ATYPICAL reaction when I told friends about our holiday plans was: 'Oh, New Caledonia, lovely. Where is that exactly?' But awareness of this collection of islands in the Pacific may be about to change - and not just for New Caledonia's closest neighbours, the Australians, but also for the British who go Down Under each year in large numbers.
Instead of the well-worn path taken by tourists up to Cairns, the gateway to the Barrier Reef, the same three hours on a plane from Sydney will set you down on the shores of the largest lagoon in the world and beside the second-largest coral reef.
New Caledonia, described in the brochures as 'a taste of France in the Pacific', became a French penal colony in 1853. And although the prisons have closed and the country has since won some independence, the French influence is everywhere. Travelling, as we were, from Australia after months of barbies and Fosters, chablis and foie gras were pretty high on my wish list.
When Captain Cook landed on the main island of Grande Terre in 1774, he saw a range of craggy mountain peaks shrouded in mist with deep gorges cut in their flanks and cascading waterfalls. It reminded him of his beloved Scotland - hence the name.
Heading into those mountains in our hired car, our first stop was the town of La Foa (population 2,900) where, unlikely as it looked, an annual film festival was about to open.
La Foa - essentially two streets that meet at a roundabout - was gearing up to receive French film director Patrice Leconte, best known for L'Homme Du Train (The Man On The Train). But we hadn't packed our pearls and dinner jackets, so we retired to the Naina Park Hotel, a collection of thatched circular huts dotted amid shady gardens with an attractive pool and a good restaurant.
The following morning our destination was the neighbouring village of Sarramea, nestled in a rainforest valley. From here, we continued on horseback - an idyllic way to see the landscape, and our guide Isabelle knew this environment inside out.
We climbed past giant ferns, wild raspberries, towering clumps of bamboo that clicked in the wind, and niaouli trees with their spiky, fragrant leaves, until we reached a waterfall with a natural rock slide where we could cool off.
It is not hard to see why the BBC chose New Caledonia to film parts of Walking With Dinosaurs.
Pockets of nickel-mining may have left their scars, but large tracts remain untouched.
Around Grande Terre there are countless Robinson Crusoe-type islets, home to nothing more than birds and turtles.
Continuing our holiday, we headed north along the east coast, passing coffee plantations, before arriving at Poindimie and checking into the new Tieti Tera resort. It is a lovely hotel, decorated with local art, and has spacious rooms. It is let down by an indifferent restaurant. Thankfully, there are a couple of good dining options in town, notably a great hole-in-the-wall pizza joint on the far side of the bridge, where we dined al fresco with our Beaujolais Nouveau bought from the local supermarket.
From the hotel pool there is a tantalising view of a nearby desert island, and the hotel's on-site diving school agreed to take us there. Deposited on the beach with our snorkelling gear, we had it to ourselves for the day.
My two children - Theo, seven, and Ava, five - immediately started building a den from fallen bamboo before finding a jungle path through to the other side of the island. My husband went native and (any excuse) stripped off for a stroll, returning with a beautiful nautilus shell for the children's shelter. I went snorkelling alone over a reef teeming with colourful fish and marvelled at how much busier life seemed underwater.
Continuing our circular tour of Grande Terre, we crossed the backbone of mountains that runs the length of the country without passing a single car. …