Discover the Isle of Pines by Land, Air and Water
New Caledonia’s Isle of Pines sure does look the part of an “island closest to paradise”. Heavenly white-sand beaches ring the Isle of Pines, melding with the lagoon’s vivid blue waters and lined by majestic emerald Araucaria Pines from which the island got its name. Mighty coral reefs also shelter it from the ocean’s crashing waves, creating a delightful playground ideal for swimming and snorkelling. Several pristine islets are also just a short boat ride away, and many tours in the Isle of Pines bring guests to some of them for an authentic island lunch—fine sand in your toes, warm waters lapping at your feet and a feast of seafood on the table before you. The charm of the Isle of Pines also does not stop at the beaches and lagoon, as tantalizing as they are. Journey inland, veer off the beaten paths and you’ll find that cultural discoveries and epic adventures also await in the island’s wild heartland.
There’s just so, so many thing to see and do in the Isle of Pines, and you can experience them in more ways than one. Be it by land, water or air, the Isle of Pines is a marvel bound to take your breath away.
Taking on the Isle of Pines by water is perhaps the easiest since admittedly, most visitors to the island are pulled in by the world-famous lagoon. You might want to stay in a resort with direct access to the lagoon to make the most of your time, such as Le Meridien in Oro Bay and Oure Tera in Kanumera Bay. Both offer plenty of opportunities for water sports and activities such as snorkelling and kayaking. Here’s a checklist of the must-do water activities in the Isle of Pines:
- Kanumera Bay – Rising just a few metres off the beach, the Rocher de Kaa Nuë Méra or Sacred Rock is probably what will first hog your attention. Do not climb it! It’s called “Sacred Rock” for a reason and going there without prior authorization is forbidden. However, you can swim around it or walk on the narrow sandbank linking it to the mainland. The main thing about Kanumera Bay though is the astounding marine life between the bay and the Rock and the calm waters that make the area a snorkelling playground, so go get your goggles or snorkel and plunge right in!
- La Piscine Naturelle – It’s just impossible to lay eyes on the Natural Pool and not want to jump into it. Tall columnar pines border this huge pools and coral reefs protect it from the waves so visitors can enjoy the sparkling waters without having to worry about strong or sudden current. The best part about La Piscine Naturelle is that the water tends to be shallow enough that its colourful residents are visible from the surface! Do wear reef shoes though since there are scattered corals. There are also two ways to get to the pool. The first one is by following the trail not far from Le Meridien. A small amount will get you entrance to the trail that will take you to the pool after ten minutes of walking. The second one is for the adventurous people out there. Hop on a traditional Melanesian canoe from St. Joseph Bay and cross Upi Bay. Once there, follow the shaded path through the forest to a small channel that leads to the pool. The latter takes more time, about two hours, but the postcard scenery along the way is absolutely worth the detour!
- Upi Bay – The gorgeous Upi bay north of the island of Kotomo to the southeast is home to traditional outrigger canoes. Sail around the Isle of Pines aboard a Melanesian wooden boat, traverse Upi Bay’s calm waters, and uncover remote sailing grounds and peaceful bays the Isle of Pines is known for. Plus, dolphins and turtles are known to join in outrigger canoe trips in Upi Bay!
- Nokanhui and Moro Islets – With its dazzling waters and powdery white sand, it’s almost a sin to be in the Isle of Pines without setting foot in Nokanhui. The little sandbar rises in the heart of the blue lagoon, creating a stark contrast that will render you speechless. You can explore the entirety of Nokanhui in an hour since it really is small. It also makes a really good area for snorkelling so don’t forget your gear! Visit in the morning, then hop to the nearby Moro Islet for lunch. Most Nokanhui-Moro boat tours include a delightful seafood lunch of grilled lobsters and fish, so chances are your lunch will be waiting for you in the islet if you sign up for one.
It can be pretty hard to resist the pull of the turquoise waters, yes, but discovering the Isle of Pines by land is an experience those interested in the island’s culture and history would not want to miss. The most efficient way to tackle this is to take a mini bus round trip tour that immerses travellers in the island’s history. Take a look at these key sites soaked with legends and stories included in most tour itineraries:
- Statue of St. Maurice – Located in the town of Vao, the beloved statue commemorates the arrival of the first missionaries in the island. Totems depicting birds and wild animals surround the statue, a strong indication of how different religions and beliefs have melded together in the island.
- Notre-Dame de l’Assomption - Known simply as the Mission Church and also found in the centre of Vao, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption was built in 1960 by the island’s convicts. It is still being used daily and the interior is well-maintained. Take time to admire the panelled ceiling made from different timbers found around the island. Beautiful and colourful yet sombre statues of various saints stand along the walls, decorated with corals shells and tropical flowers—a common practice in the South Pacific.
- Grotto of Queen Hortense – Stories tell of Queen Hortense, then a young princess, hiding in a large cave to avoid harm when tribal wars broke out in 1855. Hortense was the daughter of the chief and so was the rightful heir to her father. The idea of a female leader didn’t sit quite well with the other tribes even though her own tribe welcomed it. Her father, sensing tension, sent 16-year-old Hortense into hiding for more than a year until things calmed down. The cave with the impressive stalagmites where the young queen found shelter is now the grotto.
- Convict prison ruins & Cemetery of the Deported – Found near Wero village is the ruins of a convict prison which once held around 3,000 French deportees from the Paris Commune. The crumbling 1870s stone prison is now overrun by weeds but it’s not hard to imagine how life must have been like for its residents. A short walk from the ruins is the Cemetery of the Deported dotted by 230 anonymous graves, another vestige of the island’s penitential past.
For lovers of the Great Outdoors, N’Ga Peak is waiting for you. It is the island’s highest point but since it rises at merely 262 metres, N’Ga Peak is an easy hour’s walk for most fitness levels. You’ll be rewarded at the top with magnificent 360° views of the turquoise waters, verdant pines and low-lying clouds that make up the Isle of Pines.
Now, imagine how the Isle of Pines in all its glory would look from above. Read this: the flight from Noumea to the island and the views at the summit of N’Ga Peak are just a small taste of the full aerial experience. Wading in the crystal clear waters of the lagoon sure is an amazing experience but if you’re going for something extraordinary and mind-blowing, take to the air and let the bird’s-eye views of the Isle’s iconic attractions give you the experience of a lifetime.
The easiest way to do this is to get on a helicopter. There are several tour operators who provide helicopter rides in the Isle of Pines so it should not be hard to find one. Flights often depart from Magenta Domestic Airport and takes approximately two hours, flying over major attractions including Kuto Bay, Brosse islet, Nokanhui Atoll, Oro Bay and Gadji Bay. Some also fly over Madeleine Falls and Yate Lake in Noumea on the return trip.
Here’s a tip: Schedule your helicopter ride in July and August since there’s a bigger possibility of seeing whales during these months!