Noumea: The Pacific’s great missed opportunity



David Whitley heads to the capital of New Caledonia, and finds himself in a weird throwback.

Cities on paradise islands have a tendency to be surprisingly drab and functional. Samoa, for example, is largely stunning but anyone getting excited about Apia is seriously deluding themselves.

St John’s in Antigua tells a similar story – it’s an absolutely no-frills place where the shop fronts bear the first name of the guys who own them. Multinational logos are surprisingly hard to find.

Bearing this in mind, it would be unreasonable to expect all that much from Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. But it doesn’t fit the pattern.

Driving into Noumea from the airport – which is a good 40km out of town – it becomes clear that Noumea is on a bigger scale than many island capitals. It feels like a proper city rather than a service town, with a definable centre and beach suburbs that seem relatively well-to-do and have a strong smattering of bars and restaurants. It is clearly a city that aims for more than merely functional – it’s the hub of life in New Caledonia and also a holiday destination in its own right.

And it’s in the latter category where everything seems a little bit weird. The expectation might be of Pacific Island relaxedness and quirks, married to a distinctive French chic. But that doesn’t quite materialise.

It’s as if this may have been the case 20 years ago, but everything has been left to gather dust since.

That’s not to say Noumea feels dead – it doesn’t. But it does feel curiously dated, like it’s something that French holidaymakers would have loved in the 1980s, with barely a concession to anything that has happened afterwards. The most up-to-date fonts on shop or restaurant signs feel like they’re from about 1995 at the latest. Noumea feels stuck in the Amiga era while the rest of the world is on Macbooks.



Head to the hilltops, and you’ll get beautiful views out over the world’s largest lagoon, but there’s a remarkable sense of untapped resource here. It’s like France has just forgotten about this outpost of its empire, and the Aussies and New Zealanders would far sooner go to Bali and Fiji than muscle in and put their stamp on things.

The overall feel is of somewhere that could do with a kick up the backside. It doesn’t have a strong Melanesian vibe, while there’s an air of disgust and contempt for the place from the French people who live there. This goes beyond the usual Gallic grumpiness. And then there’s the food, which is both at best mediocre and extremely expensive.

More than a few tricks are being missed here. The main island – Grand Terre – is largely gorgeous, green and hilly, while the lagoon and its white sand beaches are ripe for tourism.

But New Caledonia seems slightly too big to do the proper Pacific Island paradise thing, and slightly too small to have a strong energy of its own. Hopefully, someone will soon find a way to wake Noumea from its bizarre frozen in time state.



by David Whitley






You can get the Noumea included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world

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