Round-the-world: Dodging sea snakes on Lifou

From Sydney we took a two-and-a-half hour morning flight to the French territory of New Caledonia and then jumped into a taxi headed to Nouméa, the capital. We then spent the better part of an afternoon exploring the capital. (Don’t worry. I’ll circle back to Nouméa in a future post.) Ahead of us: six nights on Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s four Loyalty Islands.

Our Air Calédonie flight from Nouméa’s domestic airport to Lifou, arrives just before 6 pm. By 6:30 pm, when we get into the van organized by our hotel, it’s completely dark. We hurtle through the night. Most of the streets have no streetlights. Our driver points various things out: the bank; another bank; the mayor’s office; the post office. It is deeply exciting to be introduced to an unfamiliar place just beyond dusk.

Logistics first. There is a secret to every place you visit. On Lifou, the secret is that you need to rent a car. Distances are considerable. The best beaches are 12 or so miles apart from one another, and there is neither public transportation nor a taxi service.

The other secret, except that it’s not really a secret at all, is that the reefs around Lifou are teeming with highly venomous sea snakes. They are apparently very curious and have a habit of zipping over to snorkeling humans to say hello. Despite their serpentine toxicity, everybody claims that they are harmless. Ne pas toucher says the woman at the reception desk at our guest house, with a shrug. My fears are not assuaged.

On our first full day, we rent bikes built for people smaller than us. We bike along Lifou’s main road in early morning, stopping at little shops to pick up a baguette, tinned sardines, water, and crackers. We bike to Luengoni Beach (see above) on the island’s east coast. A deserted beach, a makeshift lunch. It is shockingly perfect, even with two rain showers. Returning in mid-afternoon we are caught unprepared by yet another rainstorm, this one pretty massive, though by the time we make it back to the guest house it has become very hot. The bike journey, at over 20 kilometers, is pretty arduous in the heat. We quickly came to the conclusion that we need a car and rent one the next day.

The cove opposite Oasis de Kiamu hotel.

Lifou’s beaches are ridiculous. The sand is powdery and white and the bays arc gently. There are two perfect beaches on Lifou’s east coast: Chateaubriand Bay, which cradles the town of Wé, the administrative center of the Loyalty Islands, and the beach in the settlement of Luengoni, to the south. There is a smaller beach further south along on Wiadra Bay, also picturesque although lacking the majesty of the largest beaches. There are also many coves, such as the one across the road from our comfortable guesthouse, Oasis de Kiamu (see above). The west coast is home to Peng beach, described by everyone as the most perfect of all. The road leading to Peng, however, is currently barricaded by locals protesting plans to build a new hotel there.
The view from Jokin’s cliff side perch.

Beaches aren’t the entire story on Lifou. We drive the island from top to bottom. At the northern end is the town of Jokin with its picturesque cliff side vistas (see above) over coral reefs. Inland along the western side of the island are dense forests and a string of villages that feel a world apart. The signs here are in Drehu, the local Kanak variant, not French. At one point a man raises his arm to wave at us and we notice that he is holding a rifle, presumably for hunting. The southern tip of the island is home to spectacular cliffs that permit views of Tiga, the smallest inhabited Loyalty island.

New Caledonia is a part of France, and Lifou is unmistakably part of the French-speaking world. That said, it is truly on the outskirts of the French state. Almost everyone speaks French, and emblems of the French government are omnipresent, yet the blending of contemporary and traditional forms of clothing among women, the presence of traditional Kanak huts next to modern houses, and the sharing of power between tribal and French jurisdictions makes for a place that feels like both an outpost of France and an emerging Pacific nation.

Lifou is not a budget destination. With the more or less obligatory car rental, costs come to about $160 a day per person for accommodations, meals, and transportation combined, assuming a double room share. By staying in tribal accommodations, getting meals from supermarkets, and eschewing a car rental, costs would plummet considerably, though probably not below $75 per day per person. Our costs included a nightly dinner at Oasis de Kiamu, our friendly little guest house. Three-course dinners, prefaced by an aperitif and an amuse-gueule, came to around 3800 francs (about $42). Our room cost 9000 francs per night, which is around $101.

Finally, back to the dreaded sea snakes. While terribly poisonous, they are, according to the research Matt did online, famously meek. They’re so agreeable, in fact, that fishermen apparently toss them by hand back into the ocean when they get tangled in nets.

I never saw one.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

How to take a round-the-world trip

An open-ended round-the-world trip can be led by whimsy and happenstance and benefit accordingly from extremely loose planning. A more structured, time-limited round-the-world trip necessitates figuring out transportation in advance. With five weeks to play with, we fell into the latter camp.

I emailed AirTreks in the spring and dutifully submitted an itinerary through their global map booking request system. AirTreks prices round-the-world itineraries, for fares well under what one would pay for each individual stretch.

Around this time, we made another decision, one personally radical. We would fly business-class the entire way. Such a choice certainly isn’t unusual for many frequent fliers, but for a budget traveler like myself who travels in coach barring those rare times I’m upgraded or am flying on someone else’s dime, this was a big shift in approach. This choice amplified the unusual nature of the itinerary, underscoring the fact that this trip wouldn’t be repeated or emulated anytime soon.

Once we nailed our itinerary down and decided to go with business-class tickets the entire way, we requested a new estimate from AirTreks. Then Matt started to play with the oneworld Explorer round-the-world booking engine. This is where things got interesting. The oneworld Explorer fare was several thousand dollars cheaper than the AirTreks fare.

There was really no decision to make. Even our patient AirTreks consultant urged us to go for the oneworld fare. We made the purchase. Though shockingly expensive by my own personal standards and customary budgetary constraints, the entire journey in business-class turned out to cost a few hundred dollars more than a single first-class round-trip ticket from New York to London.As far as subsequent planning is concerned, things have been pretty low-tech. We’ve got a handful of guidebooks (all Lonely Planet, though this is simply an accident of timing and availability) and a few downloaded iPhone apps, which I’ll comment on if they turn out to be at all helpful.

Other planning focused on the tips of friends and acquaintances. My sister, a food writer, recommended some Sydney restaurants. Melbourne chef Tony Tan, who I’d had the good fortune of meeting on my previous visit to Melbourne, passed on a must-visit list of new Melbourne restaurants. A friend of Mauritian background provided contact information of a villa rental company with beautiful properties that were simply too expensive for our budget. The exchange that followed didn’t help us with accommodations, but it did allow us to clarify our focus for Mauritius.

For hotels we scanned our guidebooks for mid-range accommodations and then searched online to get a general sense of how hotels were reviewed. I’ve always taken TripAdvisor with a massive grain of salt, as I’ve found on several occasions that I don’t mind the sorts of hotels pilloried by TripAdvisor contributors. But we did use TripAdvisor this time as a kind of quality control verification source. In one case, we nixed an otherwise appealing hotel choice based on a number of reviews that suggested an ongoing cockroach infestation.

We poked around online to find low rates at good hotels. In both Sydney and Melbourne, location was the key consideration. In Sydney we wanted a central neighborhood, and we ended up with a boutique hotel in Potts Point booked through Venere. In Melbourne I lobbied for a stay in St. Kilda, an area I remembered very fondly from my last visit. There we found a furnished studio apartment.

For our single night in Johannesburg, we decided to stay in a guesthouse in Sandton, a Johannesburg neighborhood with good restaurants. In New Caledonia, Mauritius, and Réunion, we focused on well-priced guesthouses and hotels in areas beyond built-up coastal tourist strips. In London, we opted for the Hilton in Canary Wharf because we found a good deal for it on Hotwire. The most expensive nightly rate we’re paying for a hotel is $165. The least pricey is around $82.

We made most of our hotel reservations in advance, leaving a few nights free in New Caledonia (to give us some freedom if we decided to change accommodations) and Réunion (a by-product of our inability thus far to find an inexpensive guesthouse in one of the island’s inland Cirques, or calderas.) We wanted to put logistics to bed as completely as possible in advance. More open-ended itineraries would probably benefit from fewer advance reservations.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Vinni123)

A round-the-world trip: Where?

Once I’d dispensed with my unrestricted fantasies of scurrying from seldom-visited corner to seldom-visited corner (see Monday’s post) we got down to the essentials of figuring out where we wanted to go.

The Micronesian islands of Palau and Yap were our first priorities. Both destinations had been on our radar for years. Palau with its faintly stinging marine lake jellyfish and the Federated Micronesian state of Yap with its enormous stone money both struck us as appealing in a magical, fairytale sort of way.

Once we’d identified our trip duration and got into the planning phase, however, the inclusion of Micronesia on our itinerary became a less appealing prospect. The flights there and onward were long. We’d need to overnight in Guam at least once, possibly twice, and though that wouldn’t be a hardship exactly, we wanted if at all possible to avoid layovers in places where we wouldn’t also be spending several nights.

The final clincher was the cost of zipping around Micronesia, which would have made an unavoidably pricey itinerary even more expensive. If we had been planning a round-the-Pacific tour, there is no question that Palau and Yap would have been included, but for a round-the-world trip they weren’t quite right. Reluctantly we crossed Micronesia off the list.Where else did we want to travel? We’d settled into a Southern Hemisphere focus, and we were keen to get back to Australia. We both wanted to visit Sydney and Melbourne. For a jaunt to a third city in Australia, Matt had made noises about Cairns and I focused on Perth. The inclusion of these two cities would have made a round-the-world air ticket even more complicated (more on that on Friday) so we dropped them and decided to divide our time in Australia between Sydney and Melbourne.

Years of thinking about Palau and Yap had us fantasizing about a Pacific island and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit one. We glanced across the region and zeroed in on a Pacific territory easily visited from Australia: New Caledonia, a French overseas “collectivity” three hours by plane from Sydney. We decided to sandwich six nights in New Caledonia between stays in Sydney and Melbourne. In New Caledonia we would spend most of our time on Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands, with a day reserved for checking out New Caledonia’s capital, Nouméa.

Beyond that, we wanted some time on Mauritius and the French overseas territory of Réunion, two Indian Ocean islands. To journey from Melbourne to Mauritius we’d need to break our rule against short layovers with a single night’s stay in Johannesburg. We’d then divide nine nights between Mauritius and Réunion, which is a short 50-minute flight from Mauritius.

From Mauritius we’d fly to London, where we’d spend the final days of our round-the-world itinerary visiting friends and exploring various East End neighborhoods.

Without further ado, here is the full itinerary: New York (via a stop to visit friends in New Orleans) to Sydney to Nouméa to Melbourne to Johannesburg to Mauritius to Réunion to London and then home to New York.

Seven stops in five weeks. After five years of daydreaming, it’d hard to believe that it’s now happening.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

(Image: Flickr/Eustaquio Santimano)

Exciting Repositioning Cruises for the Fall

Repositioning cruises are the leftovers of cruising. When cruise ships need to move from one port to another at seasonal cusps, they take less conventional itineraries to get from one home port to another. Repositioning cruises can often be booked for less than more conventional cruises on a per-night basis.

Repositioning cruises are also, somewhat ironically, a good option for independent (even round-the-world) travelers. A well-priced repositioning cruise can deliver travelers from one continent to another, sometimes for not much more than an airline ticket, and also permit visits (however short) to many ports in-between. While RTW travelers seldom look to repositioning cruises for inspiration, they should.

One of the more exciting repositioning cruises on the schedule this fall is Holland America’s 43-day Vancouver-Sydney crossing on the Volendam, which will take in Seattle, four ports in Hawaii, American Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, several ports in New Zealand, and several ports in Australia. It leaves September 22. The least expensive stateroom on offer comes to $3899 per person.

Holland America is also selling the above cruise with a termination in Auckland (29 days in total) for $2399.

For less ambitious prospective repositioning cruisers, Cruise Critic has published a useful list of some of the more intriguing shorter repositioning itineraries for the fall: 17 nights between Copenhagen and New York on Costa, leaving September 4; 18 nights between Vancouver and Fort Lauderdale on Holland America, leaving September 25; and 16 nights between Rome and Rio de Janeiro on Princess, leaving December 4.

(Image: Flickr/pmarkham)