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.

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)