An Isle of Pines in 50 shades of blue

Kuto Bay (New Caledonia), 29.08.2013

By now it should be clear that I found Sydney to be a perfectly clean and organised spot, so I’ll skip the descriptions of the airport and how I got there. My flight out of Australia with Aircalin, New Caledonia’s international carrier, was late. First half an hour, then more and more and more. Basically I spent most of Tuesday on Sydney’s airport, enjoying free WiFi, restaurants and reading, before we finally boarded. A crew member had gotten sick apparently, and the plane couldn’t take so many people on board, so the airline had to find volunteers to stay behind. All this took three hours. Once airborne, flying eastward, the sun went down quickly delivering an amazing array of colours from red to dark blue, with all shades in between, over an endless sky. We landed in Noumea in the dark, and yet another perfectly clean and modern airport welcomed me.

Since I had missed my connection flight and rebooked to the next day, I needed to find a hotel in town. The info counter at the international airport called one up that was close to the other, domestic airport, and a shuttle bus took me there in 45 mins, crossing also downtown Noumea. On the streets it felt like being in France, the roadsigns and organisation were the same. France was 4,5 months and 30.000km driving plus many hours’ flight away, yet here I found it again. Unfortunately, also the “comfort” of French midrange hotels was the same, although at the price of a night at the Imperial in New Delhi. New Caledonia in general was quite expensive, a cash vacuum cleaner. Nothing seemed to be included (airport transfer, breakfast, luggage in flights etc), and while the prices kept going up city by city since Bombay, value for money went down. The next morning, after a meagre and early breakfast, I took a cab to the airport. The hotel had ordered it the night before for 07:00, I left the hotel at 07:07 and instead of a “good morning” got a complaint by the driver that he was about to drive away due to my “10 minute delay”. Then he went on explaining everybody (me, other traffic participants and the airport security guy) how things would work better if he had his way. Bonjour! I thought to have left these kind of always complaining people behind in Europe. Anyway, a cab driver couldn’t ruin my day. Neither could the ground staff of Air Caledonie, who showed everyone how pissed they were to have to work so early in the morning. This airline allowed just 14 kg of luggage and 3 kg of hand luggage, the rest has to – guess what – be paid extra! The plane was full of Europeans and Japanese who did not come here exactly with their hand luggage. I kept calm, boarded the plane, and once we took off focused on the landscape below us. What a beauty! Beaches and bays everywhere, turquoise and light blue water, little white sails and fat green vegetation on every piece of land.

DSC_0001The flight to the Ile des Pins, the island of pines, took just half an hour. Time to pass the clouds and we were already on our way back down. The airport was very small, and the luggage got handed over a counter at the entrance of the terminal building. A shuttle bus drove us 15 minutes over the island to the hotel I had reserved. I got Ibis-hotel quality (shabby and in need of a makeover) for an Imperial-like rate (€€€), and Ryanair pricing (every service had to be paid extra). I had the feeling here and also later on, that the staff was really suffering to do its work. No smiles, short answers, little friendliness. Guests seemed to be a necessary evil. Opening hours of bars and restaurants were not made to make business, make customers spend money and feel well in this paradise environment, but rather to make staff have clear and short hours, extensive breaks to take life easy and never ever risk to have to work a minute of overtime or go the extra mile. I had to order my dinners hours in advance, hoping that all items on the menu were available. There was nothing to eat and hardly something to drink between breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was quite a contrast after many weeks in friendly and service oriented India and Indochina.

DSC_0033Anyway, the day I arrived a huge cruise ship made a stop in Kuto Bay and the place was flooded with its passengers. Most of these “boat people” were two or three times my weight, the skin in nice mozzarella colour, and armed with cameras and iPads they went strolling around in hordes, shouting. I rented a car and escaped, in search of the Piscine Naturelle and some peace to acclimatise. Driving over the island I spotted several breathtaking bays, some with small islands and all of them in a crystal clear sea, shining in so many shades of blue and turquoise. I have never seen such a beauty of marine nature in my life. I used to say to Europeans traveling abroad in search of the perfect beach that we forget the marvellous coasts we have at home, like the long white sand beaches of Portugal or the lovely and lonely bays in Greece, Croatia or Sardinia. But New Caledonia tops it all. I could spend hours describing the colours, the sandy beaches, the bays. Here on the Ile des Pins, the tropical vegetation is enriched by dense pine forests (hence the name), a beautiful combination. To get from the parking at Chez Regis camping and restaurant to the Piscine Naturelle I had to cross a stretch of shallow water (perfectly transparent with golden sand underneath and surrounded by pines and palms) and cross a forest. Then suddenly this natural pool, protected from the open sea by a reef, opened up in front of me. Without the boat people shouting around this would have been a magic moment, with the light breeze and the birds making the only noises, the water converting from completely transparent to light blue to deep turquoise. Absolutely breathtaking! The bath was cold and I had no snorkelling gear with me, what a pity, but swimming in this pool, among fish of all sizes and in this beautiful setting was something I’ll never forget.

DSC_0035Still amazed by the island and the piscine, I went in search for lunch. I left the bay on the other end from where I had come, through a sandy way that seemed to have been under water some time ago. The sand was patterned as if moved by waves, the rocks on my left carved out underneath by the sea. But there was no water, and nobody around. I walked on in complete silence, until I reached the Baie d’Oro. Again a stunning view of a dream bay, again these shades of blue shining bright, the sunlight reflecting on the sea. Both sides of the bay were fringed by palms and pines, and I walked along the beach. I found some people eating seafood on simple wooden tables on the beach and thought I had found exactly what I was looking for. Already anticipating the taste of fresh crabs, lobster or shrimps I went to a guys sitting in front of the kitchen. “Bonjour! Est-ce que je peux manger quelque chose ici?” “Oui?” (Yes, that’s what I wanted to hear!) “OK, que avez-vous a manger?” “Ah! Non non non… C’est fermé.” What??? I pointed at the people eating. He shook his head. It was 13:00 and this guy had no more food.

DSC_0052The seafood on the beach still on my mind, I left and found my way back to Chez Regis. Their restaurant was still open and I had some fried shrimps with rice. With an Orangina, I paid 2.800 francs (23,50€). Back in the car, I continued my discovery of the island, taking every road towards the sea I could find. Most of them ended on yet another paradise beach with amazing blue sea and palms and pines in shades of green and yellow. Shortly before getting back to Kuto Bay I visited the ruins of a French convict prison. Walking through the walls of this place recalled images of Papillon. The cells were either 1x2m or bigger rooms that took half a building. As I left through the small entrance I thought that is short step to the outside world 150 years ago would have been a dream for the prisoners kept here.

DSC_0077 DSC_0079 DSC_0083As the boat people left in the afternoon, calm came back to Kuto bay. Total calm. The bay is actually very beautiful, the beach a dream, gentle waves hit the shore in very long intervals and you can lay in the shade of palms looking at this amazing panorama for hours. That was exactly what I did almost the entire next day. As I stepped out of the bungalow in the morning there were no noises, not even wind and birds. I crossed the road in front of the hotel and walked on the beach right behind it, and the first sound I heard was a wave. Complete silence surrounded me, peace and sun and sand. I managed to sync my day to the restaurant’s timetable and after missing breakfast made it to both lunch and dinner. As the sun went down over the bay, colours changed from yellow to orange to fiery red in the sky over the blue water of the bay. I hope the next island will beat this, otherwise I’ll miss the island of pines from the moment I leave it tomorrow morning on the first flight.DSC_0091 DSC_0095 DSC_0097

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