If just any tropical playground won’t properly dazzle your senses, look toward the sparkling, blue-green lagoon surrounding New Caledonia for sights and experiences found nowhere else on Earth.
New Caledonia includes the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Belep archipelago, the Isle of Pines, the Chesterfield Islands in the Coral Sea and a few remote islets.
The remote archipelago – a French collectivity located in the southwest Pacific Ocean near the Coral Sea – features a unique culture and diverse biosphere like no other.
The lavish palm trees, white sandy beaches and natural wonders of New Caledonia serve as the backdrop for a charming mix of Melanesian and European cultures, gourmet food and distinctive experiences.
Want to visit one of the most unparalleled places on the planet? Check out the top people, places and things that can be found only in New Caledonia:
1. Endemic Kanak Culture
The Kanak, New Caledonia’s indigenous inhabitants, still constitute 40 percent of the French collectivity’s total population. While of Melanesian descent, the Kanak people’s precise origin remains unclear.
While global Kanak populations are almost entirely limited to the five largest of New Caledonia’s 500 islands, the people are extremely diverse, with clans and tribes that speak 28 distinct Kanak languages and many more dialects.
Even though the Kanak and European cultures remain distinct, they have naturally adopted customs and beliefs from one another over the past few centuries.
For example, while historically Kanak people worshiped nature and their ancestors, most modern inhabitants are Christian despite participating in traditional cultural gatherings. And the area’s mixture of European and Asian recipes create some of the most French food in the Pacific.
The people of New Caledonia have been deeply involved in arts and crafts long before the Kanak settled the archipelago. Ancient Lapita potteries found on the island date as early as 1500 B.C.
Traditional carvings of wooden hawks, serpents, turtles and ancient gods are common throughout the area. Kanak rituals and ceremonies often feature music, dancing and singing to form a closer bond with ancestors and fellow clan members.
Mwâ Ka, which means Big House or House of Man in Kanak, is a monumental 12-meter totem pole, divided into eight levels, each carved by an artist from one of the eight regions of New Caledonia.
The monument was erected in 2004 in the square across from the New Caledonia Museum, and serves as the the mast of a larger sculpture of a traditional double-hull canoe steered by a wooden helmsman. It celebrates Kanak identity as well as the multi-ethnic reality of New Caledonia.
2. Earth’s Ultimate Ecodiversity
New Caledonia’s distinct characteristics make it an ideal natural laboratory for evolution. Because Grande Terre’s central mountain range creates a variety of environmental niches and micro-climates – including dense evergreen forests, shrubland, wetlands, dry forests and savannah – New Caledonia possesses the richest biodiversity in the world.
The diverse biosphere derives from ancestral species that were isolated to New Caledonia when the region broke away from the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, which also included the areas that now make up Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, India and the Arabian Peninsula, about 90 million years ago.
New Caledonia’s biodiversity includes a total of five families, 107 genera and 3,380 species of plants and another 9,372 species, belonging to 3,582 genera and 1,107 families, of marine animals alone.
Entire species, genera and even families of plants and animals are endemic to New Caledonia and survive nowhere else on Earth.
For example, of the 35 known species of Araucaria, a genus of coniferous trees, 13 are endemic to New Caledonia. The region is also one of five on Earth with indigenous species of southern beeches, with five native to the area. Thanks to its unique biosphere, New Caledonia also boasts more endemic tropical gymnosperms species, than any similar region on Earth, including the only known parasitic gymnosperm.
The islands have no native mammals except for bats, and no native amphibians, but they boast 22 endemic species of birds.
However most of the endemic species consist of invertebrates such as sponges, mollusks, scorpions and arachnids – even 197 species of butterflies and moths found nowhere else on Earth.
3. Heart of Voh
The heart-shaped mangroves of the “Coeur de Voh” sit atop a bed of mud on the edge of a lagoon near the seaside town of Voh. Too large to see from the ground level, the now-famous formations were captured on film by photographer and reporter Frenchman Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who featured the aerial shot on the cover of his book, Earth From Above.
Saline flats around the mangrove that have relatively little plant life take on the almost-perfectly heart-shaped formation. A popular destination for those on holiday, the mangroves play an important role in preventing coastal erosion and stabilizing the sea floor.
4. Primate-like Intelligence
Scientists are increasingly studying the New-Caledonian crow in their quest to understand the evolution of intelligence.
The feeding habits of the all-black, medium-sized birds native to the archipelago, in which they make hooks, indicate they are capable of using tools. They are even capable of solving sophisticated cognitive tests.
The crows prey on grubs by creating stick and leaf tools to insert into the cracks and crevices in logs or branches, agitating the insects into biting the tool. The crows then withdraw their tools with the grubs still attached, and devours them.
Across New Caledonia, the bird is often referred to as a ‘qua-qua’ due to its distinctive call. It inhabits only the main island, Grande Terre, and one of the Loyalty Islands, Maré Island.
5. Giant Lifeforms
Several of New Caledonia’s indigenous species are notable for their sheer size. Ducula goliath, commonly known as the goliath imperial pigeon, for example, is the world’s largest species of extant pigeon. The largest gecko in the world, New Caledonian giant gecko or Leach’s giant gecko, is also endemic to the region.
The terror skink, the largest skink in the world, was actually thought to be extinct before being rediscovered in 1993.
At about 50-centimetres long, the terror skink is the third-largest reptilian predator on the island, the others being a prehistorically extinct land-going crocodile and certain varieties of Australian monitor lizard.
The world’s largest surviving species of fern is also endemic to to New Caledonia. In fact, Giant Fern Park – open since 2008 – allows visitors to explore the richness of the biodiversity of the area as the park’s dense rainforest displays a huge range of endemic wildlife – almost 70 percent of the park’s total population.
6. World’s Largest Lagoon
The New Caledonian barrier reef is the world’s second-longest double-barrier coral reef. While the reef surrounds New Caledonia’s largest island Grande Terre, as well as several smaller islands, it encloses the a lagoon of 24,000 square-kilometres — the world’s largest, with an average depth of 25 metres.
The lagoon is home to many marine species, ranging from single-celled plankton to larger fish and sharks. The reef boasts not only a great species diversity, but also a high level of endemism, as many species are found only in the New Caledonian reef.
Endangered dugongs inhabit the reef and lagoon, and the area serves as an important nesting site for the beloved yet endangered green sea turtle, the only surviving species of the genus Chelonia.
Whether for diving, fishing, boating, surfing or simply admiring its beauty, the New Caledonia lagoon and barrier reef with their white beaches and natural aquarium are the perfect elements of a dream holiday in paradise.
7. World’s Largest Francofolies Event
“Les Francofolies”, a music festival originally produced in France, has highlighted the best and brightest of the French music scene for more than 30 years. New Caledonia’s Tjibaou Cultural Center will host the world’s largest French-language music festival Sept. 8-10, 2017.
Numerous artists are expected, including renowned acts such as Black M, Boulevard des Airs, Cali, Claudio Capéo, H.F Thiéfaine, L.E.J, Miossec and Youssouph.
Francofolies will be not only a place where the public can meet international artists, but the “NC 1ère Village of the Francofolies” will be dedicated to the Caledonian scene Sept. 9-10.
Of course these are just a few of the countless reasons a trip to New Caledonia should be at the top of your bucket list. Which of the area’s qualities attracts you the most?