Thursday, December 03, 2009

Try something new…the Paris end of the South Pacific.

Tired of holidaying in wet New Zealand, humid Bali and arctic Tasmania? Want somewhere closer, with an accent, and totally gay friendly? Try New Caledonia. (The new 'Gay Paree' ?)

Where is this French Territory? Just 2.5 hours by Aircalin from Australia and Auckland.

What’s new about this gay getaway hotspot is the attitude of the local tourism industry. which is actively courting Aussie gay tourists for romance, for gourmet indulgences, for quiet relaxation, even adrenalin activities. (It has been a learning curve, with individuals at the national airline and tourism board talking with gay businesses, bloggers, media and IGLTA representatives for more than a year. Now they're primed.)

What kind of New Caledonia do you want?

What does an island nomad like me enjoy about exploring new places like New Caledonia? Mainly, discovering places before they are commercialized, and Noumea that sort of experience. Hurry before more jet skis choke the lagoon with noise and pollution. Swim with the fishes and photograph the coral while it’s still thriving.

From hiking to world-class kite surfing, from Kanak culture to colonial history, from wildlife viewing and fauna seen at underwater parks. There’s something for every sort of traveller. Even scratch and social golfers will find driving ranges and championship courses on Grand Terre. Did I mention horse racing and casino gambling?

On a long weekend, I stayed close to Noumea for food & wine experiences that were intimidating in French but got me trying the unusual. Like a shot glass full of crab salad washed down with crème brule at brekkie, and succulent, sweet prawns stirred in garlic oil washed down with one each vin blanc and rouge. Certainly the most important phrase to learn is “parle vous Anglais?” Some locals speak English well, but too many more waiters can’t tell you if the ribs are pork or beef. Or if the wine is dry, complex or fruity

Dreaming of a tropical paradise?

Next visit (after French for Dummies lessons), I’ll set aside more days to fly to the Loyalty Islands for dinner over the water, a bungalow on the water, or a resort with a swim-up pool. I would hike some of the coastal trails and work up a hunger and thirst for more of the same. I'll book a foot massage after hiking, and rent a scooter to get to the local, hidden, nude beach where gays do their thing.

It is easy to island hop, and there are 3 Loyalty Islands and the Isle de Palms to experience the diversity of these seductive coral islands. Returnees say the country is one of the most unique destinations in the world.

NC is not cheap as chips.

Fortunately, public transport (buses and tourist trains) is plentiful and inexpensive, and most of what you'd want from a resort village is within walking distance. Try the hop-on /hop-off explorer bus that runs around town for shopping and museum stops. Besides shoes and yet more Billabong stores, if you’re into collecting or viewing Pacific arts, there are plenty of buying opportunities. Even my newly renovated hotel restaurant and lobby (Le Lagon) was adorned with D’Art Polynesien, with some unusual pieces that I would love to hang on my walls.

I spent an hour and some at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, which was silent and deserted on a Sunday afternoon. The only other touristas were a young couple from Wellington to speak English with; learnt they were staying at the same hotel and would bump into them around the pool a few hours later.

Not into mainstream, chain hotels and transformed Club Meds? You can do the romantic, boutique thing and stay at a newly-opened, gay owned B&B on the outskirts next to the Dumbea golf club. Guess where I’m staying next time?

Best Values

Noumea has hotels from 3 to 5 star, and the smaller are sometimes better at 3.5 star “family feeling” boutique hotels than the large chains with tour loads of Asians. Besides the French and Aussies, the majority of visitors are from Japan and New Zealand which have frequent and inexpensive air service ex Tokyo and Auckland.

I hope to encourage the gay-owned and gay welcoming properties to get listed on Pink Choice (they're adding a New Caledonia section), so travellers can decide for themselves the level of service and friendliness they want from reviewed properties. I give high marks to Le Lagon, the Ramada Plaza, the Best Western Premier Hotel La Promenade and Le Parc (in the same complex), and especially to l'Éscapade Island Resort on Maitre Islet, a small marine reserve about 40 minutes by private ferry. There are two Meridien Hotels in New Caledonia – one in Noumea on the grounds of a former Club Med, and one on the Isle de Palms, also five star and worth the 20 min. flight from the mainland.

If you go, contact the Rainbow Concierge for first-hand information and more travel advice on accommodations, tours, airlines, local community contacts at Homophere and currency exchange tricks.

View from my Boeing 777 window over the stunning Grand Terre island as we approached the high-altitude international airport. Aircalin is the national airline of New Caledonia.

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