Lifou and Mare

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If you’ve only been to Noumea and you think you’ve seen New Caledonia, I’ve got news for you:  You haven’t.

Nothing wrong with the big city, but if you’re keen to discover the authentic side of this South Pacific gem, head out east to the Loyalty Islands, specifically Lifou and Mare.  Both are just fine for cruise passengers, but independent travellers have it best.

On these two very traditional islands, the population is well over 96 per cent indigenous Kanaks.  There are few, if any, restaurants, shops, hotels or even open petrol stations,  just extraordinarily glistening white palm-fringed beaches, lush forests full of butterflies, and a handful of tiny villages where the kids play, wave and grin at passers-by.


OK, Lifou first. It’s the biggest and most populous of the Loyalty Isles, but by biggest, we are not talking huge.  It’s just 80kms up and down, 35 kms across.

You could drive from north to south all the way in just over an hour, but you won’t.   Instead you’ll cope with the omnipresent speed bumps that slow you to 30 kilometers an hour so frequently the trip takes more like two hours, more if you stop often, which you will.

We spent four days and three nights here at a resort called Oasis de Kiamu almost at the southernmost end of the end.  Hugh advantage here: It’s got its own first-class restaurant (you’ll need it, since cafes are rare and close very early), and it boasts a gorgeous private beach.

“So what,” you say, “I’ll just go swimming anywhere I feel like.” Actually, no you won’t. Lifou is an upraised coral island so most of the shoreline is jagged and inaccessible. As well, the six Kanak tribes who own this island have reserved many of the scarce beaches for local use only. Stopping at one delectable (and unmarked) white beach, we were met by a local man who politely advised us, “Sorry, this is private.” No problem – There was a lovely public beach just 10 minutes further along the road.

How’s the snorkeling? Meh.  At Wadra Bay and Jinek Beach, especially, you’ll spot a nice colourful coral outcrop or two. If you are lucky, a school of brightly coloured fish will wander over your way, but more likely it’ll be just one….or none. 

So, if you don’t come here for the water diversions, why choose Lifou?  Here’s a one-word answer – vanilla.  The pods with all that yummy flavour grow spectacularly well here. Just ask Joseph.  We ran into his soft-spoken 62-tear-old (he told us) gentleman farmer outside his vanilla plantation near Mucaweng on the way to the very scenic Jokin Cliffs in the island’s far north.

Payment of a small fee agreed, we set out through the jungle to view the vanilla vines snaking their way up various trees.


Afterwards, he cut open some coconuts so we could refresh ourselves with the tasty clear ‘milk’ inside, then showed us how to scrape inside the nut for a sweet treat. 

After Joseph, it was time to take in the sweeping splendour of Jokin Cliffs, then discover what might have been the premier beach of the entire journey, the enticing curved white sands of Plage de Peng on the island’s west side. 

This is very much a beach for locals, where young men launch their boats for a day’s fishing and teenage girls splash in the water and talk about boys.  But everyone seemed very welcoming as we waded knee-deep in the pure, clear water on our way to a little rocky cove where someone had thoughtfully stashed a vivid yellow boat. It was bliss, the reason why you put up with chaotic airports and long lines to travel anywhere.


Okay, fair enough. It’s been more than 20 years since I last set foot on Mare as part of a three-day travel writers’ group trip.  But from what I deduced from more recent visitors, it has not changed a lot in a pair of decades. It is still a bastion of Kanak culture and tradition, and because it does not get heaps of visitors, come here and you’ll be an honoured guest.

There are two major attractions here, the natural aquarium and the 30-metre high cliffs of the Warrior’s Leap. The aquarium is a delectably coloured rockpool filled with brightly-coloured fish, fat turtles and even some coral. You can’t swim here but who cares?  Everything can be easily viewed from the edge of the pool, the water is that pure and transparent.

As for the cliffs, well, you’ve got to like heights, and I do.  The story goes that a young and very fit warrior was trapped here by fighters from a rival tribe. Rather than allow himself to be captured, he leapt across a seven-meter ravine and ran to safety. Sign him up for France’s next Olympic squad.

During our brief but delight-filled visit, we writers were taken to Yedjele Beach for a sweet swim, then we borrowed masks and snorkels to check out the action at Mebuet Beach, where a very inquisitive turtle followed me along over the reef wondering what on earth I seemed so interested in.

We ate very, very well on Mare. One morning a local family buried a recently deceased pig in hot coals; we feasted on it and a host of local vegetables late that afternoon. 

On the last night, our hosts prepared a magnificent seafood platter that memorably featured a pair of huge blue crabs.

Here’s a guarantee – Investigate and plan just a bit and you, too,  will experience culinary pleasures here on Mare that are most likely quite deliciously unique to this out-of-the-way locale.

So, thinking about New Caledonia? Sure, do it. But just like folks visiting Hawaii and only staying hanging around Waikiki, you are doing yourself a huge disservice just lurking in the capital.

Get out to the other islands. That’s where the real pleasure is.