New Caledonia’s beauty made me forget it all, but I have to be honest: organising a trip to this tropical destination was a lot harder than I expected. Here are some New Caledonia travel tips that will save you from any headaches and frustrating moments! If you’re looking for some shopping tips in New Caledonia, check out this article.
If you’ve been to this island paradise, please share your tips in the comments!
New Caledonia travel tips: Things to know before you go
1. Don’t go to New Caledonia on a big cruise boat
That’s a very personal opinion, of course, but I think visiting New Caledonia via a big cruise boat is a waste. I’ve explained it all in this article. But to sum it all up: with hundreds of people crowding the popular spots, you won’t get the chance to immerse yourself in the local culture and have even a glimpse of an authentic, peaceful experience.
Related article: Big Cruise to New Caledonia? Not for me!
2. Use your phone to book New Caledonia accommodations and tours
If you choose not to stay at a hotel, booking tours and accommodations in New Caledonia can be a bit of a hassle, especially if you don’t speak French. You may struggle to find current information and book online. You will often need a week or so and a couple of follow-ups to receive a reply to some of your emails… when you do receive a response. It’s part of the laid-back island life!
If you speak French, don’t hesitate to call. That’s how the smaller businesses work on the islands. If you don’t speak French, I highly recommend tip #6.
3. Stay flexible when you travel around New Caledonia
Don’t plan too much. Flexibility will save you a lot of trouble during a trip to New Caledonia. It’s not surprising to have your domestic flight time changed only a couple of days before flying. Most of the time, it is due to the weather. From our experience, it was a technical issue. It’s a good idea to purchase travel insurance*.
Avoid planning activities on the days when you have to travel from one place to another.
4. Remember Noumea has two airports!
Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, has two airports, and you don’t want to mix them up. Tontouta airport is where you’ll arrive for international flights; it is actually about 45 min away from Noumea by car. Domestic flights to the smaller islands leave from Magenta airport, close to the town centre.
5. Hire a car… or not!
New Caledonia is not a cheap destination, so hiring a car will greatly impact your budget. You may not need a car for your entire trip, but don’t leave the decision for when you arrive there – especially for the smaller islands. During the peak season, car rentals can get fully booked!
Noumea: If you only have a couple of days to explore the town, it is likely that you won’t need a car. Book a hotel near the Anse Vata or Baie des Citrons, and then you can walk to most tourist attractions. However, if you are a group flying from Tontouta, transfers can quickly get expensive (3,000 XPF per person or 10,000 XPF for a private car) so you may want to save this and rent a car. If you have more time in Noumea, I would recommend a vehicle to wander out of the town, where the most beautiful things are.
Related article: Noumea, the Capital of the world’s largest lagoon
Grande Terre: You won’t be able to explore the main island without a car.
Isle of Pines: We did not need a car for our short stay. All the activities we did included a transfer from the hotel. If you stay in Kanumera or Kuto, you can walk to different restaurants. If you stay a bit longer and want to experience more than the usual tourist attractions, a car is needed.
Lifou: Lifou is a big island. In my opinion, you cannot visit Lifou without a car.
Ouvea: Even if Ouvea is not a big island, it is very long. Many tours leave from the Lekini campsite, so you may choose not to get a car if you stay there or at the nearby resort. Otherwise, I highly recommend booking one.
From our experience, I wouldn’t recommend driving by night in New Caledonia, especially if you are there during the festive period. We have seen a couple of accidents and heard many bad stories.
6. Consider using a travel agent
If you stay away from resorts, the booking system in New Caledonia has room for improvement. You may have to call several times to get the right person to talk to, and find out that the information you read on a website wasn’t accurate or that they are full. When you place a booking, it is often all over the phone, and you don’t get a written confirmation.
I had some fun surprises with people who were not that professional. One took my booking without asking for the dates. Another one said she took note of my booking, but I had to get there early or they would give it to someone else. Although you’d have to pay a fee, you may want to save time and reduce your worries by asking a travel agent to help. That’s what we did for our accommodation on Lifou and Ouvea. We felt it was safer to have a written receipt and someone to talk to if we had an issue with the booking. We were a group of six, so finding a Plan B at the last minute would have been challenging.
It is stressful during the trip, but we mostly had good surprises once there. The only issue we actually had was with our car rental on Ouvea Island. We specifically asked to hire a vehicle for six people and were told it was possible. Unfortunately, the travel agent couldn’t book our car rental on Ouvea, so we had no written confirmation. A beautiful car was waiting for us at the airport when we arrived, but it was for five people only. Well, they said the boot was big enough for the sixth person!
7. Choose the right season to visit New Caledonia
We travelled to New Caledonia from Christmas to the beginning of the year. I had to take compulsory leave during the festive season, so our dates weren’t flexible. You will have a better experience if you avoid the Christmas holiday season.
Locals are on vacation at that time too. Families come together, so people are less available for tourists. Some tours are not running at all. You have less choice available for accommodation. Between the bank holidays and the weekends, many things like car rentals or internal flights are harder to plan.
Also, the beginning of the year is cyclone season. It doesn’t mean you should not go at that time: we were lucky and hardly had rain during our two-week trip. But there is a risk with the weather whereas the rest of the year is mostly sunny.
You may want to check the marine life season too. For example, manta rays were mating during our stay so we could not go to their cleaning station to swim with them. It wasn’t a big deal for us as we are lucky to have manta rays coming close to where we live. But it is always a pleasant experience, and it could become a highlight if you plan to see them.
8. Inform your bank about your trip to New Caledonia
This tip is valid for any foreign destination you go to, but it won’t hurt to put it here as a reminder. You’ll be in trouble if you cannot withdraw cash because you set a daily limit on your bank account. Half of our group had issues at the ATM and could only withdraw a small amount of cash! How inconvenient!
9. Don’t stay for too long in Noumea
That’s a personal point of view, but Noumea is probably the worse place we visited in New Caledonia. Don’t get me wrong; Noumea is great, and I will happily go back. It’s just that the rest of New Caledonia is a lot more stunning. So if you have more than a couple of days in New Caledonia: escape from the town!
Related article: Noumea, the Capital of the world’s largest lagoon
10. Manage your expectations
We met lovely people who were happy to see us and had a fabulous trip. And I’m glad we managed our expectations regarding the level of service we would get during this voyage. People from New Caledonia are very friendly, but it is quickly obvious that they are not trained in tourism and hospitality. That’s part of the charm!
A few extra travel tips to make your trip to New Caledonia cheaper
11. Avoid hotels
Hotels are very expensive in New Caledonia, and there’s the most straightforward accommodation option for visitors who don’t speak French at all.
But there is a great alternative for those with a smaller budget and looking for a more authentic experience: you can stay “with” locals. What you get when you stay with locals seems random. I advise you to read some reviews on TripAdvisor to know what to expect – although our experience was every time a lot better than many reviews we read.
If you are a group, staying in a “case” is a good deal. Most of the time, you pay a fixed amount for the “case” for two people and then the price to add extra people is a lot cheaper. Twice, we got a “case” for the six of us!
Except in Noumea, you won’t find many AirBNB rental. If you are happy to carry around your tent and linen, camping is the cheapest option for accommodation.
12. Consider using Le Pass
If you want to fly to the different islands, Air Caledonie Pass could save you a bit of money. It allows you to get four flights for 32,800 XPF. Destinations covered from and to Noumea are Ouvéa, Maré, Lifou, Isle of Pines, Koné and Touho. You’ll need to contact [email protected] to organise Le Pass for you. The special tariff is not available for every flight so you will need to tell them the destinations and dates you would like to fly, and they will offer the best match they can.
I recommend checking the prices with their online booking system before signing for Le Pass: if you manage to book a promo fare, you could even get a better deal than Le Pass!
13. Pack light
This way, you’ll have room to bring food with you from Noumea to avoid restaurants on the islands, if you do want to save money that way. Tourism brings significant revenue to the people living on the island, so I recommend playing the game of spending money there. But it can rapidly become expensive to pay for three meals a day. Sometimes, I had my own food for breakfasts as I found them really pricey and generally of low quality, whereas I could be very happy with the French biscuits that I usually miss so much.
Also, as luggage weight is limited when you have Pass tickets with the local airlines, it makes it easier to travel with limited luggage. Check out this packing list for New Caledonia; I’m sure you’ll find helpful tips there.
14. Take your snorkelling set
There are places where you can hire a snorkelling set, but that’s not everywhere. It is way better to carry your snorkelling equipment to enjoy what the world’s largest lagoon can offer fully. We did not bring fins because it is bulky and not needed too much in the lagoons. But we brought our masks and snorkels.
If you need to buy equipment in New Caledonia, I recommend going to Decathlon in Noumea.
New to snorkelling? You could be interested in this full-face mask* that allows you to breathe more naturally (with the nose) and give more side vision than the smaller masks. Click here to find out more* or check out these tips about choosing the best snorkel gear.
New Caledonia travel tips once you’ve arrived
15. Get a Mobilis
That’s how they call the sim card to have a local mobile phone number. It can be bought at the Post Office or at a cell phone store. You will often need a mobile phone to confirm the activities, the hotel bookings, to check the flight times and to book the restaurants. This will be less true if you book your trip with the help of an agency, but you would still want the agency to be able to update you if your flight time has changed…!
16. Don’t forget sunscreen and clothes to cover yourself
The sun in New Caledonia is extreme. You can get burnt in a few minutes if you don’t wear sun protection. This can ruin your holidays, so don’t take any risks and wear sunscreen! Be careful to have enough sunscreen to cover your stay on the islands. It is a rare gem on the islands, but it is easy to buy in Noumea!
And a tip to protect marine life: it is a lot better not to apply sunscreen before going into the water but to wear rash tops instead!
17. Talk to local people
If you speak French or are lucky to find locals who speak English, have a go and talk to them. Most of the local people we met were very open to speaking about their culture and their environment. We learnt a lot from them, from a cultural point of view and also got excellent travel tips.
18. Ask when the cruise will be there
The locals usually know when a cruise will be there. Try to plan your visits around that: some places not too far from where the boat stays will be crowded. You will have a better time further away, by picking a destination that requires a car, for example.
Related article: Big cruise to New Caledonia? Not for me!
19. Travel with cash
You will need to pay in cash for most of the guided activities. If you choose to avoid hotels and stay with locals without using a travel agency, you’ll need to pay by cash here as well. Some restaurants only accept cash. You may even have to pay your dives in cash on some islands. We had no issues with the ATM on the islands, but we were told while preparing for the trip that they can sometimes be empty. So don’t take any risks and travel with cash to cover most of your expenses.
20. Try the local specialities… but don’t forget to book a table!
New Caledonia has a strong island culture which is fantastic to discover. Add some French notes, and you won’t be disappointed with the local dishes.
Don’t be afraid to eat at the small local “restaurants”. You will often need to book in advance for restaurants on the islands, outside of Noumea. Sometimes, you will not have a choice with a menu: they serve you what they have today. Sometimes, you will have to let them know what you want to eat in advance. And some places are expensive for what you actually get. But overall, we had great experiences eating in New Caledonia, and we discovered new savours!