Just a two-hour flight from Brisbane or two and a half hours from Sydney, New Caledonia is Australia's closest Pacific neighbor. A French territory, it is the largest of the South Pacific isles, home to the world's largest lagoon and the world's second-largest barrier reef.
It's primitive yet sophisticated, untouched but cosmopolitan, tranquil yet adventurous.
It's the Pacific, but it's also a slice of France.
In New Caledonia you'll find iridescent waters, mountain rainforests and an ancient Melanesian culture contrasted against a distinctly European way of life.
Fine wines, cheeses, pâtés and game are sold beside coconuts and yams in the produce markets. Luxury yachts ply the same waters as traditional outrigger canoes. Old friends gather beneath the palms to play petanque in the afternoons.
The capital, Nouméa, is where these contrasts are most distinct. Set on a hilly peninsula surrounded by bays, Nouméa is the largest and most cosmopolitan city among the South Pacific isles.
More than 130 cafés and restaurants line its streets and waterfront, along with gourmet providores, pâtisseries, chocolatiers, fromageries and fine wine importers. The weekly night markets, held on Thursdays at Place des Cocotiers, draw hundreds to the city square to enjoy food, arts, music and entertainment, while the surrounding lagoon provides a stage for a daily procession of kite surfers, sailors, wind surfers and jet skiers.
The magnificent Tjibaou Cultural Center, an architectural masterpiece by Renzo Piano, is New Caledonia's tribute to its indigenous Melanesian people, the Kanaks. It stands beside the lagoon on a narrow headland, housing a collection of art and traditional craftwork from throughout New Caledonia and the wider Pacific.
Beyond Nouméa is a natural landscape rich in tropical botany and fauna. New Caledonia's mountain rainforests form one of the world's richest reserves of biodiversity, while the lagoon provides a pristine marine environment and a home for dugongs, nautilus whales and countless tropical corals and fish.
To enjoy the best New Caledonia has to offer, choose one of its five-star resorts such as the Coral Palms Island Resort with its overwater bungalows, or the remote island beauty of the Le Meridien Isle of Pines, offering the utmost in luxury and intimacy in the shade of luscious vegetation and quiet gardens.
The Isle of Pines is often referred to as the 'Jewel of the Pacific', and a few days exploring its turquoise bays will explain why. A combination of volcanic geology and uplifted coral reef create a prehistoric landscape, capped off by the island's towering araucaria columnaris pines, which encircle the bays and inlets and inspired the island's name when James Cook sailed past in 1774.
Today the island remains pristine and has changed little in thousands of years. Oro Bay, recently named among the world's top 30 'undiscovered beaches' by the respected US magazine Islands, is home to the Le Meridien resort, where just a handful of luxury bungalows stand hidden among the palms and pines.