Panasonic LX100 at an effective 75mm — 1/200 sec, f/6.3, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Two stand-up paddle boarders (lower left) on calm waters
Nouméa, New Caledonia
We had a family vacation to New Caledonia last week. When my wife suggested it, I had to look it up because I had no idea where it was. Here it is:
The capital, Nouméa, at 22 degrees south latitude, was just starting to enter its summer.
It's a bit more well known in Japan due to a well-known travelogue, 「天国にいちばん近い島」 (“The Island Closest to Heaven”), published in 1966. The book was also made into a movie.
Minimal research before I left told me it's a French Republic with, like so many islands in the Pacific, a marginalized indigenous population.
The language is of course French. (The indigenous population, where it still exists, have their own languages, but I didn't come across them on my trip.).
I'm really bad at human languages. I can pick up a new computer language just by walking near a reference book, but my brain is not wired for human languages. I've formally studied English, Spanish, German, and French, but I can speak only English and Japanese.
The extent of my French study was a single semester in college 30 years ago, but it served me incredibly well. My mastery of the most-important 0.000052% of the language actually proved useful in about half of my spoken and written encounters. At a minimum, I could apologize for not speaking French (“Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas français.”), and let them know that I spoke Japanese and English. Some English was always available in the touristy areas, but outside them I had to fall back on my French, or just hand gestures and a smile. I never ran into anyone that spoke Japanese, except Japanese.
I quickly learned that my American credit card was not the type they normally handled. It seems that they're set up for some kind of electronic chip that's read when the card is inserted an inch into a slot on the cash register, rather than a magnetic strip that must be swiped. But the hand gesture for “credit card swipe” turned out to be universal, usually garnering a brief look of surprise at the archaic technology, followed by a “let me see whether I still know how to do this” attempt to make the transaction.
The currency is the French Pacific Franc (XPF). There are about 110 XPF to the US dollar, but because it's such a minor currency one must pay a huge premium to convert (from dollars, yen, euro, etc.). About the best place to exchange money in Japan are the banks at the airport, and if you exchange, say, dollars for yen and then turn right around and exchange back, you'll end up with about 6% less... that's the cost of doing the exchange. In the case of XPF, you'll end up with 30% less.
Anyway, for rough practical purposes, I kept in mind that one XPF is about one US cent.
For no apparent reason, the main international airport is an inconvenient hour's drive through nothingness from the city. The one direct flight from Osaka Kansai each week arrives late in the evening (10pm), so I prearranged transportation for the five of us (Me, Anthony, Fumie, and Fumie's folks). An email exchange with Smith Voyage and we were confirmed for Manu to meet us. Manu was fantastic in all respects, and I highly recommend him for your Nouméa travel needs.
The cost for the shuttle for the five of us was about $100, on par with the cost of the shuttle that brought us from Kyoto to the airport. New Caledonia is said to be an expensive place, but that's only because it is expensive, both for visitors and for the locals. To visit New Caledonia, you must be mentally prepared to hemorrhage money at all times. Almost any manufactured product you encounter (cars, cups, shoes, nails, clothes, toiletries, windows, etc. etc. etc.) must be brought from somewhere by boat or plane. One Japanese resident I talked to said that his car in New Caledonia cost twice the price of the same car in Japan.
New Caledonia has a land area about the same as the US state of New Jersey, and from what I could tell, is mostly uninhabited mountains. The main city, Nouméa, does not feel crowded.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/400 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
looking toward other tourist hotels
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/800 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
looking toward the back, away from the beach
probably a nicer part of town for the locals
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/60 sec, f/4, ISO 3200 — map & image data — nearby photos
looking out toward the ocean
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/100 sec, f/1.7, ISO 3200 — map & image data — nearby photos
The “Living Room” part, at the Hilton Nouméa
Our hotel, the Hilton Nouméa, a contradiction to my preconceived ideas of what to expect from a large US hotel chain. On the plus side, because it's a “Residence” category, it was spacious, with three separate bedrooms, a normal-sized kitchen, a clothing washing machine, two sets of showers and toilets, a huge living room, and a nice veranda. On the minus size, there were very few services, such as a mini shop near the lobby in which to buy late-night snacks. (And I suppose the cockroach was a minus as well, though they allowed us to move rooms after the first night.)
The hotel did not, however, contradict my idea that large US hotel chains are ridiculously expensive. Normally things work out much more smoothly with our travels if my wife makes the plans and I don't see how much it costs (I'm a tightwad, so if I see the cost, it's difficult for me to enjoy), but I unfortunately got a glimpse of the hotel bill. I tried to block it out.
But in the end, the space and convenience was worth it for our week-long stay. Four adults and one teenager made for a dynamically-changing mix of activities and schedules, and so with three separate bedrooms and two sets of showers/toilets, we didn't always have to be in each other's hair. We could retreat to a bedroom for quiet relax time as needed. In retrospect, I have to admit that had I made cheaper plans, we would have been stressed the whole time, negating the whole purpose of the trip.
Power in New Caledonia is 220v. All the electronics we brought were for charging things (laptops, phones, cameras), and all could handle 100v〜240v as is, so we didn't need any kind of power converters.
In preparing for the trip I'd packed a 6-port USB charging hub recommended by a friend (thanks Jason!) to handle things like our phones, and a normal five-outlet extension cord into which to plugin it in, as well as plugging in our computers and other chargers.
New Caledonia uses “type C” plugs, so we would need a simple converter to handle the plug shape. But I figured that a high-end international hotel chain like Hilton would have multi-type power outlets, or, at least, US/Japan-style outlets. They didn't.
So, I'm glad that on a just-in-case whim, I bought a plug-shape converter at the airport in Osaka just before jumping onto the plane. Six dollars well spent.
(It turns out that you could get a plug-shape converter from the hotel's front desk if you asked, but seeing how they just rummaged around in a box for one, I don't think it's something I would rely on.)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 75mm — 1/320 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
heading out to one of the islands
Food is expensive, whether cooking it yourself or going to a restaurant.
Baguettes are a basic staple, and it's common to see people walking down the street with one tucked under their arm, one in their hand being eaten, and a drink in the other hand.
Toward the end of the trip I realized that I didn't have a photo of this quaint “baguette culture”, so I made a quick snapshot as I was walking by someone getting back into their car at the market. It didn't come out well, but perhaps illustrates the point anyway:
iPhone 6 Plus + iPhone 6 Plus back camera 4.15mm f/2.2 at an effective 29mm — 1/60 sec, f/2.2, ISO 32 — map & image data — nearby photos
outside a small market near the hotel
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/2.2, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Casino Johnston Supermarket
We visited a couple of supermarkets, including a big modern one far away from the tourist areas, where one needed French (and hand signals) to get by. They were just as big and nice as one would find in Japan or The States, but as I said before, the prices were very high.
Other than restaurants, most businesses closed by 7:30, including supermarkets and convenience-store-like markets. Vending machines are also essentially non-existent (I noticed only two during the entire trip, one at the airport and one at the hotel), so one must plan their food well or be caught without anything to eat. We first arrived at our hotel around midnight and were sort of stuck for food and drink except for the pathetic little vending machine in the lobby.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 75mm — 1/4000 sec, f/8, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
that's a person near center frame, at mid-tide
Many businesses are closed for an extended lunch (e.g. noon to 1:30 or 2:00). Walking around on the first day to visit car-rental and bicycle-rental shops, having left the hotel around noon, I found them all closed.
Making the same rounds again later in the afternoon, I ended up renting a car from the Budget office not far from the Hilton. I got a car that could fit five easily for about US$80/day, which seemed to me to be one of the only reasonable prices that I ran into all trip. As a bonus, the car I was given was brand new; I was its first renter.
Almost all cars in New Caledonia are standard (manual) transmission. I don't know why. A Japanese resident I talked to seemed confident in his understanding that European car makers simply didn't have good automatic-transmission technology, so it had never taken off here. That seems ridiculous to me, but I don't know.
In any case, the car I rented was a manual transmission. My parents made sure I learned to drive with a manual because it's a good skill to have (thanks Mom and Dad), and for this I was thankful when settling in behind the wheel at the car-rental place.
As I slowly pulled out from the parking space and down a steep bank to the narrow exit onto the street, a truck started to pull in. And so I found myself driving a manual transmission for the first time in a decade, facing down but needing to back up, with little margin for movement or error. Baptism by fire. It was the comical scene you might be imagining, replete with stalls and revving engines, haphazard clutch work, and much embarrassment.
To top it off, after I could finally get to the exit, I turned on my wipers instead of the turn signal.
But it's a bit like riding a bike, and I quickly got the hang of it again. Driving in New Caledonia is mostly a pleasure, and driving a manual-transmission car with a beefy engine is its own pleasure as well.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/250 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
though I prefer the Australian parlance, “roundabout”
There are relatively few traffic lights, with intersections usually controlled by traffic circles or “yield” signs instead of “stop” signs. Traffic circles are much more efficient; if traffic is light, you almost never have to stop. And even when traffic was rush-hour heavy, or when I was on a bicycle, I never ran into issues where I felt traffic was rude or dangerous. It was wonderful.
Basically, it works the way it's supposed to work. It would never work in Kyoto because Kyoto drivers are much too selfish... it's common to see Kyoto city buses run red lights! Sigh.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 38mm — 1/800 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
No comment about who does, except that we know for sure that it's absolutely not you
I just love that sign. I'll write more about New Caledonia road signs in a different post.
Directional signage can be spotty at times. For example, you can drive right by the airport without noticing if you don't notice the one sign that tells you where to turn (a normal traffic-circle sign, with one of the minor arrows leading off to the side marked “airport”).
To find my way around, whether by car, bicycle, or foot, I relied on the Galileo Offline Maps app on my phone. Prior to the trip I downloaded the vector map for New Caledonia, which turned out to be excellent. Since it's on the phone after the initial download, I could use it while my phone was in airplane mode for the duration of the trip. I didn't want to pay steep data-roaming charges, and with this app didn't need to. It was absolutely invaluable.
I could also keep a track of our movements, then refer to the track later if I needed to retrace the path, or use the trace as my path back home. I can't overstate how useful this $4 app is. (I also use it while cycling in Japan, where I'm often deep in the mountains with no cell coverage.)
One non-pleasure part of driving in the rural parts of New Caledonia is that if you're unlucky, you get stuck behind someone driving at half the safe/legal speed limit, just because, and there's little you can do about it.
In some really mountain-curvy rural areas, I sometimes found that the posted speed limit was well faster than I felt safe to drive, but mostly one could easily do the 110kph (70mph) speed limit common on the nicer rural roads. A long drive like this could be quite pleasant, but sometimes you'd come across someone doing half the posted speed limit and not giving the slightest care to the long line of cars piling up behind them. There were plenty of places to pull aside to let other traffic go, but few places to pass safely (especially at night where you couldn't see ahead in the pitch dark), so it was extremely frustrating. You were limited both by the speed of the slowpoke causing the problem, and by how daring each person in front of you was in choosing when to try to pass.
One day, stuck behind a big construction truck for the better part of an hour, I imagine it was sport for the driver to watch the car immediately behind jockeying for a good view, hoping for a chance to pass. If/when they did, it started all over again with the next person in line, nonstop, for their entire drive. I imagine that for this selfish asshole, a good head-on collision would have made their day.
I asked about it to a local New Caledonian who drives a lot. He said that that's how it is in New Caledonia... they don't care about other drivers and would never pull over to let someone pass. I just can't comprehend this kind of selfishness.
One kind of flip side of this is that they apparently don't feel too bad about tailgating. I was happy to let folks go by if they wanted to go faster than I wanted, but when I wasn't able to find a place to move over, I'd sometimes be tailgated quite strongly.
This was the only kind of inconsideration I ran into on my trip. There was a lot of graffiti everywhere, which illustrates that there are a lot of remarkably-selfish people (or a few that are remarkably active), but in person, people were universally friendly.
Once you're out of the city, there are almost no services. Driving around in the south part of the island, we went for hours without seeing a sign of human civilization except for the road itself, and the occasional deserted national-park type place. For hours of driving, no houses, no farms, no stores, no businesses, no industry, no nothing.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
beautiful, quiet, serene nothing
If you look carefully you can see a few power-line towers, and the far ridgeline at right has some wind turbines, but otherwise there's no indication of human presence. The same scene in Japan would be festooned with power lines and dam construction and any number of other visual-noise elements.
Sometimes, even, no bridges:
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 62mm — 1/125 sec, f/2.8, ISO 640 — map & image data — nearby photos
not a fjord, mind you
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 67mm — 1/160 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
this would translate as “Madeleine Falls”, I guess.
The falls above were in a provincial park that seemed, other than us, devoid of humans. There was a parking lot and nicely-manicured trails, with signs and steps and information boards (in French that we could not read), but no people. We wandered about the place freely.
For tourists, though, New Caledonia is known for its marine sports...
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 54mm — 1/5000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Some days the wind was dead calm, and other days it was briskly strong, and on those days the kite surfers were out in force, with dozens visible at any one time.
The water is very clear.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/320 sec, f/13, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
at Îlot Maître (メトル島)
photo by Fumie Friedl
The 1200cc jet ski was fun and responsive, and we were flying over the water at more than 60kph (40mph). The guide said that it can go faster, so perhaps we were limited because it was a bit choppy out where we could let loose.
In Japan one needs a special license to drive these, but here you needed only money. I let Anthony drive for a while, and we had great fun.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 75mm — 1/6400 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/2000 sec, f/8, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
One day we took a tour to an uninhabited island to snorkel and explore the coral. When we asked how popular the tour was, the guide said that there are up to 90 people on the tour at one time, which I imagine would fill the small beach and the surf, destroying the whole “deserted island” ambiance that was the whole point in the first place.
Our timing was good; on the day we went, we were the only five customers, so we had everything to ourselves. It was the following week that the huge influx would start, the guide said. We're glad Anthony's school got out for the New Year break a bit earlier than most other schools.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 52mm — 1/2000 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
I'm fairly sun-averse, with skin that sublimates from “beached-whale white” directly to “the Colonel's Extra Crispy” burnt, so I generally keep covered up when I'm out. But with liberal amounts of sunscreen I thought I'd be safe from getting burnt.
So, on this trip I learned the difference between “SPF” and “how long does it last”. I had super-high SPF lotion, but I neglected to reapply often enough. It seems that regardless of the SPF, the protective properties break down in the sun at the same pace, so regardless of the SPF, one must reapply every two hours or so. I ended up with some mild sunburn on my back and shoulders. Doh! Lesson learned.
Being a bit sun-averse was one reason that I didn't really explore the beach directly outside the hotel, until the last day. I really regret that, because just a few seconds out into the water and there were all kinds of thick puffy colorful starfish, sea cucumbers, and other assorted marine life that was super fun to explore with just goggles. Had I known I would have gone out with Anthony every day.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 37mm — 1/1250 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
The country seems to be very cycling friendly, aside from the lack of places to get food and water away from the city. I'd see lots of cyclists each day, from the early morning until dusk.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 43mm — 1/3200 sec, f/16, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
6am on my one bike ride in New Caledonia
Helmets are not compulsory, but it was quite rare to see someone without one. For my one bike ride I spent $25 to rent a bicycle, and another $10 to rent a helmet.
Nouméa can be quite hilly, with many short but really steep (10% ~ 15%) slopes.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/200 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
still hilly, still pleasant
Because I didn't know the city at all, my sort of random cycling trip brought me through what turned out to be less affluent areas.
Regardless of where I went I never felt unsafe, or that a run-down area was “seedy”, but I also didn't feel comfortable leaving the bicycle unattended, as I had no lock. (Actually, the rental place gave me a lock for it, but neglected to give me the key.) So in one particularly un-affluent area I was happy to find a market that was surrounded by a high fence, almost like a prison. I could put the bicycle inside the fence by the door of the market and feel that it was relatively safe while I bought some water inside.
While I was there, the little boy seen above took interest in my “real cyclist” look, and returned to his bike with vigor. He tore around the parking lot and streets at breakneck speed. He could slow himself only Flintstones style, as his bike had no brakes and his feet no shoes. He was a natural.
As I prepared to leave, he stood aside and watched everything. Then as I started to pull away, I bid him an “au revoir”, which he politely bid back. I regret that I didn't buy some candy or something for him.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/1000 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
There's the thought that island cultures like this tend to take things more slowly, and this was evident in the stores being closed for a couple of hours mid day, or the occasional super slow person on the roads.
It was also evident at the airport when we left. We arrived almost three hours before our flight, but the line to check in was already long and it moved very, very, very slowly. Really, super duper slowly.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/60 sec, f/2, ISO 500 — map & image data — nearby photos
Tontouta International Airport
At the pace it took us to get checked in, the folks still waiting in the photo (seen from a walkway above as we passed from security to the gate) would still need a couple of hours to be checked in. There wasn't that long before the flight so I don't know how they did it, but we ended up reaching Japan on time, so in the end all was well.