Let's face it, finding a suitable holiday destination is a bit of a challenge at the moment. For all the reasons we're bombarded with, many of our most popular destinations are off the 'must do' list for now.
On the flip-side, other locations, particularly domestic, are coming back into vogue. Some of our near international neighbours are also experiencing something of a renaissance, particularly New Caledonia, where visitors are rediscovering the exotic blend of French and Melanesian cultures in the idyllic South Pacific setting.
Always a popular cruise destination, P&O's brand new Pacific Princess recently visited the capital, Noumea, on its maiden voyage. Noumea is also well served by air through the Tontouta International Airport and the smaller domestic airport of Magenta.
The national carrier, Air Caledonia International (AirCalin), flies to Noumea daily and added sparkling new 271-seat Airbus A330s to its fleet in January 2004.
The last time I was in Noumea, I was still in short pants. In fact the French colonial outpost was my first true overseas experience as I trundled along behind my parents on our P&O cruise. The fact that the brazenly opulent Pacific Princess was in dock on her maiden voyage was just another dose of nostalgia.
New Caledonia's maritime tradition goes way back to our beloved Captain James Cook who discovered and named the island during his very busy second voyage in 1774. Apparently the mountainous, heavily forested 16,000 sq km main island reminded him of the islands off the stormy Scottish coast. (Caledonia was the Roman name for Scotland) Or maybe he was just plain homesick?
From the beginning of the 19th century there was some to-ing and fro-ing with the British and French until Napoleon III made his intentions clear in 1853. A good call as it turned out, because the island was rich in minerals, particularly nickel, and a factor that ensured a lively economy for the little Territoire d'Outre-Mer.
During WWII New Caledonia became the USA's pacific base for the campaign against the Japanese. That done, the stunned locals were well-and-truly shaken out of any dozy South Pacific nonchalance and dropped firmly in the hurly-burly of the real world. Local political activity developed, not always to the delight of the French, and tourism gradually became an increasingly significant source of revenue. Around 100,000 visitors now visit New Caledonia annually.
In the last few years, New Caledonia has become less reliant on tourist arrivals from France and more regionally focussed, whilst stubbornly retaining its quaint French colonial heritage. This inflexible colonial allegiance has preserved New Caledonia's character, creating a distinctive cultural outpost in the midst of Anglophilic Anzac territory.
New Caledonia's tourism catch-phrase; "France's best kept secret", will soon become redundant if the strength of their current marketing is anything to go by. Australian television audiences are seeing the first ever commercials for the islands, promoting enticingly priced packages that stand competitively against rivals such as Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand.
As soon as you set foot in Noumea you know you're overseas. You're instantly surrounded by funny little French cars all on the wrong side of the road. Everyone you talk to has to think twice before answering. Some just shrug their shoulders and smile, clearly oblivious to your request. I've been to France, so I dare not burden any of these friendly faces with my high school French, although you're much more likely to find someone who admits to speaking a little English than in Paris's Gare du Nord.
Downtown Noumea is barely recognisable from the little I remember all those years ago. Smart shopping arcades, a rejuvenated Coconut Place (park) in the central shopping district and modern, freshly painted buildings. Even with the huge cruise ship in port, the town centre was delightfully unhurried. Australian visitors will be tempted to draw comparisons with Cairns, Townsville or the Gold Coast, but the lack of brash, gawdy accoutrements (and all that brings) will continually set Noumea apart.
Because New Caledonians enjoy a high per capita income, it has never been "cheap" in the way Australians sometimes expect South Pacific and Asian destinations to be. Using that wonderful barometer of parity pricing, the Big Mac, a famous international standard burger will cost you nearly A$6.00.
But, as always, there are ways to keep the pennies in check. Self catering apartments like the shiny new Casa del Sole offer guests full DIY kitchen facilities and packages at the swank new Novotel Surf Noumea include full breakfasts and some bonus meals.
Public transport is extensive via the Karuia Bus Line, or for a more intimate experience, Le Petit Train ferries tourists around the key sights all day for about the price of a hamburger meal.
Even if your stay in New Caledonia only includes the capital, Noumea, there are still plenty of ways to stay busy and entertained during a several day stay. Watersport and aquatic activities abound, including scuba-diving, snorkelling, sailing, wind-surfing and just plain lying on the sand. A visit to the architecturally acclaimed Tjibaou Cultural Centre gives an insight into the local Kanak traditions and a day trip to the historic Phare Amedee lighthouse is a true desert island experience, bundled with Polynesian dancers, great tucker, swimming, snorkelling and even a glass bottomed boat.
New Caledonia is definitely worth considering for a short romantic escape or even a longer family holiday. There are more enticing packages available now than ever before, especially ones aimed at Australian visitors looking for something new and different in the immediate region and, as I'm continually reminded, Vive la difference!