There are no prizes for guessing why this tiny island in the pacific with a population of just 2000 is called, ‘Isle of Pines’.
The Island is part of French-speaking New Caledonia. From Noumea (capital), it’s a 20-minute flight or a three-hour ferry ride but most tourism arrives by cruise ship where the ships anchor off-shore and passengers are ferried across in tender boats.
The Island is an absolute unspoiled paradise however, its history is not quite that pleasant. In the 1860’s it served as the most infamous of the South Pacific’s penal colonies. Nearly 4,000 political prisoners from France were held under the most severe and brutal conditions. Most of the prisoners never committed a crime while other prisoners only committed a minor infraction.
The currency on the Island is Pacific Francs however they do take Australian dollars.
We could have booked a tour through the Oosterdam however I knew we were heading to a very small island so didn’t think a structured tour would be necessary and that turned out to be correct.
We arrived in the waters off the Isle of Pines early one morning. It was overcast which is fairly typical at this time of year however the weather improved significantly during the day until it was your typical day in paradise. As I viewed the Island from the balcony of our cabin, all I could see was a tropical paradise. It’s surrounded by turquoise waters that roll towards brilliantly-white sand then araucaria pines, from which the island derives its name, rise in clusters towards the sky. Man’s footprint on this island is insignificant as there are no visible structures like buildings, hotels or resorts.
A few days before Christmas a friend found out we would be visiting the Isle of Pines and she said, ‘You must absolutely go to ‘this place’. I can’t remember the name of it but you must go there’, and gave me some very vague directions of where we might find ‘the place’. ‘When you get off the ship just go up the beach until you see a man in a shed and he’ll take you’. However, when we came across on tender boats there was no beach to be seen and definitely no shed. That’s because there are two places where cruise ships anchor and our ship had anchored at Kuto Bay (Baie de Kuto) which is on the other side of the Island to Oro Bay.
Slightly confused, I found the tour guide from the ship standing in a sweat at the end of the jetty and asked him where the place is that has the best snorkelling. With a wave of his hand he pointed to a spot further up the beach and dismissed me. We hiked up there with our towels and sunscreen and snorkels and masks and flippers and reef shoes only to find that not only was it crowded with hundreds of others from the ship but that there was absolutely nothing of interest to see in the water at all. What the shore tour guide expected us to see remains a mystery.
I knew I couldn’t be in the spot my friend had told me about but had no idea of the name of the place we needed to find. Collecting up all our belongings we hiked back down the beach and I found a taxi driver who could tell me his name was ‘Willie’ but that was about the extent of his English. ‘Snorkel?’ I asked.
‘We go with you?’
‘Oui. Oro Bay’. It was that simple.
There is one road around the island and being a French island, the cars are lefthand drive and they drive on the other side of the road. We got into Willie’s people-mover that was air-conditioned and began driving around the island. It appears seat belts and speed limits are merely a suggestion. Along the way we passed cows, local villages, lots of mango trees laden with fruit and plenty of jungle.
Around 20-minutes later Willie dropped us off at a small clearing where there was what looked like a shack but it was a very casual restaurant jutting out over the water.
He pointed to where we needed to go saying, ‘Oro Bay’ and we understood we had to wade through the water and once on the other side we would have to walk for about 10 minutes before we arrived at Oro Bay. We sat down to put on our reef shoes but were careful not to sit under a coconut palm because many people have been killed by a falling coconut; it’s like being hit by a falling brick.
Shoes on, we waded into the warm blue water, lifted our bags over our heads and forged forward. (The depth of the water to take you to Oro Bay varies upon the tide).
The walk isn’t challenging but clearly you do get wet, however, in the heat of their sticky summer, a cool wade is very welcoming. It took about 20 minutes for us to arrive at Oro Bay and as soon as we set eyes on this incredible pool of blue water surrounded by the pine trees, we knew it was well worth the journey.
Oro Bay (Baie d’ Oro) is an absolute ‘must-see’ destination and I do hope you get to experience it just once in your lifetime. It would have to be one of the most beautiful and stunning natural sites I have ever seen in my life. It is surrounded by dense vegetation with much of it being the Island’s incredible pine trees, the sand is the whitest I have ever seen and the water the most serene shade of turquoise.
We dumped our belongings and grabbed our flippers, snorkels and masks. If you don’t have your own (or you forget to pack them!) you can hire them. Don’t hire them from the first place you see when you get off the jetty at Kuto Bay as they were charging AUS$20.00 per snorkel and mask and extra for flippers. About 50 metres further along the track there is a shop that hires out snorkelling equipment for AUS$15.00 and the gear looks better quality.
The water at Oro Bay is the clearest I had ever snorkelled in. It is like looking through the cleanest fish tank. You can definitely see from the surface all the way to the white sandy bottom.
However, if you have been snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, you will not find the coral to be as vibrant or as interesting. What we did see was gorgeous but not stunning. We saw plenty of ‘Nemo’ fish and zebra fish and other fish of many different kinds and in terms of coral we saw clams in a range of colours and many other beautiful types of coral.
We snorkelled for a couple of hours, did some sun-bathing, wandered around the edges of the bay seeing locals making baskets and others cooking food over an open-fire. It’s a very special place. Then it was time to put on the reef shoes and head back to where Willie was waiting for us. He then drove us around the island showing us some of the sites.
Once back at Kuto Bay, we paid Willie AUS$100.00 for a couple of hours of his time. We bought a late lunch from some of the local stalls then had another swim in turquoise waters before heading back to the ship.
Isle of Pines, I will miss you! And I hope to be back before too long.
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