Isle of Fine Pines
You know where you should visit in New Caledonia?
Isle of Pines.
It is, after all, the second best place to visit in New Caledonia on TripAdvisor and we don’t go anywhere unless TripAdvisor rates it.
Named Kunie by the locals and diagnosed Isle of Pines by Cook in the 1700s because it was full of pines and who even cares about indigenous names anyway?
Isle of Pines is a separate island from the main island of New Caledonia; a 20-minute flight, or a 2.5 hour ferry ride. If there is one thing you should know about travelling to the Isle of Pines, it’s this: check the cruise schedules and avoid those boats like they’re Corona (if you’re reading this because you’re on a cruise to Isle of Pines… well, shit).
Isle of Pines is famous for its Piscine Naturelle: a ‘natural swimming pool’ with waters so sparkly, it almost, almost, compares with the only other most sparkly moment in history.
The piscine is beautiful and it’s full of fish and giant clams so don’t forget to bring snorkeling gear. It’s also full of tourists. The best time to go is when all the cruise ships are banned and you’ve managed to magician a trip a week before the borders close to Corona.
Here’s a picture of what it never looked like pre-corona.
For the superior experience you have to take the 1-hour trip by pirogue traditionelle (a traditional boat). For 15 glorious minutes we were channeling Moana hard… until the boatman turned the motor on for the remaining 45 minutes. We got the gist though and we’d recommend bringing an ukulele to better get your money’s worth.
After an hour enjoying the beautiful sights of Upi ‘Halong Bay’, melting in the sun with no lumbar support, there’s a wee 30 minute bush-water walk. Make that about an hour if you forget water shoes, you’re old, or you’re stuck behind someone who is old (sorry old people).
After you’ve splashed around, seen some fish, and taken some TikTok vids, check the Piscine off your to-do list and get some wheels. The island is small, but not small enough that it isn’t worth hiring some transport. Hire a car and it’ll take you around 43 minutes to circumvent the island. Or a scooter, which is really fun if there are two of you and you both turn out to be bad scooter drivers. Or don’t hire anything and rely on legs or expensive hotel shuttles to get from A to B (pft, plebs).
Wheels make it easier to get to places like…
Pic Nga – the highest point on the island. So high, it will take 30 minutes.
Vestiges of prisons – helmets only optional.
Caves with bats and histories of hidden queens.
Piña Coladas sans rum and pineapples.
And round two at the Piscine.
Luck is with you if you stumble upon the Méridien resort, the fanciest place on the island where no one need know you’re not a paying guest. If you do it right, order a cocktail and lounge like you paid for the whole week (and if you get caught, don’t say it was us).
There are a number of places to stay: hotels, gites (local bungalow accommodation) and camping sites. If you’re a diver, consider laying your head to sleep at Hotel Kodjeue. Proudly two stars, this hotel clearly had a heyday and that was a long time ago. The rooms are outdated, but they are robust. Every time you need to speak to the receptionist you’ll spend 15 minutes trying to find her but that’s called charm. Most other accommodation is located in the more central and popular area of Kuto Bay, but that’s why we love this place – it’s so quiet you can hear the turtles fart.
Hotel Kodjeue is conveniently attached to Kunie Dive Centre, one of our favourite dive shops in New Caledonia and certainly in the top 3 dive shops on the Isle of Pines (…there’s only one). The dive shop is run by a team of Kunie locals and a Japanese lady. They run a well-oiled dive operation for some of the best sites we’ve ever seen. We demanded manta rays, they gave us leopard sharks. We asked for sea-horses and then Nid went into decompression because we had too many seahorses on our plate (and he ignored his dive computer). The dive staff are fantastic and we think the Japanese lady is responsible for one of the most well-labeled dive gear cleaning stations we’ve ever had the pleasure of rinsing dive gear in.
Climbing Pic Nga was a fun experience and we found ourselves in a bit of a conundrum trying to figure out what to do with our second helmet – only one helmet could fit in the compartment under the seat!
What to do with the second helmet… This was only our second hour on the island and we weren’t sure how hot the demand was for scooter helmets. My idea was to hide the helmet in the bush, but Nid thought that was a dumb idea and we ended up taking it with us as if that wasn’t a dumber idea 😕
So we started hiking – stupid helmet couldn’t fit in the backpack or tuck ergonomically under an arm. The best solution was swinging it by its face straps and end up bashing the plants with it.
We heard some sounds up ahead and two Kunie locals appeared from the bushes.
“Bonjour.” They pointed at the helmet and said, in French, the equivalent of, “Why the hell are you two hiking with a helmet, you weirdos? You know it’s steep up there?!”
We responded, in French, “Umm… avalanches?”
“Yeah but, you know you can just leave it on the scooter.”
We replied, “Yeah but, are you sure it’s safe?” while secretly meaning, Are you trying to steal our helmet?
“Yeah but, don’t worry. No-one will take it – we’ll put it on your scooter for you.”
So they took the helmet, which we let them take because to have objected would have made us overtly distrusting and maybe racist people, and not just secretly distrusting and maybe racist people.
Anyway, having two free hands was way better than one hand and a helmet. We got to the top and the view was nice, but tainted by the thought that we might be paying for a new helmet at the end of the day.
We slid back down the mountain, wondering if the helmet was having a better life wherever it ended up.
Lo and behold, we found the helmet sitting, perfectly unstolen, and living its best helmet-life on top of our scooter.
The moral of the story is that if you leave your helmet on your scooter in Isle of Pines, it’ll be just fine.
How long should you stay?
Getting to there
Fly: Take the 20-minute flight with Air Caledonie at 8,000-10,000 CPF for a one-way ticket – cancelled/delayed flights (or taking flights without your baggage) due to strong winds aren’t unusual. You can only take 12kg check-in and 5kg cabin luggage.
Boat: Take the 2.5-hour ferry with Betico for 5,900-8,200 CPF for a one-way ticket – the journey can be rough in high winds.
Trip Advisor pretty much lists all of the available options. There are about three hotels, more than a few gites, and a couple of campsites. It’s a small island so don’t leave booking for the last minute.
Scooters (6,500 CPF per day) and cars (7,500 CPF per day) are available through your accommodation but book well in advance or you are likely to miss out. Some hotels rent bikes.
Snorkel: Hotels hire gear.
Hike: Pic Nga is the highest peak (donation at foot). There are other hikes too.
Boat: Your accommodation should be able to hook you up with a trip on the pirogue traditionelle for 2,500 per person. There are also private speed boats you can hire for the day (for much more than 2,500 per person).
Dive: Kunie Scuba Centre. The shop also offers Baptism Dives (shallow dives for non-divers). There are accomodation+dive packages if you stay at Hotel Kodjeue, but the dive shop also has a shuttle if you stay elsewhere.
Caves: There are a few and most ask for a small fee. Grotte de la Reine Hortense is the most famous.
Old prison sites: These are scattered around the island and are well signposted.
Beaches: There are many! Piscine Naturel, Baie D’oro, Kanemura and Kuto are the most popular.
Taking your own snacks isn’t a bad idea as there aren’t many places to buy food outside of hotel restaurants, however, there are a few snack shacks open during the day. There are also a couply small stores but their options aren’t huge and they can be difficult to get to if you don’t have your own wheels.