Saturday, July 12, 2014

New Caledonia Tour Journal – June 2014


My tour of New Caledonia was the fourth stop on the Pacific Island Nations tour scheduled with Advantage Travel & Tours, Poway, California.  The trip was a set tour by Advantage Travel; they called South Pacific Islands Explorer.  I was traveling with Lynn Bishop, Mary Warren and Bob Ihsen with whom I just had visited Kiribati, Samoa and Niue.

This journal starts as I arrive in Auckland, New Zealand from Niue, to layover waiting for my flight to New Caledonia.

Wednesday, June, 25, 2014:  In flight from Niue to Auckland, New Zealand

When we landed in Auckland we had crossed the International Date Line so it was Wednesday.  We checked into the Novotel Airport, a short walk in the rain from the International Arrivals Terminal.  They assigned us a room with twin beds on the Premier Floor.

For diner I walked back to the terminal Food Court.  It had stopped raining.  I ate a three piece KFC chicken dinner.  It was the first time I had had KFC chicken in years since they had closed the two near our house that we used to sometimes purchase for the Sunday Concerts in the Park.  I liked the chicken and their coleslaw at the food court.

After dinner I returned to my room and processed email and wrote in my journal until 22:30.

Thursday, June, 26, 2014: Fly Auckland, New Zealand to Noumea, New Caledonia

It felt nice to not have to rise to an alarm and I slept until 07:30.  Bob had already risen and was taking a shower so I called Judy on Vonage while I waited for my turn in the bathroom.  We went down to breakfast around 08:30.  Lynn and Mary were just finishing.  It was a buffet with some interesting offerings.  One hot dish was small cubes of steak which enabled me to have steak and eggs.  They also had a machine that turned oranges into juice which enabled me to get a whole orange from the top of the machine.  We returned to our room to pack and update our journals.

At 11:00 we checked out and walked across the road to the terminal.  I saw on the departures board that the flight to Noumea was a code share with Air New Zealand.  I tried to check in at the Air New Zealand Premier Counter but since I was flying on an Air Caledonia or Airclain as they liked to be called ticket I had to go to counter 25.  At that counter there was no line and the four of us got checked in.  The agent tried to enter my Star Alliance Gold number in the reservation but it would not accept it for miles but would accept it for service.

Bob and I then walked over to the Air New Zealand Premier room and took the elevator to Immigration and Security.  We passed through security quickly and walked to the Air New Zealand Lounge.  They rejected my access since I was not on the Air New Zealand ticket so we returned to the Departure Hall to wait for our gate to be listed.  I found a counter near Burger King that had electrical outlets where I plugged in my laptop and cellphone and wrote in my journal until an hour before boarding.  Bob arrived and we ate a Burger King cheeseburger.  I then packed up and walked to the boarding area.  They were just boarding Business Class.  I took a picture of the aircraft tail registration and boarded the plane with the Economy Class passengers.

The plane was an A-330-200 twin aisle and I had a whole middle row to myself.  It took a while to load the plane and all the announcements were first spoken in French and then in English.  I was able to watch a couple of TV shows waiting for takeoff and then a lousy movie ‘He's Just Not That Into You’ after takeoff.  They served a hot meal with free booze.

Upon landing in Noumea we encountered a little wait at the passport check because of the large load of passengers.  When I got to the luggage belt my bag was already on it.  I was the first through Customs and outside the terminal greeted with my name on a sign.  The driver didn’t speak much English and we were crammed into a Kia minivan.  Lynn sat in front with Mary squeezed between Bob and I in the back seat.  The driver was a retired French cop and insisted we wear seat belts in the back which were difficult for the three of us to attach.

We were booked into the Le Meriden hotel on the point of the island over 40 km from the airport.  It took 55 minutes to drive to the hotel.  Our room was adequate.  There was a glass window between the shower and the room but shutters were in the room to close over the window.  Below the window was a small shelf that could be used for my laptop.  Next to it was a wall outlet so I took the bed next to that arrangement.  I had difficulty using the wall outlet and a hotel Engineer had to come it to show me how to get around the safety feature of the outlet.

At 19:00 Bob and I went to dinner.  They were serving a buffet and it was one of the best I have ever experienced but it was also one of the most expensive.  After dinner we returned to the room and wrote in our journals.

Friday, June, 27, 2014:  Tour Noumea, New Caledonia

I had set my alarm for 07:30 but woke before then and showered and shave before then.  Bob and I went to breakfast at 07:15.  It was an extensive buffet and after over eating I went for a walk around the hotel grounds.  They had a large beautiful pool and a nice sandy beach but the buildings along the beach were fenced off for renovations.  I returned to the hotel, called Judy on Vonage and got ready to go on tour.
At 09:00 our local guide, Franck arrived.  He spoke with a French accent but we could understand him.
Noumea is the capital of New Caledonia which is a "special Collectivity" of France but the currency is the CFP franc.  French is the official language, although English is common and the Melanesian languages are still used in the villages.

New Caledonia's capital is a bastion of French culture.  Yet just down the road, the indigenous Kanaks dress in colorful ankle-length dresses while their sarong-clad husbands fish the reef with spears for the evening's meal.  The stark contrast of modern and ancient cultures illustrates the dichotomy of paradise: the natives who have survived a century of repression, and the French settlers who represent the last surviving stronghold of white colonialism in Melanesia.  Just off the coast, one of the longest barrier reef in the world shelters 350 species of coral and 1,500 species of fish. Inland, a full third of the world's reserves of nickel is mined, as well as other minerals such as tungsten, cobalt, copper and manganese.

Captain Cook was the first European on the island, arriving in 1774.  Later Napoleon annexed New Caledonia to house a penal colony.  The importation of foreign disease, however, virtually devastated the Kanak population which declined by two-thirds.

Settled by both Britain and France during the first half of the 19th century, the island became a French possession in 1853. It served as a penal colony for four decades after 1864.  Modern history has been dominated by WWII, the discovery of nickel, and the Kanak struggle for self-rule.  The territory was an important Allied base in 1942, and after the war the Kanaks were given French citizenship.

Agitation for independence during the 1980s and early 1990s ended in the 1998 Noumea Accord, which over a period of 15 to 20 years will transfer an increasing amount of governing responsibility from France to New Caledonia.  The agreement also commits France to conduct a referendum between 2014 and 2018 to decide whether New Caledonia should assume full sovereignty and independence.  The population is estimated as 267,840.

Franck drove us in a Renault Trafic Van, up the east side of the island past the Domestic Airport that serves the outer islands, to the Tjibaou Cultural Center, located on the Tina peninsula.  It was architectural site to see.  It was designed by the famous architect Renzo Piano in a very modern shape that gave the look of the Melanesian style.  We took an hour to tour the center and the grounds which included a Melanesian village with very tall cone shaped thatched roofs.  Throughout the rooms, hallways and the grounds were Melanesian statues and art work.

Leaving the Culture Center we rode to Ouen Toro Hill for a panoramic view over Noumea and seawards to the tropical islets and blue waters protected by the barrier reef.  Two cannon from WW II sit on top of the hill.

Leaving the hill we rode through the city and up to the Saint Joseph Cathedral built at the beginning of the 1900’s it sits on top of a hill and has beautiful stained glass windows.  In the plaza alongside the church stands a statute of Saint Joseph erected in 1901.  We then rode to the ‘FOL’ Art Theater which was adorned with graffiti, some artfully done but it my eye a tasteless ruination of art.  We stopped to take in the view below of a bay.

Outside the three Melanesian thatched roof buildings we saw at the culture center, Noumea looks and feels like a French Riviera city.  All the buildings are of French architecture.  We even rode through the old section of the city and stopped to tour several colonial homes with beautiful gardens on both sides of the walk from the gate on the street to the steps of the front porch.   The city even has a Latin Quarter, China Town and a Vietnamese area.  It has casinos, and European shops.  The local ethnic people are called Kanaks and are descendants of European and North Africans that were set to the island as prisoners and given land to settle after they completed their sentences.

In the harbor were large high speed ferries to take people and vehicles to the outer islands of Mare, Isle of Pines, Lifou and Ouvea.  We stopped at a Supermarket to purchase water and snacks and were delivered back to the hotel by 13:00.

Bob and I decided to venture out for lunch.  We walked out the front of the hotel and up a steep driveway.  Along the driveway was a Casino that I remembered bordered on the street so we walked through the Casino as a short cut.  On the street we walked down a hill to the waterfront and along the seawall to a group of restaurants.  We stopped at Le Fare Palm Beach where we ate a sandwich.

I had noticed that when we reached the beach that looking up the beach the distance to our hotel was a lot shorter than the route we took up and down a hill.  After lunch Bob decided to walk along the beach to the north of the bay while I decided to return to the hotel.  I walked on the beach, past a topless sunbather and came upon a woman and her two children that had been on our flight into New Caledonia and had been in front of me at the passport checkpoint.  At the time I had noticed she had a Canadian passport.  She recognized me also and we talked a bit while her kids played in the sand.  A short distance on was a path to my hotel pool.

Back in our room I wrote in my journal until dinner.  Bob and I met Lynn and Mary and we ate in the a la carte restaurant.  I had the beef fillet.  The dinner was very French with a small soup before the main course.  The meal was good but not as good as Brandywine, the local French restaurant that I eat at in Woodland Hills.

After dinner we returned to our room and retired by 22:00.

It had been a short visit to New Caledonia but I had visited a few places that I had not visited on my previous stops in New Caledonia.

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