With the bustle of a provincial French city, but with the pretensions of Paris, New Caledonia's capital, Noumea, is one of the South Pacific's more intriguing destinations. Far less well-known than Tahiti, New Caledonia is a jumbled-up place, at times the height of chic European modernity, at others untouched, raw, South Pacific - well . . . paradise.
Noumea itself, is a queer fish. A place so colonial that at times you think it's some post-modernist joke. On the tourist side, spic and span box hotels perch on prime land on well-kept roads with cleaned beaches. The Ibis on the Baie des Citrons has a wonderful spot shaded by the trees and a stumble away from the breakfast table to a day doing battle with the tanning lotion and keeping up to date with the latest in Paris Match. This is the life of the metros - the breed of French incomers who arrive in Noumea on short-term highly paid contracts.
Noumea neatly divides into areas where the metros live and play and where they don't. The bus station and the streets around it are decidedly metro- free. As I waited for my bus to the north-east, I was a novelty, even more so on the bus itself. Clearly, white people don't take buses.
Heading north-eastwards, the bus passes through a haunting landscape where steep, dark mountains rise gloomily upwards like the Cuillins of Skye. No wonder Captain Cook named the islands New Caledonia. The bus wove its way over various cols before dropping down to Bourail, where the road narrows, climbs out of the valley and heads towards the sea. The east coast is wilder, the ocean rougher and the villages are a mix of traditional round huts and modern government buildings. Between the villages are scrubland and pasture once used by the Caldoche farmers for grazing cattle. Now their only traces are the dilapidated and burnt-out farmsteads, deserted by families who left during the troubles a decade ago.
Poindimie is a quiet, tranquil spot now, where everyone from schoolkids to drivers says "hello". It is a great place to gather your thoughts after the confusion of Noumea. Poindimie feels like a Pacific village. Its football club has modern changing-rooms but a traditional hut at one end of the games field - and away supporters would be advised not to stand at the ocean end on a windy day in case they're hit by coconuts.
However, the real jewels of New Caledonia are not on the Grande Isle but on the islands around it. Air Caledonie flies a relentless sequence of short hops to the Isles des Loyautes and the Isle des Pins. Part of the fun is negotiating the genial chaos of Noumea's other airport, Magenta. Here people mill around a small hall with hardboard check-ins, surrounded by huge packages, crates of beer and ancient relatives. Best of all, in the evening the departures TV monitor is retuned so that everyone can watch the news.
Lifou, one of the three Loyaute islands, has little sign of any white influence in recent years, though scratch the surface and you discover that it's the British rather than French that did the proselytising in these parts. Its pride and joy is Luengoni beach - an absurd cliche, with spotless soft white sand and the clearest ofwater. While …