If you're prepared to throw out the itinerary, arm yourself with a sense of adventure and appreciate simple pleasures, then you may just unlock the secret of utopian island life. These 5 reasons will make you consider travelling to New Caledonia's Mare.
There's a good chance the New Caledonian Island of Mare will feel like purgatory, if your idea of a good time is a five-star resort with room service and luxury trimmings. But if you’re prepared to throw out the itinerary, arm yourself with a sense of adventure and appreciate simple pleasures, then you may just unlock the secret of utopian island life.
Penelope Quinn discovers the beauty of the New Caledonian Island of Mare.
The skies are steel grey and a light smattering of rain welcomes us as we land on the runway with a hard bump. We’ve been shaken and stirred every which way during the one hour plane ride from Nouméa, but as I unfold my paper itinerary, I take solace that it won’t be long before I’m enjoying a civilised sit-down lunch, some sightseeing, a cocktail or two at the pool and later feasting on that much-renowned fusion of Polynesian and French cuisine.
But we’re about to learn our first lesson on Mare; any mention of an itinerary or a timetable will be met with incredulous snickering.
“Why you want to rush?,” our affable guide Juan Claude asks us as he watches us heave our heavy suitcases into the back of his van. “It’s all good, relax, we have good time. Why you pack so much anyway? You going to a disco?”
1. An island from another era
Our van hurtles past sleepy villages that have been trapped in a utopian time warp – an age when palm-thatched huts still dotted the landscape, the skyline was still void of telephone wires and chip packets and empty coke cans weren’t competing for space with shells on the beach. It’s magical. As promised, the aqua waters are so blue they look fake, and the clean white sand squeaks underfoot.
Many visitors call Mare - the second largest of three islands in the Loyalty Islands - one of the best kept secrets of the Pacific. While there are plenty that want to keep it that way, Mare has paid a price for being nonexistent on the tourist radar, and that’s the nonexistent tourist infrastructure. Even guidebooks warn of irregular service; many hotel workers share their attention with fishing or farming family plots, and there are times when even essentials are in short supply.
For those that covet a quiet, disaffected hideaway void of fast food restaurants and hotel strips, this is all part of Mare’s charm. But for those that aren’t pre-warned, it’s understandable that the lack of soy lattes, perfumed hand towels on arrival and casinos could be a rude shock.
That’s not to say Mare is totally cut off from civilisation. The last few years have seen monstrous cruise liners dumping up to 2000 day-tripping Australians at Mare’s main port every week. Jean Claude tells us the locals are very proud of their heritage and want to share their slice of paradise – visitors bring money and money brings jobs. Every time a ship is due, dozens of Kanaks hastily set up stalls selling trinkets and food to the day tripping tourists who are always happy to part with a few francs.
2. Simple pleasures
We arrive to our hotel – the one hotel on the island - absolutely famished. But it’s 2.30 pm and the kitchen has closed. As for that cocktail, well the bar has mostly been drunk dry after the weekend’s festivities. English is definitely in short supply. Relax, says Jean Claude - not for the first or last time. Fresh foot long bagettes stuffed with tomato and camembert are quickly rustled up and the bartender even manages to find some Midori that’s been squirreled away. It feels like the nonchalant staff can’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. It’s all a bit bewildering, but in the most refreshing way. I’m on a tiny dot of an island in the middle of the South Pacific, and I’m about to get a real taste of authentic island life. As for our boutique bungalows, the beds are comfortable and the bathroom is clean and whatever superfluous luxuries they lack, it certainly makes up for in location. The palm fringed beach and inviting aqua waters are nothing short of life affirming.
There’s a savage beauty about the island – the rugged interior is honeycombed with dense bush, island pools and deep sink holes. Jean Claude entertains us with the folk story behind Warriors Leap and tells the cautionary tale of a foolish local boy who tried to scale Trou de Bone - a deep rock cavity that drops to a lush tropical garden and a pool – and later had to be rescued by helicopter. He proudly shows off the Natural Aquarium, a saltwater pool teeming with marine life and points out the monstrous eel sauntering nearby hoping for a snack of stale bread.
3. An underwater utopia
While snorkelling in this particular natural pool is forbidden, there are plenty of other places to don a mask and flippers. Mare’s endless visibility provides an uninterrupted view of tropical fish and sea turtles that roam the iridescent coral – even in bad weather. If you’re lucky, you’ll even catch a glimpse of manta rays and patrolling dugong. You don’t even need your diving license to experience the true beauty of Mare’s famed coral reefs. A lungful of air and a pair of fins is enough to get you the best seat in the house.
4. The cultural calendar and unexpected delights
Even though Mare flies largely under the international tourist radar, the island is the epicenter for cultural events in New Caledonia and celebrated for it’s many agricultural commodities. Jean Claude tells us that an ancient volcano is to thank for the rich fertile soil that provides a rich bounty of avocados, yams, paw paws, bananas and lettuce.
In fact, it’s the bountiful supply that brings us to Mare for one of the most important cultural events on the calendar – the Avocado Festival, now in it’s 22nd year. I vaguely remember reading about all kind of avocado-themed delights in the now-forgotten itinerary, but in true Mare style, no one tells us that we’re not going to see any avocados at the Avocado Festival. The wrath of tropical cyclone Pam laid waste to much of the island’s produce the month prior, so instead Jean Claude distracts us with other adventurous culinary delights – such as Rousettes – or roasted Flying Fox.
“It’s very delicious,” Juan Claude assures us as we take nervous bites. “You marinate him in red wine, onion, garlic, a touch of salt and roast him with veggies. I make it much better than this one.” While the lolling tongue may have been a little confronting, the bat itself is a gamey version of duck, and if you were hungry enough, quite tasty. The visitors from Noumea certainly have no aversion to it; many of them happily sucking juice off the bones.
5. Drop your guard and go with the flow
Mare is remarkable for all the reasons you’d expect – the striking landscape, glistening aqua ocean, long sandy beaches and an underwater Eden – but it’s the unexpected – and at times bewildering surprises that really lodge in your memories.
If you’re jaded by the contrived, stock standard, all-inclusive Pacific Island experience, then Mare will snap you out of your funk. Go armed with a healthy dose of humour and an anticipation of the unexpected, and this charming little atoll will shamelessly pry away your preconceptions and serve up something much more memorable and authentic. Who knows, you might even come home with a taste for roasted bats.
Penelope was a guest of New Caledonia Tourism and stayed at Nengone Village
For more information on Mare and the Loyalty Islands, www.loyalty-islands.com