New Caledonia first-timer Jenny Gill returned from an educational in late-2012 all smiles about this French Pacific destination.
I’ve never been to New Caledonia before, and so was understandably excited when told I’d be experiencing a taste of France in the South Pacific on a famil organised by New Caledonia Tourism and partners. As a first-timer I didn’t know what to expect but came away full of new enthusiasm for this country which offers a unique blend of French and Melanesian culture, both culturally and historically.
Making it even more attractive, it’s just two-and-a-half hours from Sydney with Air Calin.
Philo Tours looked after me with all transfers including my first stop to the Hotel Le Méridien Nouméa where I was welcomed with a ‘bonjour’ by the director of sales and marketing Jennifer Lee and Suzanne Kennyon from local DMC Transat Tours.
We enjoyed a fine French wine which would be one of several during my trip and discussed the many options that are possible in this slice of island paradise for the conference and incentive travel sector.
Transat Tours can tailor-make any activities for your group including cocktail lunches on a lookout, progressive dinners, amazing races, and can even organise you your very own island for a day.
It didn’t take me long to settle into my top floor room complete with views over Anse Vata Bay which I quickly learnt is an adventure playground for water sports of all sorts. Located in the world’s largest lagoon, this is UNESCO World Heritage listed stuff.
Inspired by French colonial architecture, the luxury Hotel Le Méridien Nouméa is just 10 minutes from the buzz of the city centre and comprises 245 guestrooms, including 15 suites, all surrounding a lagoon-style pool – popular for welcoming delegates.
It also features five flexible and elegant function rooms and a grand French ballroom that can accommodate 400 people theatre-style.
Gradual refurbishments will commence in the next 12 to 18 months while excitement is already building for the arrival of another Starwood property to New Caledonia (see page 138).
Dining options at the Le Méridien Nouméa are plentiful with four restaurants catering for all palates. Speaking of which… it’s onto dinner with my wonderful host Jennifer at the signature Restaurant l’Hippocampe for an amazing dining experience showing all the flair of the venue’s French heritage.
After breakfast the following day I was whisked off to Amédée Island aboard the Mary D Princess. Just 45 minutes from Noumea, this is a natural marine reserve situated on the New Caledonian barrier reef in the lagoon. I hopped on the glass bottom boat and soon after went overboard, donning goggles to better view an underwater paradise filled with turtles and tropical fish of all sizes, shapes and colours.
Back on dry land I climbed the lighthouse with its 247 steps for the spectacular views at the top before enjoying a delicious BBQ lunch with authentic singing and dancing by the locals – a great option for visiting groups to this part of the world.
Dinner that evening was compliments of New Caledonia Tourism. I was joined by Sylvie Coquelet from the bureau at Le Roof situated on the pier in Noumea overlooking the lagoon and reef. The restaurant floor has a central open space in the deck with intimate floodlit views of the water just below. We were lucky enough to watch dolphins and schools of fish playing below while enjoying a sumptuous degustation menu.
Departing Noumea, my next destination was the Isle of Pines, getting there with Air Calin. Just 20 minutes from the mainland you can’t help but notice this jewel sparkling in the pacific awakening your senses immediately.
On arrival I met my guide David Vama for a tour around this beautiful island. Blessed with powdery white sand, aquamarine lagoons and endless towering pine trees, this is truly paradise.
We visited Kuto, Kanumera and Upi Bays, a horse ranch and sandalwood factory, saw many of the ruins from the French convict period, and journeyed to the highest point of the island for a panoramic view.
A beautiful lunch followed at the Oure Tera Beach Resort which is bordered by the calm turquoise waters of the stunning Kanumera Bay and includes cosy wooden beach bungalows.
I soon after checked into my accommodation at the Le Meridien Isle of Pines overlooking Oro Bay. This is the island’s only luxury resort, and is located in just over two hectares of coconut palms and pine trees.
Perfect for incentives, it has bungalow-suite accommodation made up of 10 deluxe rooms, 21 lagoon suites and eight garden suites.
With a bit of free time I donned goggles and flippers for some snorkeling in the natural swimming pool – an aquarium filled with a copious collection of underwater wonders.
Dinner was at the resort’s La Pirogue restaurant serving French/Melanesian cuisine. I enjoyed fresh seafood and fine wine while gazing at the distant horizon.
After a beautiful breakfast the next morning it was off to St–Joseph Bay where I boarded a traditional handcrafted outrigger sailboat called a ‘Pirogue’ and enjoyed a gentle cruise through calm waters, absolutely fascinated by the coral formations dotted all along Upi Bay. Disembarking we then crossed through a lush jungle on foot, arriving back at the resort for a scrumptious lunch and an afternoon of leisure before flying back to Nouméa – C’est magnifique!
This time in Noumea I checked into Hotel la Promenade located on the popular Anse Vata Beach and dined at the poolside restaurant la Terrasse before calling in early for the night.
Well rested, breakfast was with the hotel manager Valérie Démare.
Part of the GLP hotels group, Le Promenade is a fully serviced apartment hotel and will undergo a refurbishment before becoming a member of the Hilton Hotels & Resorts chain in mid-2013.
Breakfast was followed by a site inspection with sales manager Estelle Noblet in which we also checked out their Le Nouvata Parc Complex, which includes the two, three and four-star properties of Le Pacifique, Le Nouuvata, and Le Parc which boasts 300 rooms and conference facilities including the Venezia Room – which can accommodate up to 1000 people – all surrounding a spectacular lagoon-style pool.
It was then onto the recently refurbished Le Ramada Plaza Hotel, a twin tower hotel where I met with sales manager Sandrine Cadars. All188 rooms have a private kitchen and views of the lagoon. There are three conference rooms, the largest of which can hosts up to 200 people for cocktails.
Lunch was on the 18th floor of one of the towers at the revolving restaurant le 360° where we enjoyed a fabulous feast with panoramic views of Noumea.
Next stop was to Port Moselle to board a shuttleboat to Escapade Island Resort. Only 20 minutes away it seemed that we’d barely left Noumea until I spied the resort’s visually stunning overwater bungalows.
General manager Jean Rambaud was there to meet me with a tantalising cocktail making me reflect that it doesn’t get better than this!
A quick trip around this island paradise, I was then escorted to my spacious overwater bungalow, offering mesmerising views and just a few well-crafted steps down into the lagoon. If I had to send an email at that moment, it would have read: “Lost in Paradise, please don’t send help”.
That evening I enjoyed a mouth-watering barbecue buffet in the resort’s Ouen Toro Restaurant which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
With a restful night’s sleep behind me (there’s nothing much nicer than the soft sound of water lapping below you), and another sumptuous breakfast, I returned to Noumea where I met Arc en Ciel Voyages’ Armstrong Garo. As the very first DMC in New Caledonia, Arc en Ciel Voyages has a dedicated groups department that has been providing a fresh approach and innovative event options to the MICE market for more than 10 years.
On our tour we visit the Renzo Piano-designed Tjibaou Cultural Center which I have to agree is possibly the finest centre of its kind in the South Pacific. I then enjoyed lunch on the city waterfront with New Caledonia Tourism manager, Jean Michel Foutrein, who reflected on what an exciting year ahead it was for New Caledonia.
With airport upgrades already underway and the new additions of Hilton and Sheraton property coming into the mix, Mr Foutrein said: “For us this will be a big step since the opening of Le Meridien 15 years ago.”
My accommodation this evening was one of the newest properties on the block – the Royal Tera Resort & Spa, which opened in 2011. This venue is a mix of chic-style and relaxation, and I’m given a tour by director of sales and marketing, Barbara Lambert, who also includes a peak at the 200-person conference room.
In total the property has 108 one and two-bedroom suites, with the majority offering lagoon views. Another attraction worthy of closer inspection is the Spa Aquatonic which has 10 pools with geysers, massage jets, and swan necks, and where I indulge myself in a moment of wellbeing and tranquility. For a serious dose of pampering there’s plenty of other options.
Feeling invigorated and extremely well-rested, I finish off the evening with a divine dinner at the Royal Tera Resort & Spa’s a la carte restaurant Le Taom.
My final day arrives all too quickly. I meet with my guide Francois Tran who takes me on a memorable discovery tour of the so-called River Blue Park located south from Noumea. An oasis of rare and unique flora and fauna, we visit the drowned forest, swim in the river, enjoy a barbecue, check out the park’s giant 40 metre high 1000-year-old kauri pine, admire New Caledonia’s rare national bird, the Kagu (cagou), in the wild, marvel at the vibrant, clear and rich colors of Yate Lake and fall in love with Mont-Dore, with its freshwater springs and forests. What a memorable day!
All good things must come to an end, but not before another exquisite dinner, this time at la Pirogue, one of the many restaurants along the pool level of the Royal Tera Resort & Spa.
As a destination for conferences and incentives New Caledonia has plenty to offer. This was truly a wonderful experience. Merci beaucoup to New Caledonia Tourism and partners, for making it such fun.