Why you shouldn’t dismiss Noumea, if cruising to the South Pacific

NB – this is adapted from an ‘enrichment lecture’ I gave on board the Quantum of the Seas in late 2022. Some of the comments are trip-specific – but the point remains the same 🙂

It was on the old Sun Princess, back around this time in 2015.

I was in an elevator on the way to dinner, when a young family got on – a mother, and two of her children.

They started talking about where we were due to dock the next day, and whether they would even get off.

 “Can we stay on the ship?” asked one of the kids.

“I suppose so,” said mum .. “We are going to be in Noumea.”

“What’s Noumea?” asked the younger child.

“Umm – I’m not sure .. I think it’s an island…”

I didn’t bother to correct her (Noumea is, of course a city. The island is Grand Terre, the country is New Caledonia).

But I did wonder a bit – what will that woman (and more importantly, her children) take from this trip?

Now, not everyone is obsessive about researching their holiday destinations.

Not everyone goes to Trip Advisor, and Lonely Planet, and World Nomads, and Wikipedia, to find out what’s on offer where they are going.

Some people rely on the information given by destination guides on board ship, or their tour guides, or – well – people like me.

But to even consider staying on board a cruise ship on a port day, without knowing what the port has to offer?  Lets just say that’s not me.

Now, I’ll be honest .. if you WERE going to stay on board and miss a port in the South Pacific, Noumea would be a reasonable choice .. its not the most exciting destination I’ve ever been to.

But I am here to tell you, there IS still a lot to do, and see – and I’m not just talking about McDonalds.

Hello! I’m Graham Cairns.

Those of you who were here yesterday to hear my talk about missionaries and mercenaries, warriors and whalers will have heard me say that I am a retired journalist and public speaker, who loves to travel – especially cruising.

We’ve done perhaps a dozen cruises – and this is our sixth or seventh time to the Pacific Islands.

My wife Shirley and I are classic SKINs … that is, we are “Spending the Kids Inheritance Now” – but since we are both retired, money IS an object – so we tend not to do a lot of ship excursions, choosing instead to strike out on our own to investigate the history and culture of each destination.

Before I get started today, I have a question for you – show of hands, please: who here has signed up for an excursion in Noumea, on Mystery, or in Port Vila?

That’s excellent – I am sure you will have a good time – and it is NOT my intention today to convince you not to do one of those excursions, whether organized by Royal Caribbean, or a private group.

Rather, I just don’t want you to be like that woman who thought Noumea had nothing to offer.

Because it does. 

Especially when you consider art, and culture, and history.

Tomorrow, we are due in Noumea – and then Mystery Island, and then Port Vila on Saturday and Sunday.

So over the next 40 minutes or so, we’ll be looking at what you can see, and do, that doesn’t involve swimming with turtles or eating French pastries.

I do have to warn you, however, that we haven’t been back to the South Pacific since the pandemic began, so some of this information MAY be a little out of date.

I’ve done as much research as I can, however – and hopefully, even if a museum or gallery is closed, there will be other things for us all to explore as we sail our way through the region.

But I felt I should give you that caveat.

So – lets start with Noumea.

Who here has heard that Noumea is an unfriendly, boring place to visit, with nothing much to attract tourists apart from Anse Vata and Lemon Bay?

Well, I have to say that Noumea has some of the most fascinating museums I’ve been to in our region – one examining the culture of the local Kanak people, and another dedicated to World War Two.

Plus there are a couple of truly beautiful churches that are well worth a visit, some fascinating examples of street art, and a lookout to die for.

Lets start with the Tjibaou Cultural Centre – an amazing museum and indigenous art gallery that is itself in an astounding set of buildings.

Italian architect Renzo Piano designed the museum, with its sweeping spires and evocative styling.

Piano is also noted for designing The Shard in London, The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and the New York Times building. Oh – and he also designed a ship that some of you may have sailed on – the old Pacific Dawn, which (like this ship) was home-ported in Brisbane.

The cultural Centre is more than just a museum – its also an art gallery, and educational resource, a library, and home to some lovely garden walks.

It’s been a few years since we were last there, but it appears that entry is $1000 Pacific Francs – about 13 dollars Australian. There is a bus that costs about 200 francs – or a cab would be about $20, I am told.

Another museum that we can highly recommend is the Museum of the Second World War – the Musee de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale.

This is only a small museum, but it’s well worth an hour or two – and it is just a few streets away from the quay where we will be dropped off after we dock.

 With entry at 300xpf – or 100 xpf for seniors – this is a true gem – and its even free for veterans – although how they would judge that I don’t know.

There’s an English audio guide  although there are also plenty of captions in English. 

If you want an unvarnished look at New Caledonia’s role in the Pacific War, I heartily recommend this – it’s open from nine till noon and one till 5.

Other museums in Noumea that we haven’t visited but which get a good rep include the Maritime Museum (open from 10am-5pm, also a short walk from the cruise ship terminal) and the Museum of New Caledonia – but it appears to be closed. Again. Three times we have tried to visit, and each time its been shut for extensions, or upgrades, or something 😊

And the City Museum – or Musee de la Ville de Noumea – is about a 5 minute walk from the cruise ship terminal and again costs between 100 and 300 francs – or free for kids. It’s a good mix of local history, a special section on World War One (including Australia’s involvement) and even a small botanic gardens. Check it out if you don’t get too side-tracked with people-watching in the nearby Coconut Trees Park.

So – what else has Noumea got to offer in terms of art and culture?

Well, there are some highly regarded art galleries … they aren’t my thing, but if you are headed down to Anse Vata and the beach, drop into the Hilton Hotel complex and check out Lec Lec Tic gallery – it describes itself as specialising in kanak art – paintings, sculptures and prints. I see it also has some indigenous art from elsewhere in the region – including Australia.

Then, pretty much across the road is a gallery which I am told has some of the best tribal art to be found in the South Pacific – the Arts Premieres Gallery. It supposedly had pieces from New Caledonia, Vanuatu, PNG and the Solomons … as I say, I’ve never been, but those that have seem to give it high praise.

I’ll be honest – I am more into Street Art. Now, I know that not everyone likes what can be seen as graffiti vandalism – but I don’t know, there seems to me to be a vibrancy in the street art scene in New Caledonia.

There used to be a wall beside a car park near the cruise ship terminal that had an amazing gallery of street art – but I am told they finally renovated the building next to that vacant lot, and the wall of art is no more ☹

But I was just checking last week – and it appears that as one door closes, another opens. The building in question – the fascinating abandoned historic “Cheval House” has been repurposed as an art gallery. Unfortunately, in the renovations, the city-council sanctioned wall art was painted over ☹

But there are other examples of street art that can be found around Noumea …    

I can’t tell you where many of the pieces are – they are listed on the StreetArtNoumea Instagram group … but keep your eyes open, and you will see vibrant pieces everywhere around the city.

Art and Religion seem to go hand in hand – and that’s true for Noumea, let me tell you.

One example is the L’église de l’Immaculée Conception (or the Church of Immaculate Conception in English.)

I don’t know what it is about churches that attracts me when we travel – after all, I’ve been an agnostic since my teenage years.

But there is no doubt that churches, temples, shrines and mosques draw me like a moth to a flame.

And that was true in Noumea, as we discovered the Little Church of Miracles.

The church was built in 1874, and one of its key features is the dozens of small marble plaques along its walls. Each of them pays thanks to the Virgin Mary for some miracle, or stroke of luck, the grateful petitioners have benefited from – leading to the church being known as “the church of miracles”

It’s location on a hillside overlooking Noumea, and it’s pretty-as-a-picture interior, make this a must-see stop on many tours of Noumea .. especially those taking busloads of cruise-ship passengers on a brief overview of New Caledonia’s largest centre.

It also attracts thousands pilgrims every year on August 15 during the Feast of the Assumption, one of the most important days in the Catholic calendar and a public holiday in New Caledonia.

But to find it, you will either have to grab a cab, or take one of the guided tours on offer – because it’s a bit out of town.

Closer in to town is the Cathedral of St Joseph – which dominates the city (as is often the case with cathedrals). It’s an easy walk from the cruise ship terminal, and has lovely views of the marina below.

It MAY still be undergoing renovations – as it has for the last 3 or 4 years – but if you can get into the main church, it’s both peaceful and spectacular.

Talking of spectacular, there are some spectacular sights to see in and around Noumea – including the Ouen Toro lookout.

Noumea for ‘vous’

Ouen Toro Park is a hill on the southern outskirts of Noumea .. there are gun emplacements there, dating back to Noumea’s role as headquarters for Allied forces in the region in World War Two, and (as you can see) there are spectacular views.

In fact, If you look carefully in the middle of the picture, you’ll see sailing skiffs and windsurfers .. the bay below and the beaches nearby are a playground for locals and visitors alike.

So how do you get there? Well, I’ll be honest – I find the best way is by the much maligned Tchou Tchou Train.

This is a set of open carriages pulled along by a sort of tractor – and it gives tourists a 90 minute to two hour trip touching on the highlights of Noumea city and surrounds.

But there are Tchou Tchou Trains and there are Tchou Tchou trains ….

I mentioned that the trip time can vary – and the commentary can also vary significantly. As can the price.

The cruise-ship organised Tchou Tchou train will cost more than if you buy a ticket at the cruise ship terminal – but sometimes, you get what you pay for.

The cheaper versions sometimes skip a few stops – or have only sporadic commentary – so just be aware of that.

And for some people, the very concept of a cheesy oversized kids ride is a bit … tacky. Maybe. But I’ll be honest … I am sometimes just a big kid at heart. So – that’s just a few things that you might like to check out in Noumea …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s