What do you call a South Pacific island paradise on a grey, windswept day?
You call it still gorgeous. And also, Iles Des Pins – or Isle of Pines in English.
A part of New Caledonia, the island (called Kwenyii in the local Kanak dialect) has around 2,000 residents – mainly Melanesian Kanaks. Like its sister islands in New Caledonia, it has a rich and storied history involving both local people and European influences.
It was named by James Cook, who didn’t stop – but spotted the island’s eponymous pine trees as he sailed past. Then, in the 1850s, it became a French colony, like much of the South Pacific. Since then, it’s been a penal colony, a small-scale agricultural site, and finally a tourist destination.
It’s also host to a Le Meridien resort and a handful of other guest houses and small hotels – but almost all of the visitors are day-trippers coming ashore from cruise ships, who spend a scant few hours on the island before reboarding their floating hotels and sailing away.
Many take advantage of the tours and excursions organised by the cruise lines – such as trips to the ruins of a penal colony established in the 1870s by France, to house prisoners deported after the brutal crushing of the Paris Commune.
The ruins are at the village of Ouro, on the western side of the island, and are considered a ‘must see’ by many, as is the village of Vao, home to the Notre Dame de l’Assomption Catholic Church.
Other attractions include natural caves, and craft village stalls, and the Piscene Naturelle, reportedly one of the best snorkeling spots in the South Pacific – but it was closed on the day we visited.
So we chose, instead, to swim and snorkel at Kanumera Bay – just 500 metres or so from the dock.
And even though it wasn’t the best day, weather wise, it was an extraordinary experience.
The waters were crystal clear, the sands were clean and bright, and while hundreds of tourists had disgorged from our ship (the Carnival Spirit), there was enough room that it didn’t feel crowded – unlike the cheek-by-jowl jostling that you often get at cruise destinations.
Of course, if it had been a sunny summer’s day (rather than a somewhat cloudy May) things may have been different – but we weren’t complaining.
The snorkeling wasn’t the best I’ve ever done – but there were plenty of fish, with riots of colour.
As we wandered to the beach, we passed some locals selling salad baguettes for lunch so we bought one, and saved much of the bread after eating the innards. Why? To use one of the best tips I’ve ever been given: seal the bread in plastic wrap, then release some of the crumbs underwater. Another technique that’s been suggested it to use little packs of cracker biscuits that are sealed in cellophane, and crush them carefully still in their individual packs. Then, when you want to attract fish for hand-feeding, tear a corner and gently puff the crumbs out.
We didn’t have any crackers – and hence used bread. The result was as good as expected 🙂
Kanumera Bay is very pretty, and has a small rocky islet at one side. Unfortunately, despite signs urging people not to climb on the ‘Sacred Rock’, some did – ignoring local tradition. Over the years, the influx of tourists to the bay has also damaged the coral just off shore, with large patches of broken coral – too large to be just the result of wave action.
The picture-perfect bay is also host to a number of boutique stores, a small hotel, and deck-chairs aplenty – where cruise ship passengers and other visitors alike can sit, and relax, and take in the scenery – a balm for the soul.
All too soon, or course, passengers have to re-board; the average length of stay is just six hours. But while the time is short, the memories are much longer-lasting. And aren’t those memories the very best tonic?