A barrier reef surrounds New Caledonia’s main island of Grand Terre, creating one of the world’s largest tropical lagoons – and a sizable marine reserve is less than a half-hour boat ride from Noumea. (The French, being French, like to dive in the morning and be back ashore in time for a long lunch.) There are wreck dives and drift dives, but for something different, head to the southern end of the island. Here, underwater hydrothermals have created a massive, 120-foot-high stalagmite known as the Needle of Prony that reaches to within 5 feet of the surface.
The waters around New Caledonia are one of the best-kept secrets in the world of charter sailing. Both bareboat and crewed yachts are available in Noumea, and while the stunning beaches of Ile des Pins may be the most popular landfall here, the lesser known outer islands (Ouvea, Lifou, and the rest of the Loyalty Islands) are memorable throwbacks to an earlier South Seas. And for those wanting to stay a little closer to shore, the vast New Caledonia lagoon is the perfect setting for windsurfers, catamarans, and day sails.
Well, you probably not coming all this way just to flex your credit card, but Noumea has that enticing combination of duty-free shopping and French boutiques that have earned it the title of “Little Paris. ” Think of a scaled-down St. Martin (dresses, perfumes, jewelry), with the added bonus of Melanesian arts and crafts (from traditional masks and carvings to modern paintings).