Have you ever realised New Caledonia is Australia’s closest neighbour on the East Coast? After a two-hour flight from Brisbane, you can land close to Paradise in Noumea, the capital of the World’s largest lagoon. But don’t stop there. New Caledonia has more to offer than Noumea. I’ve travelled a few times to this jewel and put together this resource to help you plan your trip to New Caledonia: things to do, tips and itinerary ideas.
Each time we travel to New Caledonia, we are blown away by the beauty of the landscape. We are also touched by great human encounters and the kindness of the local people we meet. But it’s never an easy trip: there are many things to do in New Caledonia, and travel planning is often challenging.
Planning a trip to New Caledonia? Read these travel tips that will make your holidays easier (and cheaper) and make sure you pack all the essential items by checking this packing list for New Caledonia.
New Caledonia #1 thing to do: choose which island(s) to visit
The first step to finding things to do in New Caledonia is to answer this question: how many islands do you plan to visit?
New Caledonia is an archipelago made of five main islands (and many other tiny small ones). They all provide a different experience and deciding which one you’ll visit will totally shape your itinerary in New Caledonia.
I’m sure you’ll want to see them all, but you probably won’t have time for that. Life in New Caledonia goes slowly, and I highly recommend travelling this way. Things can be really stressful if you’re on a tight schedule in New Caledonia. Take your time to visit the islands and absorb the relaxed atmosphere. It’s a waste to rush your visit.
Island hopping in New Caledonia is made easy with excellent internal connections by plane several times a day that will also offer some of the most scenic flights you’ll ever get. Although New Caledonians are getting better at organisation every time we visit, you still need to allow time to travel between the islands in case something goes wrong.
Here’s a list of New Caledonia islands with a brief description of how I see them from a traveller’s point of view and the time I recommend spending there.
Warning! My suggestions of things to do in New Caledonia include a few adventurous activities. Double-check that they are covered by your travel insurance to avoid bad surprises if an incident happens. If you don’t have travel insurance yet, read this!
Grande Terre, the biggest island in New Caledonia
If you fly to New Caledonia, that’s where you’ll land. The capital of New Caledonia, Noumea, is located southwest of the Grande Terre.
Grande Terre means “Large Land” in French, and it’s a fitting description for New Caledonia’s main island as it represents 88% of the total size of New Caledonia. It’s 400 kilometers long and only a maximum of 64 km wide. Don’t expect to get around it quickly: it’s divided by mountains from north to south. These mountains aren’t only scenic; they also create a different climate: the west coast is more protected from the wind and drier than the east coast.
Although I don’t recommend spending a lot of time in Noumea, the rest of the Grande Terre is interesting to explore. I found it very different from the other islands in New Caledonia, both in terms of landscapes and culture. The more north and east you go, the more natural and tribal it gets. We travelled twice up to the Ouaieme River just after Hienghene.
If you want to explore the Grande Terre, I recommend staying at least six days. And you will only have a peek at what the Grande Terre can offer. On our third trip to New Caledonia, we only stayed on the Grande Terre for a week and still wished we had more time.
Driving in New Caledonia is very scenic. However, the roads are winding on the main island and driving times are usually longer than you expect. Here’s an overview of the different places we visited on the Grande Terre:
- Bourail (north of Noumea, on the west coast): we stopped at the Roche Percee beach (meaning pierced rock) to admire Le Bonhomme, a rock with the shape of a man at the end of the beach. We stayed at Le Betikure Park Lodge*, a small resort surrounded by nature with very comfortable rooms perfect for relaxing (read my review here).
- Hienghene (northeast of the Grande Terre): we only spent one night there on our first trip and went back for longer because there are a lot of things to do in Hienghene, including scuba diving some reputed sites. We stayed in a room with sea views at the Hotel Koulnoue Village*.
- Poindimie (south of Hienghene): we mainly went there for scuba diving. We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Tieti* in a stunning bungalow on the beach (read my review here). During our first visit in 2016, we also spent a night at a small lodge Les ignames de Nevaho (meanings yams of Nevaho) to see a different facet of the east coast.
- Parc des Grandes Fougeres – meaning The Tall Fern Park (in the middle of the Grande Terre): we stopped for a walk in this beautiful forest in the heart of the island and were lucky to see a few cagous, a bird species that is unfortunately endangered and rare. We slept at a small farm and it was interesting to learn about a different lifestyle in New Caledonia that’s not linked to the beach.
- Yate and Riviere Bleue – meaning Blue River (south of Noumea): we visited the most southern part of the Grande Terre as a day trip from Noumea. It’s shaped by the mines and the red ground and the dam looked very different from the other places we visited in the archipelago.
Lifou, the biggest of the Loyalty Islands
Lifou (called Drehu in the local language) is the second biggest island in New Caledonia… but it’s 14 times smaller than the Grande Terre.
However, it’s the biggest island of the Loyalty Islands, a group of three islands located in the east of the New Caledonia archipelago. There are many things to do in Lifou. We stayed for three days on Lifou, and it was just enough to experience the beauty of the north of the island.
I particularly loved having the opportunity to share quality time for two days with a tribe in a very remote and natural place. It’s also where I found the best snorkelling spot ever on a coral reef (Jinek). Click here to learn more about Lifou
Mare, the wild and authentic island
Mare (Nengone in the local language) is another of the Loyalty Island. It’s nearly half the size of Lifou. It’s very easy to get around and three full days should be enough to visit most of the island.
When there is no cruise boat, there aren’t many tourists around Mare. The coast is splendid, and I appreciated the authenticity of the places we visited. The locals were super welcoming, and the island still looks pristine. It’s a perk, but some activities (especially hiking) can be a bit rough for those who aren’t adventurers.
We found there the most beautiful accommodation in New Caledonia.
Ouvea, the Paradise
Ouvea (Iaal or Uvea in local languages) is the smallest main island of New Caledonia. It’s only 122-kilometre square metres. But it’s very long, so it actually takes a bit of time to explore.
It’s known to be one of the most beautiful atolls in the Pacific. It truly is an exceptional place where I recommend staying for at least three days.
The north of Ouvea is more authentic than the south of the island, where you’ll see more tourist accommodations than villages. Both are worth exploring. The northeast tip is totally different from the long and never-ending beach on the west. There are boats to take you to the smaller islands on both tips, and many amazing places all around the island. Click here to learn more about Ouvea
The Isle of Pines, the most touristy island
The Isle of Pines is almost as small as Ouvea. It’s not part of the Loyalty Islands: it is located in the south of the Grande Terre.
It’s the most touristy island in New Caledonia. But don’t judge it too quickly based on this. They have managed to keep the tourist development rather small. When there is no cruise boat around, it’s a fantastic place to visit and there are sites like Upi Bay that you really don’t want to miss.
I recommend staying on the Isle of Pines for about three days unless you are a scuba diver, which would double the area you can explore there! Click here to read more about the Isle of Pines
The best activities in New Caledonia
New Caledonia is a great place to enjoy outdoor activities or simply relax on the beach. We always prefer active holidays and welcome the opportunity to learn more about the local culture. Our favourite things to do in New Caledonia include:
- Cruising to small islets,
- Scuba diving,
- Visiting local tribes,
- Visiting cultural centres,
- Tasting local food.
New Caledonia itinerary suggestions
Things to do in New Caledonia in two weeks
- 2 days in Noumea (arrival and departure!)
- 3 days on Lifou or Mare
- 3 days on Ouvea
- 3-day road trip to the North of the South Province (Bourail, Parc des Grandes Fougeres, La Foa) + a detour to the North Province (Hienghene, Poindimie)
- 3 days on the Isle of Pines
Things to do in New Caledonia in one week
- 2 days in Noumea (arrival and departure!)
- 3 days on the Isle of Pines
- 3 days on one of the Loyalty Islands (Lifou or Ouvea or Mare)
Things to do in New Caledonia in one week (Saturday to Sunday) – Grande Terre only
- 2 days in Noumea (arrival, departure and Amedee Island)
- 1 night in Bourail
- 3 nights in Hienghene
- 1 night in the centre (near Parc des Grandes Fougeres)
Important things to know before travelling to New Caledonia
People in New Caledonia speak French (and their own local language).
They actually have 28 local languages in the archipelago. Those working in the tourism industry may speak English, but it’s still rare especially when you go to the Loyalty Islands or out of Noumea on the Grande Terre. The Isle of Pines is more touristy, so you’ll find more people who can speak English. If you can learn a bit of French before going so you can interact with the locals, you’ll have a better trip!
New Caledonia is part of France.
This means you’ll have excellent facilities, especially on the Grande Terre. It can be reassuring when you’re on an adventure in South Pacific Islands. You may also appreciate the French touch at some of the restaurants or in the products available at the supermarket (and at the bottle shop).
But you’ll also find a very different culture with the Kanaks tribes, which you can particularly experience on the Loyalty Islands and in the North Province. It’s a fantastic destination to travel to, as it gives you the comfort of modern infrastructures with the exotism of the Pacific culture.
Cruise to New Caledonia
Many people travel to New Caledonia from Australia as part of a cruise around the Pacific Islands. I know it’s a cheap way of travelling, but it will not give you the best experience of New Caledonia at all. I highly recommend spending more time than just one day on each island and avoiding being there with hundreds of people.
Level of service in New Caledonia
If you want to enjoy your trip fully, try to stay flexible and lower your expectations in terms of hospitality service. I met many people who complained about restaurants and accommodations in New Caledonia. It’s true that hotels, restaurants and tours do not always provide the level of service you can expect for the price you pay. If you want the basic services you get at resorts in other tourist destinations, you’ll have to book the most expensive places in New Caledonia. And even expensive places – especially in Noumea – sometimes need some renovation work!
Now, you know. Don’t let this impact your holidays in this wonderful place (and read these tips before booking your accommodations in New Caledonia).
You’ll need a local guide to take you to many of the best natural places.
Sometimes, the guide is just someone shy who will show you the way (especially if you don’t speak French), and some other times you’ll have someone willing to share all his knowledge about his land. It can feel expensive to always have to pay to access natural places and I’ve met people who found that frustrating. I personally think it’s a good way to manage these natural places. Keep in mind that you’re on land owned by the tribe and that’s how they make money rather than allowing the development of constructions that would change the pristine landscape you’re visiting. It’s also a way to control the number of visitors and limit them to specific times.
Some natural places are “taboo”, which means you are not allowed to go there.
Or sometimes you can go there, but you’re not allowed to swim. Most of the time, I found that it’s to protect a fragile area or an area with high cultural meanings for the Kanaks. Taboo places aren’t often indicated so try to research a place before your visit. Guidebooks mention taboo places, for example.