NOUMEA, New Caledonia — Of course you know New Caledonia. It's the site of one of the world's largest barrier reefs.
Not ringing a bell? Perhaps geography will help: New Caledonia is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, halfway between Australia and Fiji.
Not clear yet? Maybe a history reminder will help: Capt. James Cook named New Caledonia in 1774 for his native Scottish highlands.
No? OK, try this: It was the place where the men of "McHale's Navy," the 1960s TV sitcom, talked about going for R&R.
If New Caledonia is still a mystery, it may be enough to know that the climate in these islands is like early summer in Los Angeles (you'll need a sweater at night), that French is spoken but the culture is definitely South Pacific, and that there's an outstanding cultural center designed by a world-renowned architect on the main island that's small enough to see in a few days.
The islands, all 7,367 square miles of them, are far enough off the beaten track that even some travel agents have trouble placing them. After the first agent told us that the international dateline affects only those travelers going west, we switched agents. With the help of the Internet and a Lonely Planet guidebook, we found accommodations.
My partner, John, and I came here for the Eighth Pacific Arts Festival last fall because of our interest in South Pacific cultures. About 2,000 people from 27 Pacific island countries participated in the festival and were joined by a few outsiders like us. After the 31-hour trip to get here, we decided to stay on to become more familiar with the islands. We would spend most of our three weeks in Noumea (new-MAY-ah) and then travel to two other islands.
Many of Noumea's tourist hotels are in an area called Anse Vata, several miles from the city's center. We booked a room at Ho^tel Le Lagon via e-mail and asked for a referral to a local travel agency that could help us with other arrangements. We would spend four nights on Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines) and three nights on Mare, one of the Loyalty Islands. What we found, to our delight, was a modern country with French flair.
We arrived at Tontouta International Airport, about an hour outside central Noumea, the capital and a city of 76,000. We went directly to our hotel in Anse Vata, a delightful residential area on the city's south coast, at the southern end of Grande Terre, New Caledonia's main island.
The Ho^tel Le Lagon (Lagoon), a 59-room hotel just a block from the water, turned out to be a great choice. It was centrally located, clean and modern. Our fifth-floor room had a long balcony with a beautiful ocean view. The best surprise: The room cost about $75 a night for two, less for a stay of a week or more.
To get acquainted with our destination, we explored the downtown area, especially its wealth of museums.
Musee Neo-Caledonien is devoted to telling the story of the South Pacific's cultural history. Its permanent exhibits of artifacts predate Western exploration of the South Pacific, and it offers a comprehensive display of architectural remnants from traditional buildings of New Caledonia's indigenous people, the Kanak. The Kanak, organized in clans and tribes, are Melanesian. They have dark, curly hair and look similar to Australian Aborigines.
The courtyard contains a mwakaa, a traditional Kanak sleeping house. Over a short, cylindrical building is a tall, conical roof topped with a spear-like wooden steeple carving to drive away evil spirits.
Musee de la Ville de Noumea is housed in the city's old town hall, built in 1875, destroyed by fire in 1988 and rebuilt. It is a fine example of colonial architecture and contains a fascinating exhibit of life in World War II trenches. (More than 40,000 U.S. troops were here during the war.) Admission is free.
The Maritime Museum is nearby but was closed when we visited. So we went to the Noumea Aquarium, near the bay in Anse Vata. Water from the bay is pumped into eye-level display tanks, and marine life is viewed through television-screen-size windows, giving excellent visual entree. Sea horses, only 3 inches tall, with straight rather than curving tails, floated gracefully through the water.
But the crown jewel of museums is the 1998 Tjibaou Cultural Center, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, known for his co-design of the Georges Pompidou Centre (the modern art museum also known as the Beaubourg) in Paris. This one-story modernist structure is surrounded by several wood superstructures that look like gigantic tiaras. Tjibaou Cultural Center, named for the man many consider the consummate peacemaker during late 20th century Kanak struggles for independence, was financed by the French government and built to recognize Kanak cultural identity. Its changing exhibits include modern New Caledonia art as well as traditional South Pacific art.