Lifou is the largest of the four Loyalty Islands that form part of New Caledonia, a French-speaking country in the South Pacific. British sea-faring merchants named the four islands the ‘Loyalty Islands’ because of the remarkably friendly indigenous people and nothing’s changed; they still are extremely welcoming and friendly.
The official language is French with many locals also speaking their native language plus some passable English. The population on the island is 9000. The currency is French Pacific Francs (XPF). Our ship, the MS Oosterdam anchored off the Bay of Santal and we were taken across to the island on tender boats (the ship’s life boats). The dropping off point is fairly underwhelming and rustic and you do wonder what it is you’ve come to see. When the cruise ships come in the locals set up stalls along the water’s edge so effectively, you arrive in the middle of a market. It’s obvious as you look around you that things are very basic and that the people live very simply. Despite Pacific Francs being the official currency, Aussie dollars are readily accepted. There was a stall where you could have your passport stamped for $2.00 and so we queued up to have the official stamp printed on one of our pages. Cans of soft drink were selling for AUS$3.00 or you could have your hair braided for AUS$20.00 or have a 20-minute massage for AUS$20.00. There are prices in XPF and if you pay in their currency you get a much better deal. Miss Arabella had a few braids put in her hair for $10.00.
We had very little idea of what was on offer in Lifou and so we found our way to the tour centre, (a desk and chair set up on the dirt under a temporary rain-cover) which is run by locals and the Islander in charge has excellent English. We told him we wanted to go snorkelling however, as he didn’t have a snorkel tour on offer, he advised us to go on a two-hour tour that included a tour of the town of Easu (the capital of the Island) and then be taken to the Bay of Chateaubriand (Baie de Chateaubriand) for a swim at the beach. It was difficult to tell if he was giving us what we wanted or only offering us what he could sell us and the latter turned out to be the case. So don’t treat this tour centre as an information centre; they are just there to sell you a tour.
We paid the man AUS$105.00 ($30/adult, $15/child) and were ushered into a people-mover with a handful of others, that fortunately was air-conditioned as it was a 35C day and we were by now, definitely feeling the heat.
The cars are left-hand drive and they drive on the right-hand side of the road however that seems to serve as a guide only as the road rules seem fairly flexible and sticking to your side of the road appears only to apply if you’re passing on-coming traffic.
Louie was our driver and he is a retired childcare worker who now helps out with tours when the ships come into port. At the moment there are around 100 cruise ships that visit per year and much of the economy of the island depends on this tourism.
Louie took us to a local supermarket where we practiced our hopeless French and bought a few things including soft drinks and the local beer called Number One. Carl says it’s excellent beer unlike the Budweiser they were selling on the ship. It was interesting to see that many of the supermarket shelves were bare which is not what we see in Sydney but I guess being on a fairly remote island in an isolated part of the Pacific, supplies aren’t easy to come by.
Louie then took us to the Bay of Chateaubriand. The beach was ouchy as it is covered in volcanic pumice stones and therefore quite painful underfoot. However, if you make it down to the turquoise water you will find that the sand is so very fine it feels like velvet under your feet. The water is also crystal clear and of a temperature where you can stay in all day and not be cold. It was a wonderful place to relax.
Some time later Louie arrived to pick us up and took us back to Easo, where we arrived when we came off the tender boat. After we said goodbye to Louie we started chatting to another tourist who told us about a place, just a 10-minute walk away, where we could snorkel amongst the coral reef. That was what we had come to Lifou to experience and what I had asked the guy about at the tour centre but as he wasn’t selling tours to the reef, he didn’t tell me about it.
I don’t know what this place if called. It didn’t seem to be on any map. But if you arrive by ship at the Bay of Santal, you walk up to the top of the road then turn left. You walk for about five minutes then there’s a fork in the road and you take the right-hand fork. One or two minutes later you will be at the place where locals charge you to have a swim. It’s AUS$15.00/adult, children are free but you’ll pay less if you use Pacific Francs. Snorkeling equipment is also available and as we have some of our own we only needed to hire two masks and three snorkels and that cost AUS$20.00 or XPF2000 and I paid in XPF which is definitely the cheaper price.
There’s no beach as the water comes right up to the sea wall so you walk down a few steps and then you’re in waist-deep water. The water is beautifully warm and there’s no need for a wet-suit. You’re told not to apply sunscreen as that can be damaging for the coral so while I’m pleased I haven’t affected the coral, I’m sporting two sunburnt shoulders.
The coral would have to be the most spectacular I have ever seen. It is there in abundance and looks alive and well. It’s there in every colour of the rainbow with purples and blues being very dominant. With the coral comes fish and the fish are there in many sizes and shapes and colours. It was amazing and very special and we spent over an hour in the water.
Despite feeling the guy in the tourism centre didn’t do the best thing by us, I would still recommend the two-hour tour so you can see parts of the island and experience the way the locals live and take a swim in one of their stunning beaches where you may just see a turtle (we saw some from land but none when we were in the water). I would also definitely recommend taking the route that we took to snorkel amongst the coral, just a 10-minute walk from the Bay of Santal. You definitely won’t be disappointed.
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