Noumea, New Caledonia, sits on the southwestern coast of the main island 70 mi/115 km northwest of Ile des Pins. Noumea is the territory's largest city and its capital.

Noumea is also very French, from the wrought-iron balconies to the sidewalk cafes. Its four tree-lined squares, colonial homes and brilliant red flame trees make it a pleasant place to walk around. Reserve a half-day for poking around the excellent (but expensive) shops, sitting at cafes and visiting with locals. Or if you're in the mood for a little excitement, try one of the city's two casinos.

We highly recommend a trip to the Aquarium de Noumea—it's one of the finest we've seen. Several rare and beautiful sea creatures (fluorescent corals, lion fish, cow fish and the nautilus snail) reside there. Plan to spend at least two hours.

The New Caledonia Museum, on the Baie de la Moselle near downtown, displays Melanesian artifacts (weapons, huts, tools and clothing). If you are hungry or just want to look at food, Marches Municipaux (market) offers the city's freshest fruits, vegetables and seafood.

It's also worth taking the 8-mi/12-km trip from downtown to the eye-popping Tjibaou Cultural Centre (designed by Renzo Piano, the prize-winning architect who shaped the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris), where you can experience Kanak culture through exhibitions and shows.

Nearby, visitors can enjoy three very nice (topless) beaches. Our favorite is Anse Vata, an Allied naval headquarters during World War II, about 2 mi/3 km from town, although Baie des Citrons isn't bad. Kuendu Beach is more isolated: It's on Ile Nou, which is no longer an island—a land reclamation project made it a peninsula.

Just 3 mi/5 km northeast of town is Forestier Park, a forest preserve, botanical garden and zoo that affords about the only opportunity to see New Caledonia's endangered national bird, the cagou—a flightless bird whose squawk sounds like a barking dog. And take a ride on a glass-bottom boat over the reef near Noumea. It's one of the largest in the world (diving and snorkeling permitted).

There are several interesting day trips: Take the country road to St. Louis to see the native Melanesian village and Catholic mission or to Bourail for its natural formation, Pierced Rock; drive through the Boghen Pass for views of the coral sea and barrier reef (a very long day); head for Thio, passing nickel mines, native villages, coffee and coconut plantations, rain forests and deep bays; visit Yate (to the south) to see the Yate Dam (a hydroelectric plant), the red-dirt countryside and the Melanesian villages of Unia and Touhaourou; continue to Plaine des Lacs (about an hour and a half south by car, near Yate) to see more than 180 species of rare plants and to watch women play wild games of cricket (weekends); hike to the top of Mount Dore and Mount Koghi for fabulous views of the area; or play a round of golf at the nine-hole course near Dumbea. Offshore, spend the day swimming, sunning and picnicking at Phare Amedee, a lighthouse perched on a small coral islet.

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