For years, New Caledon­ians have used the catch phrase “France in the Pacific” to promote their country to the international tourist market. And it’s certainly that, with a mélange of fashionistas and folks clad in the casual, brightly-coloured clothing that reflects an island lifestyle.

There are inspiring landscapes and water that is as intensely turquoise as it is rich with marine wonders. But amidst the exotic setting, the country’s capital city, Noumea, emits a distinctly European feel, thanks to its colonial buildings, town square, gardens, markets, designer boutiques, patisseries and sidewalk cafes.

While Aussies, New Zealanders, the Japanese and the French have flocked to this South Pacific paradise for years, no one I knew could offer me any firsthand advice before I journeyed there myself.

In fact, I wasn’t exactly certain where it was in the South Pacific. By the time I returned, however, I knew it was in a place that defines natural beauty.

New Caledonia is composed principally of the Isle of Pines, Loyalty Islands and a mainland that’s divided into northern and southern prov­inces. The archipelago is splendidly tucked amid a trio of better-known getaways. Noumea lies about 1,970 kilometres northeast of Sydney, 1,805 kilometres northwest of Auckland and 1,300 kilometres southwest of Nadi, Fiji.

So it’s a perfect stop for travellers heading to any of these more prominent destinations.

But for those into diving, there’s little need to go elsewhere. The mainland is cocooned in the world’s largest lagoon, with water temperatures that range from an inviting 21 to 28 C. The reef can be as close as a couple of kilometres from the coast in some places and over 60 in others.

This magnificent marine environment bursts with fluorescent corals, sea cows, starfish, sea sponges, turtles, sea urchins and even humpback whales. So to call it an aquatic paradise understates the case somewhat.

Upon arriving at Tontouta International on my Aircalin, aircalinusa.com, flight from LAX, I hit the ground running. Even before I checked in at Le Meridien Noumea, www.emeridien.com/noumea, I took in the Tjibaou Cultural Center, www.adck.nc.

This move paid off in spades since it provided me with a solid background on New Caledonia’s Kanak people and what I’d be exposed to during my adventures.

Housing a collection of art and traditional craftwork gathered from throughout New Caledonia and the wider Pacific, this architectural masterpiece showcases the Kanak culture via three “villages” linked by a pathway that winds through gardens along the footsteps of their mythical First Man, Tea Kanake.

The distinctive Great Houses stylized design reflects traditional housing forms of varying height and surface treatment; though the centre was also given a deliberately unfinished element as a reminder that Kanak culture is still evolving.

After a healthy dose of local insight, I headed back to the colorful capital of Noumea. In 1854, a French naval officer, Tardy de Montravel, was so charmed by the natural port that he laid claim to the site.

Since then, it’s been fashioned by sailors and missionaries, governed by the French military and claimed as a US Army headquarters during the Second World War.

Today, this peninsula city emits a distinctive European feel with its colonial buildings, town square, gardens, markets, designer boutiques, patisseries and sidewalk cafes. For handy sightseeing, a small train makes a scenic circuit with stops at key sites between the city center and the main tourist area of Anse Vata.

Tight on time but determined to explore the Southern Province’s interior landscapes, I opted for a highly recommended Caledonia Tours, caledoniatours@lagoon.nc, excursion to Blue River Park. Our host, Francois Tran, was perhaps the most well-versed guide I’ve ever encountered.

While I could have rented a car and ventured there on my own, I would have certainly missed so much of the magic that could only be shared by a native in the know.

Both a gentleman and a scholar of all things New Caledonian, Tran shared with us the 22,350-acre forest reserve that’s home to a plethora of native plants and wildlife, including the territory’s rare and revered cagou birds.

Missing out on the Northern Province and Loyalty Islands, I did manage a day trip to the Isle of Pines — yet another good move.

This sliver of heaven that measures a mere 5.5 miles wide and 11 miles long proves once again that good things come in small packages. Even before my 20-minute Air Caledonie, air-caledonie.nc, flight from Noumea’s domestic Magenta Airport landed, it was obvious how this beauty garnered the moniker The Jewel of the Pacific.

Etched with towering Araucaria pines, aquamarine lagoons and powdery white sand beaches, it’s stunning in every sense of the word. Here, I finally dove into the warm water world that surrounds this remote destination.

After an island tour, I sailed on a traditional Melanesian pirogue or outrigger, kayaked and snorkelled in a natural swimming pool at Oro Bay. If you’re into aquatic bliss like I am, Isle of Pines will put you over the edge.

True to nearly everything in New Caledonia, this was yet another of those dreamy places I never wanted to leave. My only consolation was knowing I could return.

On the web

www.visitnewcaledonia.com
www.Iles-loyaute.com
www.tourismeprovincenord.nc/US/index.php
www.newcaledoniatourism-south.com