New Caledonia's capital, Noumea, has everything a Francophile could desire: fresh baguettes, plentiful Bordeaux, chic boutiques, metropolitan gendarmes and occasionally rude service—all in a gorgeous tropical setting. Though this sizable South Pacific archipelago has been a French colony for nearly 150 years, France fades into Melanesia once you leave the city. Visitors who experience only the glamour of Noumea's beaches and swank hotels miss out on the rugged beauty and unique culture of the better part of the territory.
To experience traditional island life in New Caledonia, you'll have to cross a geographical and cultural divide to reach la Brousse, the local term for the outback. On Grande Terre, the cigar-shaped main island, the mountains and nickel mines in the center divide the largely French-settled region on the southwest from the less-developed land of the northeast, which is occupied by the island's indigenous people, the Kanaks. The traditional Kanak way of life, known as la coutume, involves an intricate system of tribal sharing and gift giving, ancestor worship and clan ties. It has eroded over the generations, but it is experiencing something of a comeback in the younger generation.
The Kanak clans inhabit the smaller islands to the north, east and south of Grand Terre: the verdant Ile des Pins, the idyllic Loyaute Islands and the tiny Belep Islands. Getting to those areas requires only a little more effort, but it's truly rewarding. And the beaches there are among the best in the world, too.
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