Before leaving for the cruise I did some research into what sort of a tour we could do when in Noumea. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the choices offered by the cruise ship. There was one we would have liked to have done to Amedee Island where we could view the lighthouse and go snorkelling but the ship was charging US$195.00/person so as this was almost AUS$1,000 it was totally out of the question.
On Trip Advisor I noticed a lot of tourists were singing the praises of Alfred and Genevieve Nauka who run a business called GateAway Tours and Transfers. They offer to show you the ‘real’ Noumea and their prices are extremely reasonable.
Alfred is from Vanuatu and his wife is from Indonesia (but had been living in Noumea), and somehow they ended up meeting in Sydney. Alfred followed Genevieve back to Noumea where they married and are now raising two children and running their own business.
They had a tour to Escapade Island where you can snorkel and usually there are plenty of turtles in the water to swim with and apparently, the best snorkelling in Noumea is off Escapade Island. Including transfers and lunch, the price of this tour was AUS$100/person (approximately) or 8,000CFP and 5,000CFP for Alfie. A much better deal than what was being offered on the Oosterdam and apparently, a better island to visit.
However, when we met Alfred as we came off the ship, he sadly had to inform us that due to a pending cyclone both Escapade and Amedee Islands were being evacuated and no tour operator was allowed to take anyone to either island. And I was all dressed for a day of snorkelling with nothing on except a swimsuit and a throw-over.
Never mind! Alfred said that instead, he could take us on a tour of the city so we climbed into his mini-van along with all the others who had hoped to spend the day swimming with turtles.
As the mini-bus hurtled along Noumea’s main road I have to say, the sight of the city completely underwhelmed me. Maybe it was the cooler weather and the overcast skies but this city is in the South Pacific yet it doesn’t have the islander charm of the places we visited in Vanuatu, Fiji or even the smaller islands in New Caledonia.
Noumea appears to be very much a city with the very rich and the extremely poor all segregated into different areas, with the Kanuk’s (Indigenous people) squatting wherever they like, the wealthy living behind gated communities, the descendants of the French convicts having their own areas (after the French ceased convict operations they offered all remaining convicts either free passage back to France or vast tracks of land in Noumea. Those who opted to stay now have descendants who have become wealthy from the land) and then there are a lot of homeless. The population of the city is around 120,000 and Alfred said crime is quite a problem. Crime in the other South Pacific places we visited was not an issue at all.
The first place Alfred took us to was a small Kanuk village in the middle of the city that was established just a few years ago. It is the site where the Kanuks used to live but when the French arrived they removed them from the area. Around five years ago the Government allowed a small tribute to the Kanuks to be erected and one person lives there. It is a tourism site where there is no entry fee but donations are appreciated.
As we walked around this rather small tribute in the middle of the city that once belonged to the Kanuk people, we spotted a marijuana plant. Alfie asked Alfred if that was legal. ‘No, it’s not’, he casually said.
‘Oh’, we said.
‘But the police aren’t allowed to come in here. This is Kanuk land’, said Alfred.
The one person that lives there lives in a rather small thatched hut that didn’t look too sturdy. I did wonder how he might survive the coming cyclone.
Alfred then took us to the local market where we saw lots of arts and crafts with beautiful jewellery and lots of souvenirs. We wandered through to the fruit and vegetable market and bought the best pineapples I’ve ever eaten. The vendor cut them up for us and unlike the Australian pineapples that are large, green on the outside with bleached fruit on the inside, dry, lacking in any juice or flavour and full of acidity, these pineapples were small, golden, soft, sweet beyond belief with no acidity, so much juice it ran up our arms and the core was so soft you could eat that as well.
The pineapples weren’t cheap though however New Caledonia isn’t known for being an affordable country. We paid around AUS$12.00 for two very small pineapples.
We ran back to the bus and were taken to a few lookouts that gave us big views of the city but to me, Noumea just isn’t a pretty city and for anyone expecting a South-Pacific experience, this city doesn’t seem very South-Pacific at all. Rather than being a home of the South-Pacific people, this is very much a city (a small one) where the South-Pacific lifestyle has been eroded for more of a Western lifestyle that seems to have left the Kanuks scrambling for their place in the new Noumea. The residents speak French and English is not as widely spoken here as it is on the other islands.
The country survives on mining nickel and this is what keeps the economy going apart from the importance of tourism. I thought Australia would bring in the most tourists but our population can’t compete with the numbers in Japan and so with three direct flights from Japan every week, Japan bring the most tourists to Noumea.
Alfred then took us to a patisserie that is well known for having very good quality French bread and pastries. We had some baguettes that were so fresh and amazing and everyone said it was the best bread they had ever eaten and I would have loved an éclair but earlier in the day, thinking I was going snorkelling, I’d had too much breakfast. Carl managed to enjoy a ham and salad baguette for around AUS$8.00.
Alfred was very aware of prices and advised us to not buy drinks from one particular store but instead visit the super-marche where we would pay a lot less etc.
We then drove to a milk bar that is famous in Noumea for its milk shakes. The owner doesn’t speak any English so I couldn’t work out the story but he either owns a dairy farm and brings the milk directly to his shop or someone else owns the dairy and delivers the milk to his business. Either way, the milkshakes are the best you’ll ever taste.
No artificial syrups are used; instead, when you order your milkshake it has real fruit in it. We saw a farmer deliver his passionfruit straight from being picked off the vine to the shop. I can highly recommend a visit and my two favourite varieties were coconut and mango.
After the milkshakes, Alfred took us to the Church of the Miracles, a Catholic church built by French convicts in around 1870. Today the church is still in use and the priest lives in a house along with the headmaster of the school that’s beside the church, and there’s a nunnery where the very elderly nuns live. (For obvious reasons the nuns are elderly. Alfred told us that today the young French girls ‘worship’ at the ‘doof-doof clubs’).
He told us to go inside and get our miracle.
At the beginning of our tour we drove past Lemon Bay (or Baie des Citron) and it looked very lovely. The road runs along the length of the bay that’s very picturesque, sheltered and calm and across the road there are some very smart looking shops, cafes and restaurants. At the beach you can swim out to wooden pontoons then dive into the water. After our tour with Alfred he dropped us back to Lemon Bay where I was finally able to use that swimsuit I’d been wearing all day. The water is more refreshing than it was in Fiji. More like 25C rather than the 30C it seemed to be in Fiji. Alfie and I swam out to the pontoon and jumped off it a few times. He tried to make friends with the local kids in the water but while very friendly, they all said to him, ‘No English’.
Across the road we found Amorino Gelato Al Naturale that is an international business started by two childhood friends in Paris. Arabella said the store at Lemon Bay was run by ‘the best-looking man I’ve ever seen’. Sorry there isn’t an eye-candy image for you. You queue up and pay and then you order. It’s amazing gelato and he had some interesting flavours like frangipani but we went for fairly tame flavours like mango, coconut and raspberry.
If you are visiting Noumea and wanting to tour the Island, I would highly recommend contacting Alfred from GateAway Tours. He is reliable, affordable, honest, full of interesting facts, has a great sense of humour and never stops laughing.
It was disappointing to have to leave Noumea without visiting Escapade Island but I said to Alfred, ‘Next time you know we’re coming, go up to the Church of Miracles and pray there won’t be a cyclone’.
Something to see next time for sure.
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