Round-the-world: Two half-days in Noumea

Coming and going between Australia and Lifou afforded us long layovers in Nouméa in both directions.

The driving force behind my interest in Nouméa is the Centre Culturel Tjibaou. The cultural center was named after Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a leader of the Kanak independence movement, assassinated in 1989. (Kanaks are Melanesian New Caledonians, and they form a plurality of the population in the territory.) The cultural center is the public heart of Kanak cultural life.

The cultural center is housed in a remarkable building above Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. Designed by Renzo Piano, it is worth a visit for its architectural ambition alone, though its showcasing of Kanak culture is fascinating and of great interest. The building consists of several conical structures meant to resemble traditional Kanak houses, though in a form designed to look unfinished. During our visit to the center, a fantastic exhibition on the art of the Torres Strait Islands was on display. Though the art of the Torres Strait Islands has many art world fans, it is very different from Australian Aboriginal art’s better-known conventions.

In light of the ever-brewing sentiment in favor of full independence among many residents of New Caledonia, it is an especially fascinating place to take stock of the development of Kanak culture. New Caledonia will hold a referendum on independence sometime in 2014 at the earliest.

Cultural connections to the surrounding region of Melanesia are prioritized for many in New Caledonia over connections to France. During our visit, the Fourth Melanesian Arts Festival was held in New Caledonia. The festival featured cultural performances by people from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu in addition to New Caledonia. Near the airport in Lifou there is a big spray-painted banner welcoming “Melanesian brothers” to the festival and proclaiming 2014 as the year when Kanaky (the Kanak term for New Caledonia) will be free.

But in central Nouméa, the vibe is French. Blonde fiftysomething matrons sun themselves on the balconies of modern apartment buildings downtown, and many shops are chic and air-conditioned. The city resembles a medium-sized city in the south of France or in another French overseas territory. (It reminded me most of all of Guadeloupe’s Pointe-à-Pitre). In Noumea we ate an outstanding meal at a very French restaurant called La Chaumière (11 bis Rue du Dr. Guégan) : tiny ravioli, fat local shrimp sautéed in garlic, and a bavarois poire for dessert. It was delicious, and quite possibly the best meal we had in New Caledonia, though it felt somewhat imposed and out of place.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route round-the-world series here.