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June 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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New Caledonia, South Pacific

an utter lack of Americans, an abundance of pristine dive sites

from the June, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

New Caledonia can be summed up in two words: remote and fascinating. American visitors are rare (they're mostly French, Japanese and Korean and a few Aussies), and that's a pity. A French island of 250,000 people that's 1,000 miles northeast of Australia, New Caledonia boasts the world's largest coral lagoon. Almost 1,000 miles of fringing reef surround the 250 mile-long island, and it's mostly untouched. My wife and I visited in December for 11 days, our goal being to dive what are considered three of the best destinations: Noumea, Hienghene and the Isle des Pins (we didn't have enough time to visit the island of Lifou). Noumea, the capital city and home to two-thirds of the population, is upscale and modern, thanks to high wages paid by the nickel-mining industry. I rented a car at the airport, 30 miles north of town. Roads are excellent. Of the many fine hotels in Noumea, I chose Le Meridien, which is on the lovely Anse Vata beach and offers package deals with its sister hotel on Isle des Pins. All the restaurants I tried were good (this is part of France, after all), my favorite being Le P'Tit Caf, a 15-minute drive from Le Meridien.

Le Meridien Hotel in Ile des PinsDue to time constraints, we dove just one day in Noumea with Abyss Plongee. The dives that day were at Passe de Dumbea, a 25-minute Zodiac ride from the harbor. Because the Zodiacs are uncovered, it was a rough and wet ride. The crew helped set up and handle our gear (I had my own gear, my wife rented). The divemasters were friendly but rushed through dive briefings. Some speak limited English, so it was tough for some to understand instructions and I too, had difficulties, though I speak fluent French. However, enough English is spoken at hotels, restaurants, etc., that it is not difficult for a diver who doesn't speak French to have an enjoyable experience. (Dive package tours are available through Australian outfitters.)

My first dive was a drift at the Passe, followed by a 60-foot dive at the Mur aux Loches site, an amazing wall about 100 yards long and 60 feet high, and frequented by dozens of white-tip sharks, very similar in numbers to those at the Blue Corner in Palau. The two one-hour dives were great, but the rough, pounding Zodiac rides to and from were trying, at best.

New Caledonia, South PacificFrom Noumea, we drove eight hours through spectacular mountains, rainforests and nickel mines to Hienghene on the northeast coast (there is a shorter five-hour drive via Kone). We stayed at Koulnoue Village, a former Club Med, featuring round "bungalows" designed like native huts on lovely grounds full of fruit trees. Rooms are small, but have most amenities, including cable TV (CNN in English), refrigerators and air conditioning. It's a touristy resort, with a swimming pool, golf driving range, kayaking, okay beach snorkeling, and miles of trails to explore. All meals were buffet, and featured a wide and everchanging variety of fresh meat, fish, veggies, salad and dessert courses each day. Lots of lychee, an island staple. Breakfast buffets also featured a variety of selections. Because the dive boats usually return after lunch, we made sandwiches from the breakfast buffet to take with us.

The Babou Cote Ocean dive center was a mile away. We used our rental car, but the hotel will ferry guests, too. Dive sites were, once again, a 20- to 30-minute ride to the outer reefs, but with near dead calm seas all three days, the rides were enjoyable on Babou's covered, seaworthy boats We saw dugungs and dolphins on the rides in and out, and Hienghene's outer reef was as nice as it gets. We dove the "Cathedrale" dive site twice, a wonderful series of underwater ravines, caverns tunnels and caves. Thousands of tiny reef fish of every conceivable color swarmed near the tops of the reef. Anemone clownfish were abundant, and I even swam near a five-foot grouper. Both hard and soft corals were extremely healthy everywhere, testament to the small population of the island that hasn't polluted its shores. Babou was such a friendly, laid-back dive operator, that I'm sure I could probably have convinced them to ad lib and take us to out-of-the-way dive sites. The staff spoke better English than those in Noumea.

New Caledonia, South PacificAfter a drive back to Noumea, we flew to Isle des Pins, southeast of the main island, famous for its beautiful beaches and forests of Norfolk Island pine. Because it receives the prevailing southeast winds from New Zealand, water temperatures were cooler -- 74 to 75 degrees, whereas in Noumea and Hienghene, it averaged 77 degrees. I longed for a 3mm wetsuit, a better fit here than the 1mms we used up north. The Le Meridien, on a huge interior lagoon sheltered from the main ocean (perfect for snorkeling), is luxury incarnate. The beautifully appointed rooms had all the amenities -- TV, CD music system, refrigerator, luxury bathrobes and beautiful bathrooms. Dining was a mix of high-end French, Asian and seafood cuisine. The Kunie scuba center, the only dive operation on the island, is a 20-minute (and $30) van ride from the hotel. Nico, the likeable owner, is what the French call "tres sympathique." Diving was similar to Noumea and Hienghene, with a wide variety of every sort of marine life, even sea snakes! Visibility was 100- plus feet, but not quite as good as at Hienghene, where the dead-calm days made for sparkling- clear water. Most dives were 60 to 90 feet, and the boat ride is only 10 minutes from the dive center. The sites are near several small islands, so we were welcome to go ashore between dives if the ocean got rough.

New Caledonia is environmentally fascinating, both above and below water. I've made more than 500 dives in such destinations as Tahiti, Fiji, Palau, and Vietnam, and this rates at the top of the South Pacific destinations list. It's expensive to get there, expensive to stay and a long trip, but I found it completely worthwhile. What also made it exotic was the lack of Americans. I booked through South Pacific Adventure in Boulder, CO, which specializes in South Pacific destinations, but this was the first time they had booked a New Caledonia trip, which gives you an idea of how off-the-map it is. Because I want to see more of the diving, I hope to find a scuba-equipped sailboat, because my hunch is there are plenty of pristine dive sites for 1,000 miles along the barrier reef.

-- A.P.

New Caledonia, South PacificDivers Compass: We flew on Air Zealand from LAX to Auckland, then two hours to Noumea; if you miss the connection, you may have to stay over a day or two, as the Noumea flights run only four days a week . . . There are also flights here from Australia, Fiji, Tahiti and Japan . . . While our air, hotel and dive costs were all packaged together, most dive operators charge around $100 for a two-tank day; the two Meridien hotels charge $400 to 500 a night, while Koulnoue Village averages $250, with meals included . . . Websites: South Pacific Adventure - www.southpacificadventure.com ; Le Meridien hotels - www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien ; Koulnoue Village - www.grands-hotels.nc/english/koulnoue.html

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