Despite being one of our closest neighbours, New Caledonia is relatively off the radar for Australasian travellers.
Surprisingly, friends and family think the French-speaking archipelago is somewhere near Tahiti in French Polynesia, not a mere 2½-hour flight from Sydney, or leisurely two-day cruise with Carnival Spirit, which is how I arrived on a sunny winter's morning to the Melanesian islands laden with calorie-rich pastries, French wine and cheese.
Although blessed with attractive islands, postcard-perfect beaches, Melanesian tradition and French influence, there has been remarkably little in the way of tourism development in New Caledonia, due to the country's reliance on nickel.
But a new national tourism strategy is targeting affluent travellers, particularly those from Australia, as a diversification to its dominant mining sector. Air Calin, for example, recently launched Melbourne-Noumea flights. This augurs well for the new Sheraton, which officially opened this month.
It's low tide when we arrive late afternoon and the long stretch of white sand beach - 13 kilometres in fact - is unexpectedly raucous, as covert hermit crabs go about their business. Tiny grey fantails and swifts flit through Banyan trees and there's barely a breath of wind as the last of the sun's rays tinge the flanking hills gold.
Within moments of arriving from the nation's capital we are whisked away on a golf buggy, past the 18-hole golf course, (still under construction), and down a meandering sandy trail to our beach bungalow.
The resort, located in the little- known and little-developed Deva region, took nine years to open. It faces a UNESCO World Heritage-listed lagoon and reef rich in marine fauna and flora, meaning water sports such as diving, snorkelling, sailing, windsurfing, jet skiing, waterskiing, wakeboarding and kite surfing are all on offer. Behind, the hills and valleys of the Deva Domain face the translucent blue reef, offering picturesque trails for hiking, biking and horse riding.
Home for the next few days is one of the 60 striking bungalows, designed to reflect traditional Melanesian architecture. Each sports a hand-carved tribal motif, none identical. The thatched bungalows are circular, similar to the round wooden Kanak fares we'd seen on the Isle of Pines and Lifou. Interiors are the epitome of tropical chic, yet still reflect Kanak culture, with grass-cloth wall coverings and ceiling friezes based on Kanak figure drawings.
Designed by Sydney-based Rick Whalley, of design firm CHADA, which is responsible for the interior look of Saffire Freycinet and Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, bungalows feature king-size canopy beds and luminous flat-pebble-tiled bathrooms with walk-in showers and freestanding bathtubs.
Timber planking on the floors, and neutral tones with bursts of "Missoni-inspired" fabrics lend a sophisticated Pacific vibe. Through double doors a decked terrace with oversized lounge and lantern is a fabulous spot to kick off the shoes and take in the lagoon views.
While the beach bungalows are the pick of the accommodation, a further 40 suites with one, two and three-bedroom options and kitchenette are better suited for families and groups of friends. Eighty equally contemporary guestrooms are housed in 17 separate two-storey modern buildings with either views of the hills or the golf course.
Interiors are in keeping with the overall Melanesian design of the 180-room property by Tahiti-based architect Pierre Lacombe. On arrival the eye is immediately drawn upwards to the soaring, 15-metre Tahitian-inspired lobby with oversized "lobster-pot" lights, containing the main restaurant and bar. Beyond this, the resort pool (the largest in New Caledonia), features sun lounges, a warm- water jacuzzi and clever floating steps.
Early next year a 700-square-metre Deep Nature Spa complete with a cardio fitness area will open, a championship-level 18-hole golf course opens next April, while a driving range will be offered by the end of this year. The resort also features New Caledonia's first Sheraton Kids' Club for children aged two-12, managed by A Tout Bout de Chou, a New Caledonian company which operates educational kindergartens.
There is no nightlife or other restaurants to speak of near the property, which positions itself as a destination resort. This means that pretty much all your meals need to be taken here.
Fortunately the onsite Reef Restaurant, headed by executive chef Pascal Didier, offers an excellent and ever-changing buffet spread with live cooking stations and a la carte dishes inspired by the ethnic groups that make up New Caledonia's west coast and Bourail region - a mix of French, north African, Melanesian, Caledonian outback and Indochinese.
We try the local beef one night, served with wood-fired mash potato, and it is melt-in-the-mouth good.
As you'd expect, 70 per cent of the resort's excellent wine list is French, however there are some classics from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile.
The poolside Sand Beach Grill overlooking the lagoon hadn't opened when we were there, but will offer premium selections of meats and fish.
A good place to enjoy New Caledonia's smouldering sunsets is the Creek Bar, which overlooks the pool. Signature cocktails (the mojito is particularly good) and one of New Caledonia's largest rum selections are the order of the day here.
All up, the five-star beachside resort raises the luxe factor a notch or two in the French holiday playground. The only downside is the resort's beach. While certainly beautiful, it doesn't offer great swimming (and no swimming at all at low tide), as you need to wade out quite a distance over sea grass to get wet above the knees.
For those who love nothing better than a dip in the ocean, a shuttle service operates to nearby Poe beach (10 minutes away) or to the spectacular surf beach at the Roche Perce, baie des Tortues (Turtle Bay), about 20 minutes away at an additional cost. Alternatively follow our lead; grab a sun lounge by the pool, order a glass of chilled rose from one of the friendly staff, and revel in the joie de vivre of France in the Pacific.
The writer was a guest of Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort and Spa and Carnival Cruise Lines.
- Sydney Morning Herald