Take the plunge
The dazzling blue lagoons of New Caledonia are more than enough excuse to jump ship, even from a ship with 12 decks of total decadence.
As we snorkel in water that’s the colour of the sapphire, my friend raises her head and rips off her mask. “Oh my God,” she screams with exhilaration across the natural aquarium, undoubtedly startling the colonies of multi-coloured fish in this magical bay on the western side of the island of Lifou in New Caledonia.
Unbeknown to me, my friend had only snorkelled once before, at Sydney’s Manly Beach, so I excuse her excited screams. Located between Cap Aime Martin to the west and Easo tribal village to the east, Jinek Bay is one of the most amazing snorkelling sites I’ve ever encountered (and I’ve seen a few), with its thousands of tropical fish, vividly coloured clams and spectacular coral heads. Earlier in the day, whales had been frolicking just offshore.
Afterwards we stroll with wet hair back to the other side of the island where a market is operating, and an island dance troupe, dressed in fiery red, is putting on a performance for the thousands of my fellow passengers from the cruise ship Carnival Spirit. We sit in the winter sun eating chicken kebabs grilled by a couple of Kanak children and served with coconut rice. Fresh papaya is our dessert, purchased from a man who expertly carves it with a huge knife. Some cruise-goers head for a chapel built by Catholic missionaries overlooking Santal Bay; others have their hair braided or enjoy an impromptu massage under a swaying palm tree. When we’ve had our fill of island life, Carnival Spirit is a short ride away on a tender boat.
Lifou is our second port of call on a nine-night cruise from Sydney to New Caledonia. We’d arrived early in the morning, giving us a full day to explore this tropical utopia.
Cruising is undoubtedly one of the best (and most affordable) ways to explore the French-speaking archipelago with its impossibly blue water, curving white beaches, fascinating Kanak culture, plus calorie-rich French pastries, wine and cheese.
My friend (a first-time cruiser) and I share a balcony cabin, which is cosy and comfortable. Each day we return to find our Indonesian steward had worked his magic, leaving towel art creations from swans to elephants on our twin beds. Some days we have afternoon tea at the Fountain Cafe with its doorstop-sized cakes; on others we have cocktails at the Atrium Bar, where it seems half the ship gathers at night. Days at sea are spent feasting in the main Empire Dining Room, attending a wine appreciation class, going to the gym, getting a facial and walking the decks with the wind whipping our hair. But all that is topped by the simple pleasure of a glass of wine on our balcony as we sail into another glorious tropical sunset.
Carnival Spirit has everything from mini-golf to the Serenity adults-only area, a day spa, a waterpark, sports court and casino. It’s a tad on the kitsch side in a Las Vegas type of way, but in saying that it truly caters for everyone. A Melbourne couple we meet go to the theatre every night. You can even learn how to make a knockout martini if that’s your bent.
The highlight for me, though, is waking up in a new port, with another slice of paradise begging to be discovered. Before disembarking at Lifou, we come into the Isle of Pines, flinging open the curtains to reveal jade-coloured waters and the spindly araucaria trees which give the Isle of Pines their name.
Onshore we join a turtle tour. As our runabout chases a large green turtle, a young Kanak boy dives in after it. As fast as he is, the turtle puts in a Thorpedo-like effort and gets away him. Ringing wet and shivering, the boy climbs back on to the boat, refusing our offer of a towel. While the turtles we’ve come to see are suffering performance anxiety, the dolphins are not. Out of nowhere, a pod put on a display you would swear had been pre-choreographed.
Back on land, fellow passengers, swim, snorkel and stroll the idyllic beaches. Others sit in the sun, eating grilled lobster, garlic snails and baguettes.
Over the remaining days we explore New Caledonia’s capital Noumea, stopping for pastries and a short black in one of the city’s famous boulangeries and stocking up on French wine. We visit Mare, another little-known Pacific gem with its dazzling Yejele Beach and the Natural Aquarium, an emerald-coloured pool imprisoned by a coral wall. As we sail for home, the sun’s rays silhouetting New Caledonia’s distinct pine trees against the landscape, we look back at a setting so beautiful, you have to wonder why Captain Cook, who stopped here briefly in 1773, sailed on.
Us, too, for that matter.
The writer was a guest of Carnival.
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