There are not many places in the world where you can eat a truly authentic pain au chocolat against a vista of pine trees, turquoise seas and endless white, palm-fringed beaches, but New Caledonia is one of these heavens. This island, and particularly its capital, Nouméa, is a true outpost of France, while its position in the South Pacific ocean at 166°E and 22°S possibly makes it the most far-flung of all the pays doutre-mer.
The coastlines are washed by the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, and its shores are lined with vivid coral reefs and sandy islets. Its amazing scenery and safe anchorages make it a great place to cruise - if you can reach its remote location. In this respect we were fortunate, as Tom Perkins invited us to cruise aboard his new submarine-carrying yacht, Dr No.
After a three-hour flight from Sydney, our arrival in Nouméa was greeted by Dr No's captain, Christian Truter, and we set off for the Port du Sud Marina. Here, amid a number and quality of yachts that provide visual proof of the wealth of this mineral-rich island, another welcome awaited us from Dr No's crew; recent recruit Honey, an eight-week-old chocolate-brown miniature poodle, gave us the biggest and bounciest greeting of all.
The plan for the first day was to head towards the southern edge of Nouméas huge lagoon to test dive Dr No's Super Falcon submersible, which the yacht was converted to carry by the HYS Shipyard in Subic Bay, Philippines. An hour's motoring south through the calm turquoise water brought us to Amédée Island, where we dropped anchor in the shadow of a tall lighthouse that marks the main passe through the fringing reef.
The immediate task was for the crew, along with Graham Hawkes, the submarine's designer, to prepare the Super Falcon for a dive. The craft is unusual - not just for its ultra-cool looks, but also for the operating depth of 300 metres, together with positive buoyancy and wings that enable it to fly through the water at up to six knots.
"I wanted the underwater equivalent of a fighter jet, not a hot air balloon," says Perkins, and this machine surely fits his vision.
The two-man crew embarked and the sub was lowered into the water, where it became apparent that conditions were less than ideal. After recent heavy rains, the normally pristine lagoon waters were clouded by mud washed off the island, but this was a good opportunity to try the subs blind flying capabilities, guided only by the depth sounder and its pitch-and-roll instrument, similar to that on a light aircraft.
The dim shadow of an inquisitive shark was spotted soon after release, but there were no other sightings apart from a glimpse of the bottom - and the sub returned to base after 40 minutes of elegant, largely blind, manoeuvring beneath the waves.
The two guests being certified as scuba open water divers had a much more fruitful afternoon in the clearer water surrounding Amédée. They logged close encounters with green turtles, giant trevally, spawning sea cucumbers that reared up from the bottom and, more intriguingly, with the banded sea krait, a venomous sea snake. Local dive guides provide excellent insights into sensitive and safe interaction with potentially dangerous marine species such as this, as well as advising on the best places to dive.
That evening we took a tender ride to the sand-fringed Amédée Island to have a closer look at the lighthouse. A model of this beautiful edifice had been exhibited in London's Great Exhibition of 1851, while the actual cast iron structure was erected in Paris for two years to show off its new technology, before it was disassembled, shipped to New Caledonia and reassembled as a lasting monument to France's achievements.
From the moment we approached we could see it was special, particularly for its extreme height, decorative construction with star-headed bolts, and an onion-shaped base. Inside, rather than being starkly functional, its interior was trimmed with high-quality mahogany panelling.
Next morning, we scuba dived outside the passe in excellent conditions, and while big pelagics were absent, the coral cover was robust and the deep gullies and swim throughs made for a beautiful dive. In part, this was a reconnaissance for the afternoon's expedition in the submarine, which turned out to be incredible.
Piloted by Hawkes, we flew through the ancient coral seascape like the fighters in a Star Wars movie, parting schools of fish and twisting through the coral heads. So well was the Super Falcon accepted by the sea life around us that a remora attached itself to the submarine's composite hull, presumably hoping for a few scraps from its next meal.
We were not in New Caledonia at the optimum time of year, so we weren't surprised when the captain announced that the forecast for the next few days was poor, with a passing cyclone threatening high winds and torrential rain. We headed into the protected Baie de Prony, following the wild south-east coastline where steep-sided mountains with ancient mineral deposits colour the mountainous soils a deep rich red.
Opposite our anchorage we could see the old stone dwellings and jail house now crumbling into the ground or fossilised within encompassing tree roots. There was enough wind for Perkins to christen Miss Moneypenny, Dr No's new cat-boat, built in Areys Pond, Massachusetts.
She provided the perfect way to explore, with a large, open cockpit big enough to take a sizeable party ashore. As she sailed up the estuary and into the distance, a kayaking expedition was also launched to venture into the mangroves and discover some of the tributaries that feed the bay.
The following morning, despite the continuing heavy rain, a group went ashore to find a river we had been unable to locate by kayak, and unable to navigate by boat. The group traversed an abandoned open-cast nickel mine, stripped of vegetation and riven by deep gullies and potholes where the red soil had washed away.
This is a mining practice that, without restoration of the land to its former state, would be unacceptable in the West, but in New Caledonia - the third-largest producer of nickel in the world - it is sadly common. The run-off from the mine made the water so muddy that a planned dive on the Prony Needle, a pinnacle in the bay with a reputation for very large bull sharks, was totally impractical.
While we had plenty of rain, the strong winds forecast failed to arrive and next day Dr No rounded the southern tip of New Caledonia and headed north-west up its northern shoreline to the Bay de Ouinne, a good stepping-off point for the Loyalty Islands that lie some 50 miles offshore. Arriving in the afternoon, we went to an outer fringing reef near the Koaukoue passe, where the inner reef wall drops from 5m to 50m - an excellent spot for a wall dive.
We dropped in on a wahoo and a giant trevally that was trailing a white tip reef shark. Then our escort arrived: a small and curious grey reef shark. As we moved along the wall, more appeared until we had a group of eight showing interest in us. It seems they were not used to divers and displayed threatening postures, approaching us and circling with recognisably aggressive jerky movements. After several very close passes, we moved up towards the reef flat, away from their territory, though some continued to assert their dominance.
After such excitement it was definitely time for a relaxed cocktail hour back on board, where Tom's son, Tor, had created the Dr Nectar, our new signature sundowner. It was very welcome.
Then our escort arrived: a small and curious grey reef shark. As we moved along the wall, more appeared...
A pre-dawn start saw us heave anchor at 5.30am for the journey out towards Lifou, one of the Loyalty Islands to the east. The sun rose on a perfect cruising day with a gentle easterly swell that undulated through the glassy ocean. Sooty terns dipped their wing-tips in the seas as they flew in great circles, seeking out schools of fish. We passed bait balls and patches of frenzied activity, where birds gorged themselves and small tuna launched into the air to escape hungry mouths below.
On board, the pace slowed right down, most passing the time with a coffee in one hand and a book in the other. By 2pm we had sighted the wide sweep of the Baie de Jinek on the north west of Lifou, and as we neared shore the depth sounder showed a vertical rise in the bottom topography from 700m to 200m in clear blue water - potential areas for submarining.
The bay was bordered by low undercut limestone cliffs topped with a scattering of houses and churches, while massive coral-heads littered the white sandy bottom. Life slows down away from Noumea, and here the Melanesian pace of life really dominated. Absolutely nothing happens quickly in a place where time is measured by the rising of the tide or by a celebratory feast, and rarely by a wristwatch.
Gifts and permissions
To show our respect for the island's tribal leaders and the tradition of coutume, we offered a small token gift to the local chief. Traditionally, this is a piece of fabric and some tobacco that creates a feeling of kinship and shared obligations.
All lands, and the waters too, have a traditional owner and, by custom, permission must be sought prior to engaging in such activities as fishing, snorkelling and diving. One gets the impression that the traditional landowners are beginning to assert their rights and we had to be clear about our intentions in their waters.
Their main concern was, understandably, that while diving we would not fish or gather other food. The idea of us flying along the deep walls and coral plateaus of the sheltering reef in our submarine was never an issue.
Two days of amazing snorkelling and diving on the coral-heads in the lagoon followed. At night, whole ecosystems of fish were attracted by our stern lights, which inevitably turned into a feeding frenzy for the larger fish, while small larval crabs swarmed over the boat, sometimes making it as far as the upper deck and into the bridge.
Diving was combined with sailing, and Perkins took Miss Moneypenny to explore the coastline. We encountered an area filled with curious olive-coloured sea snakes that followed us on the dive and approached our masks, while one tried to curl up and have a rest under the fins of Tom's daughter-in-law, Shani.
While we cruised the lagoon in the tender, the dark shadows of manta rays passed beneath us, breaking the surface with their wing-tips, and green turtles were often spotted lolling on the surface.
Hawkes, Perkins and the captain had been making sure all the controls on the submarine were fully operational, running system checks on navigational gear, the thrust control and the oxygen units. The plan was to dive the famous Reciffe Shelter in the next few days, and looking at the chart, it was going to be awesome.
The next day Dr No was moved around the headland where the Super Falcon was launched for a short test dive, but immediately there was a problem. Unwittingly, the co-pilot had engaged astern propulsion and this had reversed the submarine almost vertically beneath Dr No's hull, where she disappeared from sight.
The bridge called the sub on the UQC (underwater sonar communications): it seemed the Super Falcon had just grazed the hull before the thrust was cut and, as its underwater flight responses were normal, the dive continued.
Afterwards a large horizontal crack was discovered across the entire surface of the port rudder. A decision had to be made whether to grind out the damage and fibreglass the entire piece, or to make a temporary fix and continue diving.
Any long-term solution would have meant that the sub was out of action for at least a couple of days, so a seamanlike splint was fashioned from whipping twine and marine ply, and the next day we launched in perfect conditions next to the Reciffe Shelter dive site in 40m of water. The wind was negligible, visibility was 50m plus and the current minimal fantastic conditions.
The dive site is on a huge plateau rising up from the sea floor to the surface, covered in massive healthy coral and thousands of chocolate-dipped damselfish, fusiliers and antheas.
Perkins and his son, Tor, spent 90 minutes under water in the sub, following the walls and canyons of the site. Above them, they could see the hull of Dr No in detail from a depth of 50m, while the shimmering silver form of the submersible could be seen equally well from the deck of the yacht as it glided beneath its hull. It was, they declared, their very best dive to date.
The following day, a pre-dawn departure took us some 25 miles north west to Ouvéa, a triangular atoll in the Loyalty group - and another incredible place.
Entering the lagoon, we cruised through water so gin-clear we were able to spot sea cucumbers littering the sandy bottom at 20m. We anchored in the lagoon, which is bounded on one side by an amazing 15 mile long white sand beach, and on the other by a sprinkling of islands and shallow passes through the coral reef, romantically called the Pleiades, after the cluster of stars.
Diving in the passes we saw eagle and manta rays, cuttlefish and a selection of sharks including grey reef sharks, white tips and a leopard shark. It's great to dive with a local guide who can take divers to the best spots without the need for a lengthy reconnaissance, but while our diving in Ouvéa started in this way, the local guide soon slipped into island time and, ultimately, just failed to turn up. So, as we had plenty of highly qualified divers in the crew, as well as Julien Buzzi from Tahiti Private Expeditions, we dived on our own for the last few days.
The highlight of the trips last dive was on an outer wall, where Tor found himself face to face with a large black manta ray cruising past for a clean-up by the reef fish
The highlight of the trip's last dive was on an outer wall, where Tor found himself face to face with a large black manta ray cruising past for a clean-up by the reef fish. He described the experience as totally incredible. Ouvéa, we decided, is a diving area with great potential, having multitudes of tunnels, caves and chasms to explore, all cut into the limestone of the ancient reefs. There are more discoveries to be made, as well as new dive sites to be explored by the more adventurous diver.
With the cruise almost at an end we departed the Loyalty Islands in the early hours of the morning. In the darkness, our transom had again become home to creatures feeding - this time a tangle of sea snakes and needlefish attracted to the stern lights. Soon, at least 20 sea kraits were gorging on small bait fish before slapping their paddle tails against the hull and disappearing back into the darkness - an amazing sight.
The last days of this amazing cruise were spent back among the mountainous bays of the south-east, where coconut trees and massive pines grow side-by-side. We sailed and kayaked, collected coconuts and hiked the trails. Steaks were cooked to perfection by the captain and a good deal of Dr Nectar consumed.
The next destination for Dr No and her Super Falcon will be Fiji and then Tonga, where the owner plans scientific research - following whales as they sound, in the hope of discovering exactly what they do. This is cruising at its best.
Photos by Roger Lean-Vercoe and Francesca Truter