Monday, January 26, 2015

January 25th – Tres Chaud in New Caledonia

Where and what is New Caledonia?, I hear you ask. The short answer to the question is that it is a French Overseas Territory in Melanesia, about 900 miles off the Australian coast. As we explored this interesting slice of France in the Pacific today, we got a longer answer.

As we sailed into our port of call, the capital, Noumea, we immediately got an insight into what makes New Caledonia tick. We passed by attractive sandy bays that are turning the island into a holiday destination; we could see a large town equipped with modern buildings and French supermarkets; and in the distance, we could see the smoking chimneys of the town's rather ugly nickel smelting plant. These elements rather summed up the territory – it's a well developed place with a strong French accent that's increasingly becoming a tourist destination, but one that has the luxury of its large nickel reserves to give it a high standard of living.

This wealth has meant that the territory is strongly considering going it alone and getting independence from France; although the debate is not as cut and dried as that. Because, the local Melanesian Kanak population only make up about 45% of the population, while white ethnic French people make up about a third of the population (with Chinese, Vietnamese and other Polynesian people making up the balance). So, at the moment, it seems that the majority of people (by a small margin) want to maintain its links with France.

The presence of so many white people here in the capital, and its well developed infrastructure mean that Noumea has a lot of the feel of a modern Riviera town, although the extreme tropical heat and the presence of plenty of Kanak people (many of the ladies looking lovely in their colourful "Mother Hubbard" dresses introduced by the missionaries), gave the place a strongly South Pacific feel too.

As a lot of things are closed on a Monday, there wasn't so much to do here, so we decided to chance our arm to see if we could sneak into the Tjibaou Cultural Centre to take a look at its amazing architecture. Having got the bus there, we pleaded with the security guards to let us in to take a few snaps of one of the most impressive pieces of architecture in the South Pacific, designed by Renzo Piano (of Pompidou Centre and the Shard fame). Unfortunately, we couldn't find much generosity of spirit from them, so we had to make do with a few tantalising glimpses over the top of the trees.

On getting the bus straight back into town, we decided to walk to the closest beach, the Baie de Citrons – a fairly long walk in the baking heat, although the sea breezes did cool us down a little. The beach was lovely, and there were plenty of bars and cafes for us to take shelter from the sun. Just to show how much more developed this place is compared to the more rough-and-ready Pacific islands we've visited so far, most bars had fast free wifi to use, so we were able to catch up on a few jobs.
It was way too hot to walk back, so we enjoyed the air-conditioning of the bus back into the centre of town, before having a bit more of a wander – checking out the pretty expensive prices in the supermarket.

So, if you don't mind high prices, hot weather and a bit of isolation, then I think that New Caledonia must be a pretty good place to live (to me, it definitely seems more "liveable" than either Tonga or French Polynesia). There's an enticing combination of exotic Melanesian culture and French organisation, in a place of fairly high standards of living – whether this will all change if they decide to go it alone remains to be seen. I wonder what the future holds for New Caledonia?

Friday, January 23, 2015

January 23rd – A Warm Welcome in Tonga

Tonga revels in the nickname, "The Friendly Isles", and today confirmed why. As we sailed towards low-lying Nuku'alofa with the Royal Palace dominating the waterfront, we were greeted by a couple of guys thumping away on a huge set of drums on the pier, and a girl blowing on a conch shell – it felt like the kind of welcome Captain Cook would have got when he became one of the first Europeans to sail in here a couple of hundred years ago. Then, as we docked, the Police brass band played a number of jaunty tunes for us. Plus, with people in traditional costumes greeting us with "Welcome to Tonga" and huge smiles every few yards as we walked down the pier, the welcome couldn't have been much warmer.

The weather couldn't have been much warmer either, but it was a vast improvement over last year when we all got absolutely drenched in a day of vicious wind and rain. In fact, I did exactly the same tour as last year – but what a difference some fine weather makes. Because, today we got to see how attractive this island is – even if it doesn't have spectacular mountains or rainforest, it's obviously incredibly fertile, with fields of crops and coconut plantations everywhere.

The main natural sight on the island, are the blowholes at Houma, which would have required worse weather to see them at their best; but even on a day of calm seas and minimal wind, their display was pretty impressive. While we were there, one enterprising lady had gathered about 10 schoolkids together to get them to sing for us – the fact that they were fairly out of tune, and that the songs were about as un-Tongan as possible ("Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", and an incongruous "We Wish You a Merry Christmas") couldn't take away from their gap-toothed cuteness, and they made a few dollars for their trouble.

As we toured the island, we visited a couple of stone age sites that were impressive, even if no-one knows what their actual purpose was or how they were built – one that looked like Stonehenge consisted of 40-ton blocks of coral stone slotted together, while the other was a set of pyramidal burial mounds again made from huge blocks of stone. Apart from Easter Island, there aren't many places in Polynesia that can rival these ancient sites.

As we toured, our excellent guide told us all about the island and what it's like to live here. He didn't think that things had necessarily got any better since democracy had finally come to the country in 2010, but at least they only had themselves to blame if the government wasn't very good. He was particularly worried by the amount that the Chinese had taken over – a large proportion of the shops and businesses now have Chinese owners. However, he had to admit that the industrious Chinese tended to work harder and stay open longer than the laid-back islanders – a people perhaps used to accepting the bounty that their fertile island provides without having to work too hard for it.

At the end of the tour, Tracy and I explored Nuku'alofa, which is a relaxed, endearingly ramshackle city with an eclectic mix of architecture. There were few of the old wooden colonial buildings that have survived the years (or survived the riots in 2006, which saw 80% of the city centre burned down), but those that did were generally dilapidated, there were a few gleaming modern buildings (funded by Chinese money) that didn't have much character, and still a few gaps on the street waiting for the re-building work to come to them.

The most interesting site in town is probably the market – again, thoroughly laid-back, totally friendly, and a good showpiece for the island's agricultural produce and for some of its traditional crafts.

Tonga seems to be trying really hard to improve its lot and trying to give its visitors a good impression – I hope that this wonderfully welcoming country's hard working tourist industry can really begin to grow.

Monday, January 19, 2015

January 18th – Bumping Around Bora Bora

While Tracy was having a fabulous time doing an "Aqua Safari" in the lagoon – strapping on a Jules Verne style diving helmet and walking around the lagoon floor surrounded by so many frenzied fish; I was doing an off-road adventure, up into the steep mountains that make up most of the island of Bora Bora.

As we bounced along the pot-holed roads of the main town Vaitape, we joked that we were already experiencing an off-road adventure; however, the tracks that we were to be taking up into the mountains must have been some of the roughest terrain I've ever driven on. Not only were they steep and unpaved, but they were heavily rutted, covered in boulders and about as uneven as you can imagine.

We held on for grim death as we did our best not to bash our heads on the roof, or to be tipped out of the back of the jeep – it was quite literally a white-knuckle ride around the island. However, the lush scenery was beautiful, and the views from the top across the blue lagoon and over to the little off-shore motus made all that bumping and jolting worthwhile.

We visited some of the enormous gun emplacements left over from the Second World War, when this island paradise was turned into a heavily fortified base for the US Navy. How they managed to get those huge iron guns up the top of these vertiginous ridges must have been an amazing feat of engineering and logistics.

It was those years of American occupation that totally changed the fortunes of the island. Not only did they give the island the infrastructure of roads and the airport that it still relies on today, but they brought it to the world's attention with their tales of Bora Bora as an idyllic South Pacific paradise.

From any angle, that view of Bora Bora as a paradise still holds true today – great scenery, wonderful white beaches, and amazing sea life in the beautiful lagoon. Plus the modern infrastructure of swanky holiday resorts has turned this into an exclusive playground for the rich and famous, although the fact that four of the island's 16 resorts have gone bankrupt in the last few years, goes to the show that not everything's fine here in paradise.

French Polynesia has certainly delivered on all fronts over the past week – on land and sea, up in the mountains and under water, in quiet seclusion or in busy towns, in simple pleasures or in sophisticated resorts – this scattered territory has all the ingredients for vacation heaven.

January 17th – The Water Falls on Tahiti

When you visit French Polynesia in rainy season, you're bound to get at least one day of rain – and today was it. We woke to fairly constant rain and to see that the mountains behind Papeete were covered in thick cloud. That was a bit of a shame, because today we were joining a 4x4 tour that was taking us up right into those thick clouds.

We were heading into the thickly vegetated Papenoo Valley to see its mountainous scenery and its many waterfalls (the name means Valley of 1,000 Waterfalls) – so, while the heavy rain was bad for observing the scenery, it was obviously good for powering the waterfalls. As we peered through the rain-sodden sides of our jeep, the lush scenery and plunging waterfalls looked pretty amazing, but we kept on having to imagine just how good it all would have looked with clear skies (or at least without it feeling that someone had poured a bucket of water over you every time you stepped outside).

Unsurprisingly, no-one fancied swimming in the teeming river, nor was anyone particularly keen to step out of the cover of the jeep too much at all, so we cut short the mountain bit and headed for the coast to see if the weather was any better there – it wasn't much. But, we did get to see the famous Arahoho Blowholes, and pay a quick visit to a soaking wet Point Venue to see its lighthouse.

As we drove, our guide was telling us about the current political situation in French Polynesia. He felt that the territory's semi-autonomous status was doing it no favours, and that it should become a French Department (like Reunion, Mayotte and Martinique). He said that investors were holding off putting money into the territory because there was a danger that it might eventually become independent; while, the politicians within the semi-autonomous government had far too much leeway, and corruption had set in. It will be interesting to see where the future lies for French Polynesia.

Thankfully, it was time to get back to the ship to dry off and eat, before heading into Papeete to see what was happening. Papeete is hardly the most picturesque place in the Pacific – concrete buildings and traffic rather than beaches and palm trees; and, unfortunately, the rain had set in for the day, so it wasn't looking at its best. Plus, it's pretty dead on a Saturday afternoon, so after an unsuccessful attempt to find wifi and a brief look around the somnolent market, we gave in to the weather a returned back to the ship. Any thoughts of grabbing a snack in the market were swiftly scotched when we saw a snack bar serving up baguettes filled with either burger, chips and gravy, or with chinese chicken noodles. Fusion food is normally great, but this mixture of French and Chinese cuisines was not a winner!

Fortunately, our spirits were revived with a wonderful local show of Tahitian song and dance – the men did their knock-kneed dancing with enormous energy, while the hip-swaying and bottom-gyrating of the women was hypnotic. The weather may not have been on our side, but we saw enough of Tahiti and its people to know that this is a great place to visit.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

January 16th – Marvellous Moorea

I've always thought that Moorea was my favourite of the French Polynesian islands, and today confirmed why. We had an absolutely idyllic day in the lagoon and out on one of the remote Motus (islands) just inside the reef.

The mountainous centre of the island was shrouded in clouds, but luckily enough the coastline was largely sunny, which meant that the lagoon was looking truly spectacular – all kinds of shades of blue, turquoise and aquamarine. But, if it looked good above the surface, then what we saw below it was even more impressive when we stopped off at a shallow sandbar.

As we approached, we could see the tips of about 20 sharks circling menacingly in the water, plus a few dark splodges underwater that could only be stingrays. Then we were told that we should get in the water to swim with them!

So, we had the unnerving experience of going face-to-face with a whole load of sharks, looking into their dead eyes as they swam towards you, swerving away at the last minute as they were toying with your levels of fright. The rubbery stingrays were marginally less threatening, although as they glided past your legs the amount of times that people mentioned Steve Irwin's sad fate was a little disconcerting. Over time, the fear level subsided and it was just fascinating to observe these creatures and to think that we were the ones who were invading their environment – if anything goes through the mind of a shark, what does he make of a bunch of well-fed cruise passengers splashing into his home?

After this stomach-churning experience, it was time to re-fill our stomachs by having a delicious picnic lunch on a deserted motu. The setting was so picture-perfect that it simply felt unreal – sitting next to the turquoise lagoon, eating delicious food, enjoying a cold beer, it felt like something from a film. However, after a bit of relaxing and some more snorkelling, the fantasy had to come to an end; and so we reluctantly boarded our boat to take us back to the ship.

An absolutely fantastic day in a really wonderful island.