Perhaps Captain Cook was on drugs. Coasting about the Pacific Ocean one day, he spotted a tropical island. Cook looked past the white beaches and palm trees to the spine of hills beyond, which apparently reminded him of the Scottish highlands, which the Romans had called Caledonia. He scribbled down a name - New Caledonia - and headed off to bother other tribes. He would go on to discover what is now Hawaii, which he would name the Sandwich Islands after the ageing fourth Earl of Sandwich.
New Caledonia wasn't among Cook's biggest finds. Few, bar whale hunters and sandalwood traders, took much notice of the place for the next 70 years, apart from the requisite missionaries who travelled the world promising to save everyone from everything - except missionaries. They had some success in New Caledonia, converting tribes that went to war and feasted on the hearts and brains of the vanquished. Yet until the 40s at least, when American servicemen descended, New Caledonia was overlooked in the regional scope of scrutiny. Perhaps, in some ways, it still is.
Few Australians seem to know where New Caledonia is. Touted as a trip to France without the deep-vein thrombosis, it's a two-and-a-half hour flight north-east of Sydney. West of Fiji, and often confused with Vanuatu, the 230,000 inhabitants enjoy standards of living not shared by their neighbours. Although New Caledonia was discovered by Cook, the French took possession in 1853. Soon, French convicts started turning up, the beginnings of a trickle that now features more chefs and fewer political enemies.
The capital Nouméa once attracted some Australians with a Club Med, which is now being gutted. Cranes dot the skyline. The waters are lined with windsurfers as well as sailboarders, who lift off for seconds at a time under the billow of bright cloth. Reggae music blares at beach volleyball games, snorkellers paddle nearby and children lark. The sea forms part of the biggest lagoon in the world, a sanctuary for whales, dolphins and the clown and parrot fish darting among the coral. Enough shades of blue glisten to befuddle those who coin silly names for shades of paint.
Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road: unlike in France, they tend to use indicators and not flash by in a metallic blur. The Tjibaou Cultural Centre displays relics of a tribal age: tall huts that beckon like an arsonist's dream, totem poles reaching five or six metres and tribal headwear more bulbous than Michael Jackson's afro back when he looked human. The centre, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, stands like unfinished alien pods. On the rise above looms Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a political leader assassinated in 1989. His benevolent pose seems to suggest spiritual guidance; his proportions suggest his head was way too big for his body.
This mix of old and New Caledonian offers an unusual blend of colour and melody. At the Nouméa market, where bananas cost far less than in Australia, coffee is served in bowls almost big enough to paddle in. A Melanesian dancer readying to perform is daubed in tribal make-up; dressed in grass leggings and skirt, he sports a suit jacket to keep warm, eye glasses and a cigarette. Like everyone else, he speaks French.
Rows of fine wine cost up to $1700 a bottle at Comtesse du Barry in downtown Nouméa. Truffles can be bought for about $75 for 15gm. French chefs bark at underlings, besot diners with servings of beef and lobster and smile grimly as they stand over your shoulder waiting for the compliments they know they deserve. When you've had enough, they present more. Then they present desserts in combinations
of sweet and savoury that defy the descriptions of a writer who cannot pronounce 'degustation' with the required twist. It's rich food that tastes better when someone else is paying for it. The chefs also serve duck - lots of duck - yet none, thankfully, think to impress with the local delicacy of fruit bat.
Nouméa has its sunny charms, such as the bright dresses that shout happiness worn by many Melanesian women. Those of French origins dress with a flair better associated with the narrow streets bordering the Champs Elysées. Yet many tourists pass through this apparently cheery melting pot of Peugeots and pirogues (traditional boats) without a thought. New Caledonia is littered with resorts, ranging from backpacker digs to five-star luxury. In the Loyalty Islands to the east, development has been so restricted that traditional huts are often the only available accommodation. Surfing camps are offered as well as trips into the mainland interior, where cattlemen could pass for Queensland station owners - until they open their mouths.
New Caledonia would appeal most to those with spare cash to spend. At the higher end, it impresses as a retreat for couples either newly together or seeking to make up for lost time. Cheaper destinations abound, but the overwhelming French influences offer Old-World sensibilities sans European haughtiness. Notions of deserted beaches and postcard sunsets are a heavenly reality, and not all at ungodly prices. Packages are more accessible than in the past, but New Caledonia is unlikely to be flooded by budget travellers any time soon. Some might see this as a plus.
One of many obvious destinations is the Coral Palms Island Resort, about a 20-minute boat-ride from Nouméa. Here, bungalows appear to float on the water, steps leading from each balcony to the lapping water, where two dugongs are said to sleep. From each balcony Nouméa can be seen shadowed by hills, engulfed in clouds shaded like bruises. The remote controls in each room hint of technology more advanced than a space shuttle launch.
Birds sing and a variety of ducks pine after dark like squawking babies. Walkway lightbulbs play ribbons of light on the water. The resort chef contrives to blend asparagus and caviar in a shot glass, and crab and almonds wrapped in spinach. Eight courses later, his boss compels you to sip pricey cognac with a coffee. You go to bed feeling, well, heavy. This happens all over again the next night, with a degustation dinner on a secluded beach on the Isle of Pines (Ile des Pins).
Nowhere is the juxtaposition of tribes and Catholicism, French and Melanesian, more pronounced than the Isle of Pines, a 25-minute flight south of Nouméa. A cemetery full of crosses adorned with shell necklaces, a traditional hut with a satellite dish, a Jesus statue surrounded by tribal ones - many with their tongues poking out. The breeze roars through the pine trees, which shudder thin and tall like the broken teeth of a comb. Bougainvillea spill bright colours everywhere.
At a natural pool bordered by limestone rocks, schools of curious fish float towards your shins, as though looking for a friendly nibble. There are lobster lunches on white beaches marked only by your footprints. And there's a pleasing sense that the bustles of Sydney and Melbourne inhabit another state of being.
Hilary Roots, a former ABC journalist, came to the Isle of Pines for a five-day holiday in 1975 and never went home. You stumble across her by accident at her Creations Ile des Pins boutique. She seems more to offer impromptu tours of her beloved island. A blend of Australian attitudes, French mores and the occasional Kiwi vowel, she throws you in the back of her battered Renault van and jolts you around the island roads, which feature a grazing cow here and there and far more speed humps than cars. Roots talks you through the remains of a convict settlement, where ferns sprout from crumbling walls and papaya trees poke through where the roof long ago collapsed.
Paradise was a bitch for the few thousand political prisoners deported from Paris in 1871. It's the stuff of a mini-series, yet their sorry fate is hardly commemorated. Suicides and despair were common - for many, their crime was to steal to feed their starving families. An escape attempt left 20 dead when their improvised boat sank. The prisoners couldn't leave soon enough - some flourished in Australia.
More recent arrivals are less likely to reject their surrounds. Only two big resorts have been permitted to build on the Isle of Pines and they both blend in. Le Méridien and Oure Lodge feature hut-style accommodation that runs to the beach. Ruled by a traditional council, the island is unspoilt by jet skis or helicopters. "Tell people about it," Roots urges. "When I tell people I live in New Caledonia, they think I'm very strange."
Perhaps the finest style of travel here harks back to Cook's day, perhaps even further to the tribesmen who bobbled across uncharted seas in pirogues. The number of tall masts in the Noumea marina attest to the claim that New Caledonia has the highest rate of boat ownership in the world. Paying customers can enjoy a few more luxuries than those of Cook's day. For one, Gilles, the captain of the luxury catamaran Tere, won't force you to eat onions and cabbage every day. The only privation is the need to pump the toilet after use.
Gilles wants to sail to Australia one day, a popular route. He and his mate Dominique are there so that you and the other passengers do pretty much nothing, except lounge on the netting at the boat's bow, gaze at the mainsail catching the breeze above and fail as a lookout for dolphins and turtles. You can overindulge on the tuna sashimi lunch, a fish the pair bagged the day before, or nibble on the chicken and beef cold-cuts. Gilles and Dominique are imperturbable - it seems they have been asked every stupid question before.
Pulling into the bay at Oure Lodge the night before, the only reference point in the inky dark was the light atop the 17m mast. A glass of Champagne was had before the rubber ducky journey to shore for a beach dinner with Jean-Francois Debon, the manager of Oure Lodge. Debon, who said the island was free of feral animals, argued that this was the most beautiful of all settings he has worked at. Arising on-board the next morning (having dreamt of enclosed places) suggests that Debon was not spinning a line.
The palms and pines on shore sway. Coconuts nestle like pea pods above, and you wonder whether there is a name for a fear of coconuts clonking you from a great height. This sight is the defining allure of the Isle of Pines. This inlet is one of dozens to be discovered. Gilles and Dominique raise the anchor, wind winches and politely suggest you avoid a far more likely calamity than coconutclonking, and get out of the way before they swing the boom.
You head to Brush Island, anchoring about 200m from shore. The coral growths rise dark among the blues. With flippers and snorkels you paddle about in waters unusually clouded despite their translucence. Yet some sights cannot be mistaken, such as the slow loop of black and white stripes ahead. Sea snakes are among the most poisonous serpents in the world: the upsides are that they are very placid and possess mouths too small to penetrate the skin, unless they strike between the fingers or the tips of the ear. The statistical likelihood of fatality is very low.
The beach is almost deserted, apart from two Japanese tourists who wear life jackets and frolic in 15cm of water. The five or six catamarans anchored off shore for the day are the only marks of civilisation. You half expect Gilligan to emerge from the palms. Or, better yet, Mary Ann. Gilles ferries cameras, sunscreen and cigarettes from the catamaran to shore, forever gracious no matter how frivolous the request.
Catamarans in New Caledonia can be hired without a crew. Yet after several days of pampering, the inclination to do anything for yourself wanes. You are one of many thousands to visit these parts since Captain Cook popped in more than 230 years ago, but the unspoiled nature of the sights inspires a grandiose sense of exploration. You can dabble in these waters for more than a week, visiting bays and beaches where time does not matter. You can sit on deck each night and ask Gilles if there is any more beer, knowing that there will be. Cook may have been first, but he was slumming it.