New Caledonia

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Introduction to New Caledonia

Options for travellers in New Caledonia are vast, from diving in pristine reefs to dining out à la français, from trekking in unspoilt rainforest to partying the night away at Club Med. With a nod to local custom and an open mind, a trip to New Caledonia will be unforgettable.

Clans and café au laît, blackbirding and barrier reefs, Melanesian massacres and menus du jour - New Caledonia well exemplifies the expression that one person's bread is another's pain. France has its toes in hard, and has sent in the marines more than once to keep the colonials down on the farm.

The people of New Caledonia - the Caldoches, Métros and Kanaks - staggered out of the troubles when New Caledonia was contender for the 'basket case of the Pacific' prize. They are now barrelling down the future with, if not optimism, at least a hope of putting an end to the senseless rounds of violence of the 1980s.

Full country name: New Caledonia and Dependencies

Area: 19,000 sq km

Population: 222,000

Capital City: Noumea

People: Melanesian (44.1%), European (31.4%), Pacific Islanders & Indonesians

Language: French

Religion: Roman Catholic (70%), Protestant (16%), indigenous beliefs, Muslim

Government: French Overseas Territory, governed by France

Head of State: President Jacques Chirac

Head of Government: President of the Government Marie-Noëlle Themereau

GDP: US$300 million

GDP per capita: US$14,800

Inflation: 1.7%

Major Industries: Nickel mining, agriculture.

Major Trading Partners: Australia, New Zealand

Member of EU: Yes

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Only citizens of the European Union, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the USA can enter without a visa, and can stay for between 30 and 90 days (Japanese and US citizens can only stay for one month). Everyone else needs to apply for a visa at a French embassy or consulate before they arrive.

Health risks: dengue fever

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +11

Dialling Code: 687

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The most important Kanak festival, the Festival of the Yam is held in mid-March, although it is not generally open to tourists. Like the French everywhere, New Caledonians celebrate Bastille Day on 14 July. Families and children carrying lanterns gather at dusk on the night before and walk through the streets to Place des Cocotiers, then they let loose a display of fireworks. On the day they hold a military parade in the morning. Mid to late May is the busiest time for festivals, with the Avocado Festival at Nece; Maré to celebrate the harvest; La Regate des Touques in Noumea, when people race in decorative floats along Anse Vata; and Pacific Tempo, a three-day music festival in Noumea with performers from all over the Pacific.

The Foire de Bourail is a huge country fair with a rodeo, cattle show, horse racing and a beauty pageant in late August or early September. New Caledonia Day on 24 September commemorates Admiral Auguste Febvrier Despointes' claim to New Caledonia for France in 1853; whites have a day off work while the Kanaks consider it a day of mourning. The Équinoxe is a biennial festival of contemporary theatre, dance and music in Noumea in October, and later that month or in early November a popular Sound and Light Show is staged at Fort Tremba, La Foa.

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Best time to Visit

Go whenever you can seize the chance. If you're nervous about cyclones or mosquitoes you might consider staying home between November and April, or you may want to plan your trip around one or two festivals, such as the Avocado Festival in mid to late May, the three-day Foire de Bourail from late August to early September, or the Équinoxe in October. If you're a diver, don't miss the riot of colour that accompanies the coral spawning in early summer.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Cour de Franc Pacifique

Meals

Budget: CFPF500-1500

Mid-range: CFPF1500-2000

High: CFPF2000-2500

Deluxe: CFPF2500+

Lodging

Budget: CFPF1000-2400

Mid-range: CFPF2400-5000

High: CFPF5000-6500

Deluxe: CFPF6500+

New Caledonia is not for skinflints, and in the Pacific only French Polynesia costs more. Most food has to be imported and is consequently pricey, and even locally produced food is on a par with imports. You could scrape by on US$20 a day on Noumea if you stay in the HI Hostel, eat bread, cheese and fruit from the markets and do little more than hitch to the beach every day. But if you stay in a budget hotel, eat a few meals in snack bars and take in some sights the argent starts burning a hole in your poche, and you'll easily be shelling out US$70 a day. And of course if you dine out every night, stay in the swishest hotels and don't mind what you spend on tours, you'll quickly shell out US$200 or more.

All banks charge a US$5 commission on cash (except for euros) or travellers cheque transactions. Only the American Express office in Noumea doesn't levy this fee. ATMs are located mostly in Noumea; they accept MasterCard, Visa, Eurocard and Carte Bleue, and the max you can withdraw in any week is US$350. The duty free shops, airline offices, hotels and restaurants in Noumea accept major credit cards, but you'll only be able to use them at major hotels outside the capital.

Tipping is refreshingly absent. According to Melanesian custom a tip is seen as a gift and imposes an obligation on the receiver to return the favour, although in the European-run restaurants if you round up the bill or leave the change it's unlikely that they'll throw the money back in your face. Neither will you have much scope for bargaining in the local markets: if a price is asked that's what the seller wants for it, and it would be ill-mannered to bargain for anything lower.

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Attractions

Nouméa

Since the bombs and riots of the 1980s, Noumea has begun a swag of new developments unparalleled since the heady days of the nickel boom. Political rallies today are more likely to be protesting forced redundancies and cuts to services than demanding an end to French rule.

From Anse Vata in the south, Noumea's most prestigious beach, to the northern suburbs of Koutiou and Yahoue, the town measures little more than 15km (9.3mi). The city centre spreads along Baie de la Moselle to the west, a fine harbour with cruise liners, fishing boats and a fleet of private yachts.

Bourail

With a population of only 4350, Bourail is a lively colonial-era settlement and New Caledonia's second largest town. And don't worry - it does get a little more lively than the Arab Cemetery and New Zealand Pacific War Cemetery. Huntin' and fishin' are the main pastimes among the local Caldoche community, and an unusual rock formation, La Roche Percée, is the most famous landmark in the area. Locals say it's shaped like a face (if you've had a few drinks or are blessed with a good imagination), and you can clamber all over it at low tide. Early risers can see the turtles nearby at Baie des Tortues. The best beach in the area is the Plage de Poé, with fine, white sand, colourful shells and good snorkelling.

Hienghène

Hienghène has two main drawcards: it's the site of the massacre of 10 indépendantistes in 1984 and also the Lindéralique Cliffs - dramatic, black limestone cliffs, rising in some places to 60m (197ft) above the sea, topped by razor-sharp pinnacles, and dotted with caves inhabited by flying foxes.

A Club Med south of Hienghène offers luxury accommodation and a cutesy imitation Melanesian village. The Goa Ma Bwarhat Cultural Centre contains a small museum and a performance room, where there are occasional theatrical, musical and legend-telling performances. You can hike the Chemin des Arabes across Grande Terre's central mountains to the west coast, a trip of three days with water en route. Hienghène is on the northeast coast of Grande Terre, via a paved road that crosses the mountains and then hugs the coast through a spectacular coastal landscape.

Parc Territorial de la Rivière Bleue

Although many Noumeans escape to this park during holidays and weekends, if you manage to get there during the week you could have it all to yourself. A great place for nature lovers and hikers, the park has virgin forests of araucaria and kauri pine (including the giant Grand Kaori, estimated to be around 1000 years old), swimming holes and abundant walking tracks. The park's rich bird life includes the red-crowned parakeet, the black honeyeater and the cagou, New Caledonia's national bird. The Blue River Park is 43km (27mi) inland from Noumea along the paved RT2.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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