L'Île des Pins - Jewel of the Pacific
Sailing to the Île des Pins
A soft rain started to fall as our tender pulled up to the dock, yet an emerald sea spread all around us. The white sands of a perfect beach stretched to either side, with a local market in full swing along the shore. I found it a delight to speak French in this most exotic of places. Because of the rain, I didn't get to swim, let alone snorkel – that will have to wait for the next trip – yet of all the islands I visited in the Pacific, the Île des Pins was the most beautiful, and the most magical. I still contemplate moving here. It seems the perfect place to pass the day writing a novel, before watching the sun set while over a glass of champagne or two.
The Isle of Pines - literally!
We cruised from our last port of call overnight, and when I woke the balcony looked over an empty ocean. As the rising sun coloured the day, land suddenly appeared and we were there. The Île des Pins rose out of the water before us, covered with thousands of Araucaria pine trees.
These trees date back to to prehistoric times, and now grow only on the Île des Pines. Indeed, they give the island a distinctly pre-historic air, and as the boat navigated through the tropical reef to the port, it was all too easy to imagine dinosaurs surviving on these island plateaus. (Along with those giant clams famous for luring divers to their death, lost islands where dinosaurs still survive featured large in the novels of my childhood. I looked for them everywhere on the cruise.)
Discovering the Île des Pins
Discovered and named by Captain Cook in 1774, the Île des Pins quickly became known as the ‘the jewel of the Pacific’. Indeed, it is nicknamed ‘l'île la plus proche du paradis’ - the island closest to paradise.
The moniker is well deserved. Somewhere I still have a map of the island, but I’m yet to look at it. After docking, we walked for about ten minutes to an even more perfect beach. Aquamarine waters broke in tiny waves on soft, silky sand. On a sunny day the bay would simply sparkle. Large limestone rocks rose from the waters – Le Rocher is sacred, and may be swum around but not climbed. Somehow the place exuded tranquility and other-worldliness, as if something magical could happen at any moment.
Only a stone’s throw from the beach a road ran through a large avenue of trees. Walking under their canopy the atmosphere becomes completely different, as if walking through the heart of a jungle, not on a Pacific Island.
Islands of New Caledonia
Walking Around the Île des Pins
Archeological digs on the Île des Pins date findings to over 4000 years, and her history has been tumultuous. The original inhabitants of the islands were the Kuniés, who remained largely isolated from the world until the early 1800’s when traders arrived seeking sandalwood. Where trade is established, missionaries quickly follow. The French took possession of the island, and by 1872 the Île des Pins had become a penal colony, with some 3000 political prisoners from the French Commune sent here.
Despite such an idyllic setting for a prison, diaries of the time show their time here to be very unhappy. Those who could eventually returned to Paris. Old convict ruins remain near the beach, as does a fort.
On the other side of the island is the Grotto of Queen Horten, where amidst wild gardens a giant limestone cave offered refuge for the inhabitants during the tribal wars. With the island being only 18km long and 14 km wide, a bike offers a good choice for getting around. At every turn there is another beach, another idyllic spot. The Piscine Naturelle (a natural swimming hole) is reputedly one of the best spots for snorkelling in New Caledonia, where fish and corals of every kind fill the transparent waters. Other spots around the island are Kanumera Bay, Upi Bay and the lagoon of Oro Bay.
Farewell Île des Pins, New Caledonia
Back near the dock, the markets offered a spot of shopping. Like the markets I found on every island I visited in the Pacific, the stall holders proved incredibly relaxed - no hassling to buy, no haggling over prices. Up towards the ruins a few shops sold artwork, jewellery and clothes.
The rain continued to fall, and by the time I returned to the ship I was drenched, but I wouldn't hesitate to come back one day. (Interestingly, my next favourite place on our Pacific cruise was Amédée Island with her famous French lighthouse, also in New Caledonia and not far from Île des Pines).
Sailing out as the sun set was an amazing experience. So many islands lie scattered about the waters, for this is the narrowest part of the reef. I spied the lights of a distant town – possibly Noumea – but everywhere else was cloaked in darkness.
Maybe, somewhere, the dinosaurs have survived.
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© 2016 Anne Harrison