6 things to do when you visit Noumea for the first time
New Caledonia is a very different place to the other South Pacific holiday destinations. In contrast to many other island nations it can be considered a wealthy nation thanks to the enormous nickel mining operations on Grande-Terre. This difference is very easy to see when wandering the streets and visiting the suburbs of Noumea.
The streets are clean, well maintained, there’s plenty of cars around – Peugeots of course. It’s a pleasure just walking around under the shady palm trees and enjoying the views of the bays. Envy might be your constant companion when looking at the marinas that are home to so many luxury yachts.
Beyond the city centre which has some really interesting sites including colonial buildings, memorials, parks and museums, there’s so much more to discover. It makes sense to either join a city tour or hop on the famous Tchou-Tchou train which touches on pretty much all of the tourist landmarks of the island. Just visit the local tourist office to get a better idea on your preferred mode of transport.
Here are my top things to do in Noumea, Grande-Terre, New Caledonia:
1. Discover the city centre on foot
If you arrive in Noumea on a cruise ship you will be able to reach the city centre by foot quite easily. However, don’t forget to bring a hat and sunscreen and some water, as the humid and hot conditions can be quite a strain. Just take it easy, apply a slow pace and don’t overdo it.
The good thing is that we are not taking about a massive centre ville, it is all pretty handy and close by.
There’s a couple of things to see in the city centre of Noumea, namely the Place des Cocotiers with its massive trees, an open-air chess board and pétanque pitch. You will see nice colonial buildings such as the one that now houses the Musee de la ville de Noumea, and some charming old-world facades that are partly abandoned and are now being bleached by the harsh South Pacific Sun.
2. Visit a market
So I always recommend paying a visit to a local market. Markets are a wonderful thing – full of sights and sounds and smells, some of them fragrant, some of them less pleasant. There’s the noise of hundreds of voices speaking a foreign language at once, kids enjoying ice-creams and neighbours stopping for a chat.
Markets are great for exploring the local produce and cuisine, for feeling part of the crowd. The Marché municipal de Noumea is offering a great mix of both – touristy stuff as well as the everyday items and groceries. There are some beautiful handmade shell and coral jewellery to choose from, just have a look yourself! We always try to find a local deity carved in stone to take home, and we were lucky here. The market is under cover, so you are protected from sun and rain, and it’s open every day except Mondays. On the weekends it gets really busy!
3. See South Pacific street art and graffiti
You wouldn’t necessarily think that Noumea was a hot spot for graffiti art, but in fact it is. Just take a tour up to the abandoned theatre of FOL which was badly damaged in a tropical cyclone and which is now closed.
The exterior walls however have attracted a number of local artists, and they turn this rather sad place into something fun and colourful that pitches just perfectly against the bright blue New Caledonian sky. I’ve seen locals coming up here just to enjoy their packed lunch. There’s also the views of the city of course, so even more reason to pay this place a visit.
4. Experience a bit of Côte d’Azur flair in Lemon Bay
New Caledonia is distinctively French, it pretty much oozes French Savoir Vivre in every corner. The Lemon Bay, or Baie des Citrons, is probably the most French-y place you will find in Grande-Terre – a long stretch of beach with a palm-fringed promenade and a handful of really chic and interesting shops, cafes and restaurants.
There’s also the very prominent Le Roof restaurant which protrudes out into the water on its long pier, a stunning and very romantic place at night. But all you need to do really is join the locals with a good book in your hand, find a cosy place under a palm tree and enjoy the dreamy views of Duck Island (Îlot Canard) in the distance.
5. Learn more about the New Caledonian people at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre
It’s a bit of a shame that the New Caledonian cultural centre is so far away from the city centre. I think it really misses out on the opportunity of attracting more visitors from overseas. It’s not exactly hard to reach though, just ask at the tourist information centre and they will point you in the right direction.
And trust me when I say that this is a place you will be happy to have visited: the architecture of this museum is simply stunning! Designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, who is also responsible for world-famous structures like the London Shard, this building blends perfectly into the overall shapes, colours and appearance of the New Caledonian islands, yet in a very classy and post-modern way.
The vertically slated fronts reach up into the sky not unlike the famous pines of the Isle of Pines, the different parts of the buildings stand tall like sails. The materials used are warm and soft, timber mostly, and the interiors offer seamlessly flowing experiences between the inside and the outside and the different sections of the museum.
But enough of the building: You don’t even have to enter the cultural centre for some great insights into the New Caledonian cultures. Outside in the landscaped gardens you will find a whole collection of kanak huts and totems, all wonderful and so distinguished in their own way.
6. Visit the Cathédrale de Noumea for some great views
Not far from the city centre you will find the Cathédrale Saint-Joseph de Nouméa – it’s a great place if you want to enjoy some views across the city. I particularly like the little statue of Joan of Arc. Not surprisingly, the French manage to make even holy people look a bit sexy, don’t you think?