A dazzling combination of French style and Melanesian culture, New Caledonia’s turquoise lagoon is the South Pacific’s best-kept secret. Daisy Dumas v_entures forth aboard the 37.2m_ Masteka 2.
Our skipper sucks on a never-ending roll-up while he gently tweaks the tiller in the light breeze. We are under full sail now, making steady progress north through Upi Bay, the bright red of the wooden outrigger cutting through shallow turquoise water. With my toes in the wash and the morning sun on my face, I’ve swapped one kind of sailing experience for an altogether different one.
On the New Caledonian Isle of Pines, transport is by traditional pirogue dugout and this morning our destination is equally picturesque. After a 45-minute walk through tropical forest, we wind our way up river to the “piscine naturelle”, a secluded swimming spot so dreamy it is almost perfect. The pool is a happy accident of white sand, warm water and coral, fish and giant clams, that are all fed through a narrow channel from the Pacific Ocean. Like much of this South Seas island, it is fringed with native Araucaria pines, statuesque against the bright streak of beach.
We are barely 60 nautical miles from Nouméa, the capital city of French outpost New Caledonia, and just a stone’s throw from some of the world’s best and least exploited diving spots. The Isle of Pines is a meeting of worlds: modern and ancient, colonial and tribal, French and Kanak (the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants); and, now, visitors and locals. The former come for the famously pure sand, clear water and pine trees; the latter simply haven’t left, and their deliberate efforts to remain separate from modern life mean that newcomers such as ourselves step into a land that time seems almost to have forgotten.
Local lore dictates that shrines protect the island’s eight tribes, while offerings to the land – a splash of coconut water, a bite of fresh lobster – nourish the spirits of ancestors. Hotel rooms are limited and many homes do not have running water or electricity. Most food eaten by the island’s 3,000 residents is fished or foraged and a single boulangerie takes care of daily bread. Life, the Isle of Pines way, is slow. Very slow.
It’s a boon, then, to have the comfort of Masteka 2 moored in Kuto Bay as we dig deeper into island life. The 37.2 metre yacht (whose home port is Sydney Harbour) is now the sole foreign-flagged superyacht to hold a charter licence in New Caledonia, a hard-won feat that finally opens the territory’s largely untouched wilderness to those who seek empty surf breaks, breathtaking diving and solitary beaches.
Remote as those privileges sound, they are surprisingly close to Nouméa for those fortunate enough to be visiting the region on a superyacht. With a population of 100,000, the city has everything to rival a small French metropolis, but colonial influence drops off swiftly away from the 400 kilometre-long mainland, or Grande Terre.
The Loyalty Islands, strung along the north of the territory, are alive with tribal culture, while the rugged mainland itself is also worth a look, says Rebecca Edwards, our chief stewardess. Home to running, hiking and cycling trails, its mountains have become an adventure lover’s Mecca, while horseback touring is an ideal way to traverse from the cowboy culture of the mainland’s west coast to the tribal mores of its eastern shores.
On the first night of the charter, as the sun sets over Prony Bay, just 30 nautical miles south-east of the capital, the ochre mud of flood-scarred valleys carved into the steep forested hillsides turns a deep shade of purple under the smudged sky. Surrounded on every side by the silent outcrops of the scrambled coastline, we find ourselves in a Jurassic world of hidden inlets, starfish-shaped bays and islands fringed by the fizz of waves on reef. The nature is raw, but on board Masteka 2 things are mellow. Having snorkelled over the fringing reef, spotting fronds of staghorn coral and trios of clownfish, we retreat to the spa pool with a glass of champagne in hand. As darkness falls, there is not a building, person or light to be seen from our mooring. We are utterly alone.
For a six-day charter, Matthew Stafford, the yacht’s captain, recommends heading south from Ile Ouen to some jaw-dropping diving spots in the five-island group, before casting east to the Isle of Pines. The entire area is a fraction of the world’s largest lagoon, a UNESCO World Heritage site that, thanks to tightly guarded restrictions is a jewel among the world’s diminishing pristine underwater environments. In a roundabout way, nickel is largely to thank for this: without the metal-mining industry that drove its economy until recent years, New Caledonia might have promoted its tourism far earlier – and the unvarnished beauty of this land of water and islands would have become as well visited as some of her neighbours.
“You can very quickly get away from it,” says Stafford of Masteka 2’s new cruising paradise. “When you get a good day, it is just beautiful blue waters and peace and quiet. The diving is fantastic, and in the right places the fishing is excellent. Finding another person on the beach is a busy day – and to me that isolation is beautiful.”
Fully refitted in 2017 with cream leather, cherry and walnut finishes, the yacht sleeps up to 12 in five comfortable, neat cabins, and even at full capacity has a spacious feel. Attention to detail is all part of the service from this tight- knit and highly experienced crew, from evening turndowns with inspirational life quotes left on our pillows to daily changes of dining table décor, and paddleboards and kayaks made ready at every stop, just in case.
And their stories are colourful. Juliano di Fuccia, our first officer, spent many years sailing off the Kimberley coast in Western Australia, diving for sea cucumbers in crocodile-infested waters that are not advisable to dip a toe into, let alone linger in for eight hours a day submerged at a depth of eight metres. Ioane Tava, the Fijian engineer, is an expert on this corner of the South Pacific, understanding both the culture and geography.
Together, and with the help of the 10 metre Boston Whaler that accompanies the yacht, they can get anywhere and everywhere New Caledonia’s waters allow. Fully set up for diving, the yacht is able to deliver those in search of underwater playgrounds to some serious coral action, thanks in part to the guidance of local divemaster and marine scientist Bastien Preuss. In Prony Bay, he points out a white-tipped reef shark, sea snakes and a green turtle. Later, at the Isle of Pines, we see remoras, drawn to our stern by underwater lights as we cast hand lines for night fishing.
On board, Australian chef Shayne Turbin is used to cooking the day’s catch and a culinary highlight of the trip is his Kanak-inspired fish curry, made with local blue prawns (their vivid hue is the result of feeding on the lagoon’s coloured plankton). Despite its tropical outlook, New Caledonia is also blessed with the gastronomical, if slightly counter-intuitive, advantage of its colonial connection. Jambon cru, gooey cheeses and foie gras – not to mention cases of Pouilly-Fumé and champagne – are regularly delivered from Paris to the islands, and all feature on the menu. Alongside the breakfast platters of papaya, passion fruit and pineapple, we are served croissants and pains au chocolat, fresh from Turbin’s favourite boulangerie in the capital.
“It’s a little bit of Paris on the Pacific,” Turbin says. “The French produce is amazing. You can’t get this anywhere other than France – it’s a unique area.” In his downtime during Masteka 2’s winter in New Caledonia, he can be found on Nouméa’s Baie des Citrons beach, under a coconut palm, eating baguette and cheese and watching the world go by. “Who doesn’t love that?” he grins.
This, as one of my companions quips, is the real south of France. But it’s also the home of a proud and vibrant Kanak culture and cuisine. After our swim at the Isle of Pines’ piscine naturelle, we have lunch on the nearby Moro islet with bites of smoked coconut flesh, before taking on a dozen local lobsters, grilled emperor fish, papaya salad and coconut rice. When the French arrived here in 1848, they found a people moving to their own rhythm, a place where cannibalism was alive and well and where tribal rule proved too strong to quash. The Isle of Pines remains largely tribally owned, its land protected by a single high chief, whose powerful family legacy has lasted more than two centuries.
Venturing further inland on the Isle of Pines, we make our way past yam fields and mango trees, dive down a barely signposted jungle track and into a vast, cool cave, stalactites piercing the darkness ahead. It is said to be the site of Queen Hortense’s hiding spot, when, in the mid-19th century, her ascension to power angered her male relatives, forcing her into hiding for fear of her life. Nowadays the cave lies empty – and cannibalism is a thing of the distant past – but the islanders remain keen to distance themselves from some influences of the outside world.
“When they see what’s going on the other side of the world,” Zerena Vama, our local guide, explains of tribal leaders, “they realise that somehow, something’s not working.” Their solution, she explains, is to limit visitor numbers and commerce on the island. “We take it very slowly,” she says with a bright smile, as she collects ripe passion fruit from the jungle floor.
Back on board, we dissect the day over Turbin’s fresh orange cake, and are struck by a culture, people and land the future of which is wrapped in the past. With its upcoming vote on independence, and a hunger from some quarters to reveal itself to the world, New Caledonia is poised for change. For now, though, it remains a well-kept secret. As they are fond of saying on the Isle of Pines: “Today’s today. Tomorrow, we’ll see.”
Masteka 2 is managed for charter by Ocean Alliance. She will be available for charter in New Caledonia between May and October, with a weekly charter rate from US$100,000.
Aircalin, the international airline of New Caledonia, operates 12 direct flights per week non-stop from Australia and six direct flights per week from New Zealand to Nouméa, New Caledonia. Flights take just over two hours from Brisbane, less than three hours from Sydney and Auckland and under four hours from Melbourne. Aircalin also offers direct flights to and from Tokyo, Osaka, Papeete, Nadi and Port Vila. Return business class fares start from A$1,820 from Sydney, A$1,637 from Brisbane, A$1,944 from Melbourne and NZ$2,211 from Auckland.
Start your trip at Château Royal Beach Resort & Spa in Nouméa’s Anse Vata Bay. This resort has multiple bars and restaurants, a beachfront swimming pool and a unique Aquatonic pool – a thalassotherapy concept imported from Thermes Marins de Saint-Malo in France.