A tiny island, a dot on the map between Fiji, Tahiti, Australia and New Guinea, is attracting attention from avid divers and botanists.
Flying into the French Territory of New Caledonia, within the Melanesian sub-region of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll cross the barrier reef and enter the world’s largest lagoon, ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Seen from the sky, the green and turquoise shades of water, contrasted by the pearl white sands of the coral atolls is a spectacular sight.
Long and narrow like a Parisian baguette, the mountainous island is encircled by a thousand miles of thriving reefs, healthy corals and over 2,000 species of fish. The lagoon, a divers’ paradise, is home to three times more coral and fish species than the Australian Barrier Reef.
In July and August, after migrating from Antarctica, humpback whales rest and reproduce near the coast; threatened marine species, like sea turtle and dugongs, a species of sea cow, share the nutrient- rich waters with the whales.
Botanists and birders are trickling into New Caledonia, too. The island is ranked fifth in the world for biodiversity. In recent decades scientists have discovered 4,000 new plants, and in the southern province, 91% of the plants are indigenous.
Who knows what new medicines may come from these jungles?
There are different landscapes on every coast, from luxuriant forests chocked with colossal 75-foot ferns to savannah and coconut groves.
In the rainforest it’s possible to see the fifth most-rare bird in the world, the elusive Cagou, who is placid, fearless and approachable.
Before the presence of man and imported large mammals, bats and flying foxes were the only indigenous mammals on the island; the natural flora has no thorns, and the fauna, no natural defenses. And no snakes, scorpions or poisonous spiders threaten hikers.
Are you wondering why the Melanesian island of New Caledonia sounds faintly familiar?
During World War II the island was the US military headquarters for the Pacific and more than a million American troops spent time on the island.
Today this rich island, home to French citizens, indigenous Melanesian (Kanaks), Vietnamese and Indonesians is the world’s second largest nickel producer and has an unemployment rate of 2 percent.
The very-French and pricey capitol city, Noumea, welcomes large cruise ships from Holland America, Princess, Seabourne and P&O cruise lines.
Day-trippers can buy French pate, foie gras, baguettes, cheeses, mustards, and wine and tour tour to the Tjbaou Cultural Center, designed by world renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, which houses an exceptional collection of art celebrating the history and development of Kanak and other Oceania cultures and is named after a Kanak independence leader who was assassinated in 1989.
Visitors can swim, wind surf, kayak or snorkel along the beaches, or walk a few blocks from the Cruise Terminal to Coconut Tree Square, a lively Kanak meeting place, where the women are colorfully-dressed in missionary-style floral gowns and the men play petanque, a game similar to bocce ball.
Superb snorkeling, crystal-clear water and deserted white-sand beaches also lure visitors to nearby Island of Pines.
So, if you’re in the Coral Sea, plan on making a stop on New Caledonia –then cross it off your bucket list.
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