Cruising the South Pacific of dreams
A perfect morning dawned as our cruise ship eased its way across the lagoon toward Noumea.
For the first, and only, time on our 10-day cruise the air was still and the sky was cloudless.
It was magnificent, the South Pacific of dreams.
The lagoons of New Caledonia are listed as a World Heritage Site, with the archipelago having one of the three most extensive reef systems in the world.
"These lagoons are of exceptional natural beauty," Unesco says, stating the extremely obvious.
The lagoons are lauded for their diversity of coral and fish species, with healthy populations of large predators, and a great number and diversity of big fish.
Writing that now, I have a strong urge to get on the next plane back there, because the day our ship docked in Noumea I never even got into the water.
Instead my wife, Jacqui, and I took a tour of the city and its bays on something called the Discovery Tchou Tchou Train, at a cost of US$59 each.
With other passengers from the ship, we crowded into small open-sided carriages that were actually pulled along the road and almost stopped on some of the city's steeper hills.
Our guide talked non-stop in a Polish accent frequently interspersed with harsher south London pronunciations - "Bri'ish", for example. Her arresting version of the language came from a childhood in Poland and a dozen years living in London.
Alas, her enthusiasm could not overcome the shortcomings of the Tchou Tchou. The low seats and low roof limited the view, and it stopped only a few times to give passengers a chance to get out and look around.
Our mediocre experience with this attraction highlights something important about cruises - to get the best out of them it is important to do some research.
I did none, which was why I was at the mercy of the shore excursions sold on board our ship, Royal Caribbean International's Rhapsody of the Seas. Not only that, many of the excursions fill up quickly. At Noumea, we didn't get our first choice.
Had I prepared better, I would have discovered that for a much lower price a bus called the Noumea Explorer does hourly circuits of the city and its bays, with passengers able to hop on and hop off at any of the stops along the way. We could have explored at our own pace.
Noumea was the last port of call on our cruise, following two other New Caledonian stopovers - the Isle of Pines, and Lifou in the Loyalty Islands - as well as a visit to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.
First of all, though, we had to steam northwest from Sydney for 2 days before anchoring off Kuto Beach on the Isle of Pines - so named by Captain Cook after the tall, columnar, native pines Araucaria columnaris.
The trip by tender from ship to shore was one of the few times the normally slick operation on Rhapsody broke down. We had to queue in a corridor with a crush of other passengers for maybe 20 minutes before getting on to our boat.
During the wait various theories passed around about the cause of the problem and how to avoid it. One Australian woman well into middle-age insisted her approach was best because "I've been on four cruises in a row".
At the island, hundreds of passengers spread out from the wharf where the tender dropped us. As the visitors wandered away, most glanced idly at the souvenirs being offered for sale in tent stalls.
Jacqui and I walked along the white sand beach for several hundred metres before going for our first tropical swim in years. It was mid-November and the water still had a refreshing, cool tinge to it.
But it was also cloudy and windy and other people kept walking along the beach, so we moved on, walking quickly across a narrow isthmus through lush vegetation to the more protected Kanumera Beach. I snorkelled for a bit. There were plenty of fish but without any sun to brighten the sea they were not as dazzling as they might be. So we decided to wander back to the wharf.
Along the way we passed a crumbling wall left over from the time in the 19th century when the French sent convicts to the island.
During our time ashore I noticed trips being advertised to Oro Bay. Had I been better organised we would have been in a better position to decide whether to make the short journey across the island to a place numerous websites describe as a natural aquarium.
A note of caution, though. Passengers who organise their own outings take the risk of failing to be back before their ship sails. On our cruise someone was too late at Port Vila and did get left behind. Our captain assured us such incidents were rare and the company had agents who would look after any passengers who did get caught out.
Our stopover the next day was at the island of Lifou. The tender process went much more smoothly and we were soon ashore. Among the first things we saw, just off the wharf, was a young local lad earning some money by giving visitors a chance to hold a coconut crab. This specimen had a body probably not much larger than the palm of an adult's hand, but it looked frightening enough.
Jacqui had noticed that nearly everyone from the ship was turning left once they were off the wharf, so we went right and a few hundred metres away found a small beach we were able to enjoy by ourselves for half an hour. That made our day.
We also climbed a hill to a church and walked to a bay where for A$15 you could snorkel over an area of coral. It seemed reasonable and offered better snorkelling than other easily accessible areas so I was happy to hand the admission fee over. Not so keen was one Australian woman who told the locals monitoring the area of her concerns about having to pay. When she had visited the same area quite some years earlier there had been no charge.
"Is this private land?" she asked the group of men. It was bizarre. Whatever the ownership situation it certainly wasn't her property.
In the water I saw plenty of coral and fish and even a sea snake, swimming about three to four metres below me. I watched with some apprehension until the black and white banded body was out of sight, hoping the stories about sea snakes being placid were true.
That was exciting. Then when we were back at the wharf boarding our tender we saw a turtle stick its head out of the water. It was a good day.
Next morning we were in Port Vila, a beautiful harbour and a gritty town. The streets of the city were jammed with vans and utes, their trays full of people, while large numbers of pedestrians moved sedately along the sides of the roads.
Vanuatu has magnificent diving attractions, of course, but the Vanuatu Tourism Office had organised a land-based day for us.
We headed out of town, then along a heavily potholed coastal road, before turning up a steep driveway that took us to The Summit, promoted as the largest tropical garden in the South Pacific. First there was a visit to the property's distillery. Most of us expected this to have something to do with alcohol but we were wrong.
The property has a small factory where sandalwood and other tropical essential oils are distilled. Jacqui was delighted. This was her kind of excursion. The Australian general manager of the operation put the tiniest hint of sandalwood oil on our wrists, and engagingly explained the industry.
Then we walked around the gardens, with their marvellous plants and great views. Anyone keen on tropical plants and their use in the landscape would likely be content for hours.
We went to another garden - the Secret Garden - where there was dancing, magic tricks and a kind of outdoor museum trail, which included some of the island's more unusual customs and history, large lizards, coconut crabs, and cannibalism. The locals get a kind of glint in their eyes when they remind visitors that the last recorded act of cannibalism in the islands was as recent as 1969, and it may even have happened as late as 1987.
Next was a visit to the Mele Cascades waterfall, then on the way back to the ship we drove through Mele village, home to 5000 people, and the country's largest village. It was fascinating, but felt a bit like going inside someone's home. Our guide explained that the residents grew much of their own food throughout the village, but that no one was under pressure to work if they did not want to.
On the other hand, he also said the place had a big problem with unemployment.
Back on board Rhapsody we headed out into the open sea, and as the light faded I saw my first flying fish. At first I thought it was just a low-flying bird, but changed my mind when it hit the water hard at a shallow angle. I spent a few more hours on the next couple of evenings staring over the side of the ship and managed to see about a dozen of the fish in total. Some travellers might have opted for a visit to the bar, but I was enjoying myself.
Next day was Noumea under that perfect sky, and then 2 days southwest to Sydney. The day we got back to land the sun came out, so we caught the bus to Bondi, went to an art gallery, had a beer in a grubby pub, ate at a cheap restaurant and went to bed happy and early to ensure we woke in plenty of time to catch our flight back to Wellington - where the sun was also shining, there wasn't much wind, and the lawn was above shin height.
Michael Daly travelled courtesy of Royal Caribbean International.
Sunday Star Times