Dark mountains rise gloomily upwards. No wonder Captain Cook named the islands New Caledonia

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The Independent Travel
With the bustle of a provincial French city, but with the pretensions of Paris, New Caledonia's capital, Noumea, is one of the South Pacific's more intriguing destinations. Far less well-known than Tahiti, New Caledonia is a jumbled-up place, at times the height of chic European modernity, at others untouched, raw, South Pacific - well ... paradise.

Noumea itself, is a queer fish. A place so colonial that at times you think it's some post-modernist joke. On the tourist side, spic and span box hotels perch on prime land on well-kept roads with cleaned beaches. The Ibis on the Baie des Citrons has a wonderful spot shaded by the trees and a stumble away from the breakfast table to a day doing battle with the tanning lotion and keeping up to date with the latest in Paris Match. This is the life of the metros - the breed of French incomers who arrive in Noumea on short-term highly paid contracts.

Noumea neatly divides into areas where the metros live and play and where they don't. The bus station and the streets around it are decidedly metro- free. As I waited for my bus to the north-east, I was a novelty, even more so on the bus itself. Clearly, white people don't take buses.

Heading north-eastwards, the bus passes through a haunting landscape where steep, dark mountains rise gloomily upwards like the Cuillins of Skye. No wonder Captain Cook named the islands New Caledonia. The bus wove its way over various cols before dropping down to Bourail, where the road narrows, climbs out of the valley and heads towards the sea. The east coast is wilder, the ocean rougher and the villages are a mix of traditional round huts and modern government buildings. Between the villages are scrubland and pasture once used by the Caldoche farmers for grazing cattle. Now their only traces are the dilapidated and burnt-out farmsteads, deserted by families who left during the troubles a decade ago.

Poindimie is a quiet, tranquil spot now, where everyone from schoolkids to drivers says "hello". It is a great place to gather your thoughts after the confusion of Noumea. Poindimie feels like a Pacific village. Its football club has modern changing-rooms but a traditional hut at one end of the games field - and away supporters would be advised not to stand at the ocean end on a windy day in case they're hit by coconuts.

However, the real jewels of New Caledonia are not on the Grande Isle but on the islands around it. Air Caledonie flies a relentless sequence of short hops to the Isles des Loyautes and the Isle des Pins. Part of the fun is negotiating the genial chaos of Noumea's other airport, Magenta. Here people mill around a small hall with hardboard check-ins, surrounded by huge packages, crates of beer and ancient relatives. Best of all, in the evening the departures TV monitor is retuned so that everyone can watch the news.

Lifou, one of the three Loyaute islands, has little sign of any white influence in recent years, though scratch the surface and you discover that it's the British rather than French that did the proselytising in these parts. Its pride and joy is Luengoni beach - an absurd cliche, with spotless soft white sand and the clearest ofwater. While you splash around in the wet stuff, don't be surprised if benign leathery shapes paddle speedily in the other direction. Turtles like Luengoni, too.

If you're really lucky, you get to stay at the Gite Neibash, named after a local band. This is a beachbum heaven, a place where you can climb out of bed and 20 seconds later thrash about in the sea. Neibash is run by Edouard Forrest, and he cooks all your meals and goes and gets the fish from the chap at the top end of the beach.

Edouard and his wife, Beatrice, will drive you around the island, or hire you a car and so on. Beatrice took me and a French family down to a cavern lit by candles and pocket torches. After a few minutes, the way opened up to reveal a large chamber with a pool of freshwater so still it had a mesmerising mirror quality.

The coral that makes up the cavern has also built up into stubby cliffs. These cliffs give you a good vantage point to look at the extensive reef surrounding New Caledonia. Thanks to the clear water you can watch the fish, too, especially the sharks easing their way languidly between the sharp boulders of coral, their black dorsal fins breaking the water. At the flick of a tail, a shark would squeeze through a small gap, and at that moment every other fish would belt for cover.

Having had our fill of shark watching, we moved further afield. The Isle des Pins, at the southernmost edge of the Grande Isle, is still a sublime spot, despite signs of encroaching tourist exploitation. Here the gites are bigger and more expensive. The advantage is that there are more organised trips such as a day on a pirogue sailing canoe. These wonderful, silent boats speed through the water at the slightest breath of wind. At lunchtime the boat lands and a track heads through the trees to the Baie d'Oro, a surreal spot. At high tide the bay floods, then the ocean recedes behind the reef, creating a natural pool full of fish trapped until the tide returns. Sunken into the sides are rock pools filled with sea anemones disconcertingly coloured like the plastic flowers in a tropical tank.

At dusk the sun sets, colouring the palm trees gold and red, with the clouds lighting and re-lighting the beach in different patterns. The sound is of the surf on the sand, broken only by the clap of sting-rays leaping out of the water, then diving back into the dark. A far cry from the Isle of Skye, whatever Captain Cook might have thought.

When to go

The climate in New Caledonia is benign throughout the year, warmest in December and February (37C) and coolest in August (29C). Rainfall and humidity is lowest between September and December.

How to get there

Probably the best way to reach the capital, Noumea, is as part of a journey to or from New Zealand on Air New Zealand. The airline allows a stop in Noumea on many discounted tickets bought through specialist agents. Fares are lowest between March and June, with prices typically around pounds 800 for a round-trip to Auckland or a round-the-world ticket. Alternatively, Air France has flights via Paris to Noumea.

What to read

New Caledonia: a Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, second edition, pounds 8.95).