How to discover island paradise on the cheap in New Caledonia.
If you’re the type of person who daydreams about:
Living in a hut on a tropical beach where no one’s around but a couple of French beach bums and some wild boar, and staring out at the blue, blue ocean to contemplate whatever it is you need to contemplate,
Finding your own small, empty, island to hole up on, or
Dropping off grid to carve out a life that doesn’t require much of anything,
it might be worth thinking about New Caledonia.
I’m not sure if you can do those things there, but it seems like you probably could.
If you haven’t heard of it, New Caledonia is a small group of islands and islets in Melanesia - forming a roughly equilateral triangle with Australia and New Zealand, where it is the Northeasterrnmost point. It’s not that far from Vanuatu, if that helps.
If you aren’t already there, it’s almost definitely a long way from where you are. We booked an AirBnB on a woman’s catamaran in the main harbor in the capitol, and she told us that a lot of people arrive by boat and fly home, ditching their vessels because it’s too much trouble to get them back to Europe or the United States or wherever they’ve drifted in from.
It's pretty sleepy, but it still does a healthy tourist trade with English speakers and people from mainland China and Japan. The main group of foreigners, though, are French. The proper official name is Nouvelle Caledonie, because since 1853 the French have put themselves in charge of things. Along with a lot of blue water, the islands have one of the richest nickel deposits in the world, and the white people there taking it are primarily francophones.
Originally though, it was a Melanesian paradise - Kanak, specifically. People have been there for 3000 years, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. The Kanak people still make up 40 percent of the population, and their culture is alive and quite visible all over the islands. As is the case everywhere I’ve been in the Pacific, they seem to exist in a uneasy detente with their colonizers. Just before we arrived in November 2018, there was a national referendum on whether or not to remain a French colony. Kanak flags were flying everywhere, and only 56% voted to stay.
We didn't know any of that before we arrived, and our own trip to the country happened mostly on a whim. We were looking for flights between the South and North Island of New Zealand, and noticed a cheap flight to a place called “Noumea”. We Googled it, found out it was the capital of a country we’d never thought much about, and decided “what the hey?!”
We were only there for a week, and I’m by no means an expert, or even a novice, but we did dig around enough to function something like scouts for others out there who might be interested in paying a visit.
What's New Caledonia like?
The country felt, to me, as much like Latin America as anywhere else I’ve been - clearly colonial, and clearly possessing a strong, rich native culture. There’s a significant amount of wealth disparity, but poverty - while present - doesn’t appear to be the defining characteristic of the population. In the Capitol, Noumea, there are plenty of upscale neighborhoods and tourist businesses, while the Cathedral’s paint is crusting away. Neighborhoods are dotted with grafitti’d warehouses, and while the housing seems in decent repair, we did occasionally notice chained rottweilers barking menacingly as a security measure. The physical location is beautiful, and everywhere we went felt safe and relaxed. The infrastructure is solid: roads are good, beaches are clean, and the parking is closely monitored - which we learned when we found we’d been served with a $10 parking ticket for an infraction that I still don't understand because it was explained in French. It was a small enough amount to seem as quaint as it did annoying.
Outside of Noumea, the country is notably sparsely populated. Even in beautiful spots that are marketed openly in tourist information centers, it’s easy to find yourself all alone. If you want long quiet walks on a secluded beach, you have plenty of good options.
Even prior to Covid, it had a sleepy island vibe. At the first campsite we visited - the largest in the area, which came with several recommendations, and where we could set up our tent right on the water - we showed up in the afternoon to a closed gate. We saw that there were a couple of people milling around in the property - two campers, and a guy welding something - so we walked around the gate - there was a clear footpath.
When we got to the back of the property, a startled Frenchman asked us, “What do you want?!” Not angry - just genuinely surprised to see us.
“We want to camp - is that possible?”
“Oh, yes. The gate was closed, right? How did you get in?”
“We walked around it.”
“Oh, did you come in a car or something?” (We were at least 20 miles from the nearest town at this point.)
“Yes, we left it outside the gate.”
“Oh. I see. Do you have any toilet paper? You will need it because there is none here.”
We did, thankfully. He opened the gate and let us in, and drove away in a pickup truck, leaving us by ourselves at the site. Before he left he told us not to worry about paying until the morning. We never saw him again, but we did find someone who I believe was his wife - a Japanese woman who spoke perfect English and spent the morning sitting in a lounge chair, staring contentedly into the mangroves and ocean that the campsite bordered.
It seemed like a nice life.
Outside of Noumea it’s also notably more Kanak, and you’re as likely to experience and enjoy native culture as French. Life closer to subsistence is more visible in the countryside. Especially on the East Coast, it’s the kind of place where it’s most common for houses to be made of corrugated metal, and normal for men to wander the streets with machetes because they’re working their fields.
Tourism sites all say that Nouvelle Caledonie is known for its delicious French cuisine. And it’s true. It’s easy to find a good cappuccino, a fresh baguette, and pain au chocolate even in small towns.
It’s not a cheap place to travel, exactly, but it’s also not ridiculously expensive. I’ve heard prices commonly compared to New Zealand, and I’d say that is roughly accurate - though I think food is slightly pricier in New Caledonia. We would typically pay between $4 - 7 US for a good coffee, $8 - 10 for a national brand beer at a restaurant and $15 - 20 for a meal. If I had to guess, I’d say cost of travel is probably lower than Hawaii or Tahiti - the other two small Pacific Island groups we’ve visited.
And whatever the costs or the quality of their fois gras, most travelers go to New Caledonia because it’s pretty.
It’s surrounded by the world’s largest lagoon, which means that coral reef protects most of the main island from the heaviest waves (There are only one or two beach breaks for surfing in the country because of this). The water tends to be shallow, warm, and swimmable, and there are endless snorkeling and diving possibilities. Boat-based activities are one of the most common pastimes, and you’ll find lots of rental and tour options if that’s your thing. It wouldn’t be disappointing at all to go there and just hang out at the beach. Some of the prettiest we’ve seen anywhere were there, at Poe and Thio, and we didn’t even go to what’s said to be the most beautiful spots, on the Isle of Pines and the other offshore islands.
To our own interests, there is also a developed trail system in the country. The jewel in the crown is the GR1 - a 100k hut to hut hike that cuts through the south of the Island - but there are plenty of smaller trail systems through every type of geography. It was easy to find beautiful places to hike, run or mountain bike on well-maintained trail.
There is a spine of mountains that runs up the center of the main island, which adds to the beauty. The West Coast is quite dry - it looked like Australia to me, with dry hills, red dirt and white sandy beaches. The mountains are quite wet. And the East Coast is the way I picture Polynesia - ferns and waterfalls and beautiful coastline and dramatic mountains. It’s largely unpopulated and it’s where much of the best scenery on the main island is, in my opinion.
My personal favorite unexpected perk about the country is that it had what all warm climates should - a network of campgrounds that was as extensive as their network of hotels. Like the one where we found the startled Frenchman with no toilet paper, a lot of these seemed like a family with a bunch of land in a pretty place decided to set up some toilets and let people stay for a few bucks a night. That’s come to be one of my favorite types of travel accommodation - kind of like Airbnb in your tent in a friendly person’s yard. And it was cheap. $10 -15 US per person is a bit less that what I’ve come to expect to pay in North America for a similar level of service.
We found a lot of campgrounds in spectacular locations. If you dream of camping with a beautiful view of turquoise water, but don’t want to worry about getting your rental car down a 4x4 track, New Caledonia had amazing options. In Poe, our $20/night spot was on the same beach, a few miles down, from an impressive Sheraton resort. The views were just as good and it felt just as secluded, and it was easy enough to sneak into the Sheraton for a dip in their pool when we got bored of the ocean. Plus there’s very little chance a wild boar will charge through your room at the Sheraton, and we got to have that experience in our campsite. (Edit: after I wrote this, a local wearing a tusk necklace showed us a picture on his phone of a boar that he saw at the Sheraton that morning, on the golf course.)
Like good hustlers around the world, a lot of these places will also cook you a meal and sell you the basics of what you need if you ask, and some will pick you up from the larger towns nearby if you call ahead.
9 essential things you need to know
English will get you by. French will help you make friends. We speak only the French we learned in high school 20 years ago, but were able to get by. It’s worth bringing a French app or phrasebook if you plan to travel outside of Noumea and the main tourist centers like Isle of Pines.
The information offices, which you will find in Noumea and most small towns of any size are the best. They’re typically staffed by friendly locals who speak at least passable English, and have nothing to do but help you find the places you want to go and tell you about the country. As an added bonus, they typically have free Wifi and offer you coffee or tea simply because they’re kind people. We didn’t have SIM cards, but found that the brochures and employees had all of the information we needed..
Drive on the right. No turn on red. Public transit between towns and in Noumea is passable but not perfect if you’re trying to get to less populated spots on the coast, and it’s not that cheap. We didn’t try hitching but we saw people doing it, and it seems like the kind of place where it wouldn’t be too hard, or too risky. For us it was worth it to rent a car, and it wasn’t terribly pricey. It made it much easier to get to groceries and out of the way campsites, so saved us on food and accommodation in the end. Petrol’s expensive, so we kept our time in the car to a minimum - which was fine because there are so many beautiful spots within an hour or two of Noumea.
Distances here aren’t crazy. From the bottom of the mainland to the top is about a 5.5 hour drive. You can make it around the entire mainland in about 2 days - plenty of stops included.
Be mindful of your map though - make sure the roads you’re taking are passable. In the central mountains between Canala and Thio, we accidentally took our tiny rental Peugot on a journey it was never intended for along muddy roads that bordered a precipitous dropoff! (We were pretty sure we passed a sign with soan ominous warning about the route along the way, but it was written in French so we’ll never know!)
ATMs are widely available in smaller towns, especially along the main North/South highway. Most places take credit, but not the furthest out. I felt most secure with a couple hundred dollars worth of Francs on hand.
Outside of Noumea, tourist places - including restaurants - sometimes require booking ahead. Some places are clearly just side projects so the pizza guy might not be home when you want a slice if you don’t call him beforehand, especially in small towns away from main villages. While we saved our money, it would have been nice to have a SIM or burner phone here.
Attractions - including restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds - on tribal land have their own etiquette, and you should get the orientation at a tourist information site if you plan to hang out on tribal land. This isn’t a warning against it, just to be clear - tourists are welcome and an important part of the tribal economy, and all of the locals we met were super friendly! There are just cultural norms to be aware of, and reservations tend to be required.
Wifi is not that common or fast. Several places we stayed said they had it, but didn’t, and we as a result we did almost no work done while we were there (excluding tapping out this blog.) Think of it as a good place to unplug. Information centers are a reliable go to if you have an important email to check or want to book that Noumea Airbnb from the road!
New Caledonia's 6 top regions and how to get there.
Noumea. The capitol is the only proper city in New Caledonia, and it’s where you’re going to either fly or float into. And that’s not a bad thing. Its a genuinely beautiful town, with its own pleasant beaches at Lemon Bay (Baie des Citrons) and Anse Vata, a nice local market with lots of tropical fruit, good restaurants, hotels, and AirBnBs. It’s small enough to get around on foot if you are intrepid, but there are plenty of buses, water taxis, ferries, planes and tours to get to other places. We were only there for a couple of days, but if you spent a week there, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. Pro Tips: the information center is on the harbor near the public market, and just outside of town there’s a large Decathlon outdoor store that sells everything you need for any outdoor activity. The Tjibaou Cultural Center is a national museum devoted to Kanak culture. It's a bit out of the center but completely worth visiting.
West Coast. The West Coast of the Island is easy to access via highway. It’s the dry side, and the beaches here are positively Caribbean - white sand and palm trees, mangrove, coral reef, sleepy bars and small towns. We loved the beaches around Boureal, La Roche Percee and a nearby hike that took us to three separate coves. Whenever we travel, one place per trip seems to charm us thoroughly. On this trip, it was Poe. The beach was spectacular, the campsite (Camping de Poe) was incredibly friendly, beautifully located, and cheap. We also enjoyed the Sentiers de Deva trail system for hiking and mountain biking just outside of town, and at the local information center, there was a friendly old local who spoke a few words of English and spent a lot of time explaining interesting facts about the area to us. Did you know, for instance, that Caledonian crows use tools and are considered as potentially the smartest animal in the world? The center for their study is located (on tribal land) at Deva.
East Coast. New Caledonia’s East Coast is less populated, more culturally Kanak, and more dramatically beautiful than the West Coast. I recommend it. Hienghene is maybe the most spectacular spot on the mainland, and the drive up the East Coast highway is as beautiful as any.
Great South. This region is usually listed as a top place for outdoors types because 1) the Blue River National Park is a great spot for kayaking and hiking, and 2) the GR1 goes right through. Full disclosure - we’d planned to hike a big portion of this, but ultimately decided against it. It’s quite difficult and expensive to get to the current start of the GR 1 at Prony. It was hot, and the beach seemed a lot more attractive than sometimes exposed trails in the center of the Island. And the scenery, based on an extensive browse of promotional brochures, looks similar to places we’ve been in Australia. The coast just seemed like a better investment of our week. Someone needs to write a good intro to this trail in English, because most of the information is in French. It won’t be us, at least not until next trip. C’est la vie.
Central mountains. Super rugged and awesome. It feels very Jurassic Park here, and there are no major settlements. Ferns and jungle and waterfalls and weird local flightless birds. The Giant Fern Park near Sarramea is among the best spot for viewing flightless birds and other local wildlife.
Isle of Pines and the offshore islands. Based on the photos, we contemplated spending the bulk of our trip on the Isle of Pines - probably the best bang for your buck in terms of beach scenery that New Caledonia has to offer. There are a couple of places to camp there, and by all accounts it is totally worth the trip. Unfortunately for us, it’s not that easy of a place to get to, depending on when you arrive. Flights go multiple times a day from Noumea, and I’m sure the views are super pretty, but the extra $400 wasn’t in our budget (that wasn’t much less than we spent on the flights from NZ!). There is an affordable passenger ferry, but it was only running twice a week. For us, unfortunately, the Isle of Pines didn’t line up with our budget or our schedule so I can’t tell you how great it is. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably worth the $400 if you have it. There are a couple of other offshore islands that fit this descriptor as well. We didn't visit but you probably should.
For someone looking for a relaxed, budget tropical paradise, New Caledonia is as good a choice of Pacific Islands as any. Like any Pacific Island, it’s easy to spend money there on luxury and adventure tours. But it’s also an easy place to just exist contentedly - camping at the beach, hiking in the mountains, eating baguettes and charcuterie and drinking cheap beer from the grocery. If you’re a Kiwi or an Aussie, give it a go on your next holiday. If you’re reading this from the US or the UK, put it on the list the next time you’re in the hemisphere. If you do you won’t regret it.
Just remember to bring your own toilet paper.
Check out my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life for a plan about how to make hanging out in places like New Caledonia your life path, and not just a daydream.