New Caledonia is divided into three provinces – the North Province, the South Province, and the Loyalty Islands Province. Our first outer-island trip to the Loyalties was to Lifou, the largest island in the Province.
During our flight to Lifou a local man tapped Nid on the shoulder, “Excuse me are you tourists? This is my island, Lifou. It is the most beautiful island and I want to welcome you and hope you enjoy your time.” Fighting words and a great start to our trip.
Lifou is a raised coral atoll, the largest atoll in the world in fact, and is mostly flat and cliffy. No rivers make for great dive visibility all year round. Is this why Lifou is good at growing vanilla? I don’t know, I’m a blogger not a botanist. But when you do spot a sign for vanilla while driving around Lifou you should definitely stop for a look-see and a deal.
In Lifou, about 97% of the locals are Kanak. The culture here is strong and Drehu is the common tongue, as well as French.
Should you rent a car on Lifou? Definitely, yes. Tune to radio DJIDAO, drive slow and don’t forget to wave. Lifou is a port for cruise ships so the locals are very kind and welcoming. There is one big supermarket on Lifou, two hotels, heaps of gites, stunning beaches, vanilla, caves, diving, cliffs, snorkelling and hikes.
In a rental that smelt like 100 beaches and a wet dog, we rolled up to our first gite: Chez Jeanette (The house of Jeanette). Gite accommodation is local style accommodation that’s somewhere in between camping and a hotel. Common facilities like bathrooms and dining areas are shared, and most of them will offer a table d’hote: a “host’s table”, which in New Caledonia roughly equates to “eating at Aunty’s house”. Staying at gite accommodation is a nice way to stay local and get your first taste of bougna, a Kanak hot-rock oven meal. Jeanette even has lobster and crab at her table.
Our first plan for the day, diving, was promptly canceled because the wind had been kicking up a fuss for the past few days. This was sad news to bear but we found puppies at the dive shop – good doggos.
Jeanette suggested we check out her cousin Justine’s cave tour as a Plan B, “Just take hiking shoes, mask, snorkel, and flippers.” Strange things to take on a cave tour but our French was too limited to question why. “Hurry, the tour is leaving in 10 minutes!”
10 minutes drive past the town of Wé, we met our tour guide Justine at her gite. She was a fit-looking woman and we prayed the hike wasn’t going to be as fit as she looked. Coming to the edge of a forest, we did as Justine did, placing a leaf to the left and right of the trail with a loud “Oleti” (thank you) as we passed through. Stomping through the forest without acknowledging the guardians through this Drehu kastom is believed to have been the cause of some fatal accidents in the past.
For about twenty minutes our group of 10 followed a thin trail of sharp coral – not a jandal walk after all. We followed it down-down-down into the bush until we were peering over a rock edge looking at the glistening of dark water at the bottom. Justine started giving us instructions on how to “rappel” down the rockface, which is as shocking as it sounds in French as it does in English. Thankfully, it turned out to be a 5m drop so we all survived, even the anglophones.
At the water’s edge the entrance of the cave sprawled for maximum metaphysical effect: an ethereal pool of blues, milky and shimmering limestone, like bottom-side-up candle-drippings. The reflection off the water gave us double-vision and we rubbed our eyes a moment for the spiritual moment to pass. But goshdarnit that water was cold! Balls shrunk as we swam about 50m to get to the back of the cave where we had to turn our headlamps on. For the next hour and a half we explored the chambers on foot and by torch ohhing and ahhing at a glittering museum of limestone speleothems. Diving shmiving, caving for the win!
We spent the rest of the day with a spot of snorkeling at baie de Jinek and laxing out at plage de Peng. Both excellent beaches that should be on anyone’s Lifou agenda.
Our next stay was in another gite but this time at a friend of a friend’s house. As this was a real family’s house, we’d come prepared with coutume to gift to our hosts: a customary sarong, a koha, and some food items. We hadn’t been entrusted with the food buying as taking the wrong milk powder to the village can be a grave social faux pas. Pft, this isn’t our first rodeo. Whenever in the islands always take NZ’s finest:
The worst thing about sleeping in a gite are the bugs. All of them: mosquitos, flies, cockroaches, spiders, moths etc. In New Zealand, the worst thing about sleeping in a wharenui is the snoring of all of your uncles, all of them, with generational sleep apnea.
Both have their charms.
After a night of half-awake sleep listening to the sounds of the night, Lagoon Safari called in the morning to confirm the dives were a go ahead. Owned and operated by locals from the Easo tribe, Lagoon Safari is the only dive shop on Lifou. We’re going to be blunt. Their communication sucks and the best way to contact them is all of the ways: email, call and Facebook. For those that persevere, there are so many scuby treats to be had.
The boys were so fun to dive with: good gear, nice boat, stunning sites, and long, lingering hour-long dives. We did four dives in total and the lack of silt in the waters made for some of the best visibility we’ve ever had: unbelievably vibrant and colourful reefs, arches and fan corals, a shit-ton of swim-throughs, and caves with giant lobsters. We asked the boys how they weren’t tempted to eat them for lunch: “Saving them for Christmas!”
Our last activity was hiking to Kiki plage: the secret beach that everyone knows about. The reason it’s secret is because to get there, you have to be fluent in island directions. First, ask a local who will tell you to stop by some guy’s house on the road in Xépénéhé on the west coast. Then, find the football field with a run down orange tractor. Behind said tractor is a tree with an A4 piece of paper that says “Bienvenue”.
Once you’ve found that, park your car in Jean-Paul’s backyard and give him (or the box) a kastom fee of 500 F. Then it’s a 30-minute trek through the bush following (and losing) pieces of fabric tied to trees. You’ll come to a vista of the beach and a questionable ladder made out of driftwood. Voila, you’ve solved the escape room. Your reward is one of the nicest beaches on Lifou, which is saying a lot since the bar is already pretty high.
Until we visit the other islands, we won’t know if Lifou is indeed the most beautiful island in the Loyalties. But it’s stiff competition.
Peruse this pamphlet.
How long should you stay?
3-4 days will hit the sweet spot. Note that the Easo tribe has a wharf for international cruise ships. Check the cruise ship schedules on Google if you want to avoid the throngs and book ahead.
Getting to there
Fly: Take the 40-minute flight with Air Caledonie at anywhere between at 15,000-25,000 CPF for a return ticket.
Boat: Take the 7-hour ferry with Betico for 8,200-10,500 CPF for a one-way ticket
The official Lifou tourism website pretty much lists all of the available options. There are two hotels for fancy-pants people and loads of gites for normal-pants people.
Car hire is about 7,500 CPF per day and should be booked well ahead of your trip. We went with Loka-V who are right next to the airport.
If you’re staying at a gite, the host will have local menus available. Both hotels have restaurants. Otherwise, there is a pretty well stocked supermarket in the town of Wé if you have access to a kitchen.
Snorkel at Baie de Jinek
Dive with Lagoon Safaris. No excuses.
Cave: Grotte de Lifou tour with Justine, ph 729682
Pack walking shoes, snorkeling gear, headlamp, and possibly a wetsuit if you know you get cold.
Beaches: There are so many! Spend a lazy afternoon at plage de peng on the southwest, plage de chateaubriand on the east, or if you’re keen for a hike at a hard-to-reach beach then head to Kiki Plage