surface of the water. If you are on the opposite side of the reef to the island like we were the water can get a bit choppy so it was definitely a concern that we were going to get pushed into coral or rocks. So just remember as tempting as it might be to swim into that section it is restricted for two reasons, your safety and the reef’s safety. It is well worth doing the buoy route though, you will see some amazing coral and fish, we even saw an eel and a jellyfish.
Of all the destinations we went to on this South Pacific cruise (Noumea, Isle of Pines, Mystery Island, Lautoka and Suva), the coral reef at Duck Island is in my opinion the most spectacular reef. The snorkelling was however some of the hardest because it gets very deep very fast and there is no where to really put your feet down if you are following the buoy track. So it is definitely going to be more challenging for young children and older or weak swimmers. You will still see fish and coral from close in to the beach where you can touch the ground and swim more easily. Even just making your way out to the first buoy will give you the opportunity to see some beautiful coral without the water getting too deep or choppy. I would not recommend going further than that though unless you are a confident swimmer and go in pairs if possible in case you do get into trouble. Most of the other destinations offered much easier snorkelling where you could still see a variety of coral and marine life.
Once we were done snorkelling and exploring the island we made our way back to the water taxi drop off / pick up point and caught it back to Anse Vata beach where we got dry (I wouldn’t worry too much about getting dry before taking the water taxi, it’s entirely possible you will end up wet again even just from wet people sitting on the seats before you). Then back in the car.
It was about 12:30 by this time and we had a big breakfast before getting off the ship so we decided there are so many things we wanted to see and not a lot of time (only really 2.5 more hours by the time we returned the car with enough time to get back to the ship). So we decided to spend the time driving around Noumea and seeing more of the city itself that is off the beaten track. It was quite interesting, I’ve heard many people complain that the city is a dirty city. I don’t think so, I think it is actually quite a beautiful city. It is worth remembering though that it is also a city in transition. Even though it is a French territory, it is not a developed country, it is a developing country. As a result there are parts of the city where you will find shantys, and parts of the city where there is rubbish lying around. The city itself has a lot of graffiti, but no more than what you would find in any Melbourne alleyway. It even has a McDonalds which we ultimately decided to stop at and get a snack to see what was on offer at a French McDonalds. And yes, in addition to XPF they also take AUD and USD. Unfortunately our order was slightly lost in translation and we got most of the food we ordered but different drinks. Nevertheless they were good!
Finally we filled the car up, or I should say we stopped a service station and a friendly attendant filled the car up for us. I then dropped our party back at the cruise terminal, returned the car and walked back myself. One important thing to note is that in New Caledonia you drive on the right-hand side of the road and the cars are left-hand drive, the same as in North America.
Now, I did try to line up picking up and dropping off the hire car at the terminal but unfortunately Avis did not have enough staff on to do that. So in hindsight, if I was hiring a car for the day again, I would ensure that I could pick it up and return it at the terminal. I discovered on my way to Avis that Thrifty actually have a location that is only about 100m from the terminal which would be a much better choice if Avis can’t or won’t do a terminal pick up/drop off.
In the future if I couldn’t line up something like that I’d just skip the car hire altogether and either do a cruise purchased shore excursion or do one of the ones you can purchase at the terminal. There are actually a couple of Tchou Tchou Train’s for example. The yellow one that you can purchase on board the ship and a white one that you can pay for at the terminal. There is also a hop-on hop-off bus route. While these things don’t cover some of the variety we got to see in the car, they do cover the key tourist destinations and will let you get moving a lot quicker than you can walking up to the Avis office. Just remember if it isn’t a ship purchased excursion you are still responsible to get back to the ship on time and your provider may not be conscious of that.
So that said, it was a great day and we really enjoyed it. We actually would love to come again and spend some more time there and see more of Noumea and of New Caledonia as well. The people are lovely, the beaches are beautiful, the country is gorgeous, and the temperatures seem to be pretty much perfect all year. It is well worth a visit!