The World’s Great Towns, June 1997

By the Editors

The Numbers
Population: 65,110
Climate: Balmy in summer, balmy in winter, with considerable balminess in between
Number of McDonald’s: 1
Gestalt: Bourgeois Bali Ha’is

Think Paris with palm trees but no pesky subway bombings (no subways, for that matter). Noum‰a, the capital of New Caledonia, an island group 1,000 miles east of Australia, is about as chic as Melanesia gets. The ambiance is colorfully Gauguinesque: white beaches, turquoise lagoons, invisible trade winds, and — for those who like
to measure stuff — the planet’s second-longest barrier reef. Add an outscale standard of living lent by a quarter of the world’s nickel reserves, and things look plummy indeed. French civil servants are ubiquitous (furious jockeying occurs for assignments here), but fear not: Noum‰a is not the world’s most southerly Parisian arrondisement. The culture is a rich m‰lange of laid-back tropical, polite Anglo (Protestant missionaries arrived here a century ago), and even American — a favorite TV show is Columbo. Melanesian women gather in the evenings to play cricket, middle-aged wage-earners while away weekends with p‰tanque (the local version of lawn bowling), and lines of Peugeots chutter home at midday: The entire city, lotus-eater style, shuts down from 11 to 2, lest anyone start to feel stressed.

What’s Out There
The usual tropical-paradise activities abound: boardsailing, sea kayaking, snorkeling, diving. There’s a triathlon in November, a marathon in June, an around-the-island bike race, Hobie Cat regattas, and plenty of para-gliding. Should such decadence begin to wear, you can sail to the outlying islands, such as the Loyalties or the arcadian Isle of Pines, where native Kanak people
predominate. Largely displaced from Noum‰a proper by the arrival of the French in the last century — and still resentful — the Kanaks will get chummy with visitors of other persuasions. Their outlying islands are perfect for beach camping — provided you first gift the nearest native chief with la Coutume, an almost ceremonial
payment of a few dollars or a beer. Time your island visit for late spring to witness the Festival of the Yams, the event of the social season for the Kanaks.

Around Town
Noum‰a today is outwardly French to its Camembert-filled core. Baguettes line store shelves, Bordeaux fills wine cellars, and ever-so-stylish shopgirls flip through Paris Match on lunch break. Expect Parisian prices as well: $8 for croissant and coffee. The city also has a few vestiges of Franco-snobbery. “The civil servants don’t much try to
adapt with the rest of the city,” a lifelong French Noum‰an says. “But then, they leave.” The Noum‰ans who remain, whether Continentals, Kanaks, or newer immigrants from Vietnam, New Zealand, and America, have taken the comforts of Franco living — wine, cheese, long, disputatious meals — and converted them, tropics-style: Meals are longer, wine is
lighter, and afterward, everyone recesses to Noum‰a’s spectacular — and very topless — beachfront.

Living Quarters
The lushly landscaped French-colonial villas in Port Plaisance, Anse Vata, or Magenta should please newcomers with upper-bracket, subtropical aspirations, though they’ll eat close to $1,500 per month from your budget. More-modest whitewashed two-bedrooms, nestled within stands of palms and bougainvillea, run $700 and up. Or you can Crusoe it: Build your own primitive palm-frond
hut outside town (after paying a hefty Coutume to the landowner, of course). Expect odd glances from your Noum‰an neighbors, who like their beach culture enhanced by modern conveniences. Paradise, they believe, should include air conditioning.

Nine to Five
The bad news: Noum‰a’s official policy discourages immigrant labor — if you’re not French, forget it. The good news: Rarely is the bad news enforced. New Caledonians enjoy Americans and are usually willing to help job-seekers. Casually mention that you’ve brought $10,000 or so as start-up capital and — wink, wink — red tape may quickly vanish. The less
flush can often find seasonal guiding work in the burgeoning outdoor-tourism industry. And engineers and geologists willing to sacrifice their eco-karma can sign on with one of the large nickel-mining companies, most of which operate well inland of Noum‰a.

Memorize This
Mademoiselle, combien de temps un fromage mou resterait-il € board du yacht? (“Miss, how long will the soft cheeses stay fresh on the yacht?”)