New Caledonia was named by Captain James Cook as its northern coastline reminded of Scotland when he sailed these waters in 1774. France took possession in 1853, and administers the island group to this day. With its idyllic location and natural splendour, New Caledonia provides everything a visitor can wish for in a South Pacific getaway, and more.
New Caledonia's charter operations are based in the capital city Noumea (pop. 180,000). From there it's a short sail to a choice of sheltered bays, making this the ideal destination for easing into a sailing holiday. For most charterers, the ultimate New Caledonan destination is l'Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines), a small island directly to the south. The Isle of Pines forms part of the outer barrier of the largest lagoon in the world, which defines New Caledonia's well-travelled charter area. Within the lagoon there are literally hundreds of places to visit.
The beautiful Isle of Pines
Thought of the Isle of Pines creates an image of most people's perfect tropical island - sandy beach shaded by coconut palms, a forested volcanic peak forming a spectacular backdrop - and it truly is a worthy destination. For one thing, the pristine sands extend uninterrupted all the way under your anchored boat, making swimming and snorkelling a convenient pleasure. The iconic pines are everywhere you look, as are the traditional water-craft the local Kanak people use for fishing and increasingly for tourist activity.
Once safely anchored after an on-the-wind sail to the Isle of Pines, it's time to relax aboard your charter yacht. It's likely you are in one of the sheltered sandy bays of Kuto or Kanamera, and you're ready to dive Gadgi Bay with its magnificent coral sculptures. Dine on famous lobsters at one of the local restaurants, and next morning climb Pic N'ga to see the sunrise. Take a picnic lunch out to Brush Island, sail a pirogue with the locals in Upi, or explore the dried riverbed of Oro and swim in the fabulous blue waterhole.
Sailing New Caledonia's World Heritage lagoons
l'Ile des Pins, c'est magnifique. But there's a lot more to a New Caledonian bareboat holiday cruise. On the way out there, the extensive Prony Bay on the mainland's southern tip can take days to explore if time allows. Just beyond is Port Boise with its resort dining facilities, while Ile Ouen guards the bay's entrance.
On the way back from Isle of Pines, it's a downwind sail to the southern islands, a water world dotted with tiny islets. There's some good shelter, and an extraordinary amount of wildlife. Complete your holiday with a final night stopover at Ilot Amédée, and take in a bit of French South Pacific history at the famous lighthouse.
Sailing season and climate
Cooled by the surrounding Pacific Ocean and refreshing south easterly trade winds, New Caledonia enjoys a semi-tropical climate marked by two seasons. From October to March it is warm and humid, while April to September bring somewhat cooler and drier conditions. Sunrise is between 6.00 and 7.00 am and sunset between 5.00 and 6.00 pm.
Known to many as 'the land of the eternal spring', New Caledonia has an equable climate that invites swimming, sunbathing and sailing all year round. Conditions are suitable for chartering throughout the year, subject to the seasonal cyclones that can arise anywhere in the South Pacific. The best months for a yacht charter are from September to November.
Navigating New Caledonia's southern lagoon
Noumea and the surrounding coast offer good shelter from the prevailing southeasters, but on clearing the mainland it's an often-rigorous windward sail across to Isle of Pines. Allow at least two days from base, stopping off at one of the many mainland bays. While labelled the largest lagoon in the world, this waterway is open at its southern end and a reasonable sea can roll in, making the experience closer to open-water sailing than crossing an enclosed lagoon.
Sailing back from Isle of Pines to Noumea is a pleasure. Make the most of the downwind sail, zigzagging through the southern Isles and exploring the remote anchorages you encounter. The job is made easy with your boat's chart plotter, not to mention the clarity of the water.
Take a look at this amazing drone video shot by 15 year-old Zach, who with his parents took a Dream Yacht New Caledonia charter aboard a Lagoon 39.
A New Caledonia 10-day itinerary
For a sailing holiday, New Caledonia is a land of contrast that offers more variety than any other Pacific destination.
If you are seeking the brochure scene: white sandy beach lined with pines and coconut palms in the shadow of a moody volcanic peak, it's here. If your ideal is a remote atoll with only your footprints in the sand, it's here. What you may not have in mind is a mainland coastline sparsely populated but rich in human history, much of it set aside as nature reserve, the surrounding waters rich in spectacular coral reefs and secluded bays. That's here too.
Where a New Caledonia sailing charter takes you
New Caledonia's total yacht charter territory is extensive, allowing for suitably qualified sailors to take ocean passages to the Loyalty Islands and on to Vanuatu. But the main holiday cruising area is between Noumea and the Isle of Pines, within a huge lagoon that nevertheless provides for some open-water sailing. It is suitable for sailors who have chartered more benign destinations, yet have the confidence to handle short passages and navigate around isles and reefs encountered.
Fresh Noumea produce in the daily market.
If you have less time than that, or you wish to cover a greater area during your charter, there are many alternative start and end points. We can customise this itinerary to suit your particular needs and requests.
What follows is a summary of a recent trip we did with family group, out of Noumea. It takes in the area's top spots but is by no means exhaustive. There is so much to see and do on a New Caledonian sailing holiday, don't be surprised when you read this and decide that your planned 10 days will be all the more enjoyable extended to two weeks, or longer!
Arrival at Base. Port Moselle
Port Moselle is located in the centre of Noumea, New Caledonia's capital and port of entry. Conveniently, there's a fresh produce market in the park adjacent. The Kanuk and Asian traders speak little English, but we came away with abundant healthy provisions for our 10-day charter. Just up the road from the marina is a supermarket where quality French-style food is available at reasonable prices - an easy walk with taxis easy to find for the return trip laden with groceries.
On any charter, preparation is paramount. That's especially the case in Noumea, as there are few places along the way to purchase stores, and the remoteness of many anchorages means any technical assistance is likely to be by telephone.
Turtle Bay, Ilse Ouen
Use your time with the briefing skipper well, making sure you understand everything you can about your boat. If you are chartering a larger catamaran, take special note of the technology they possess, some of which may take some understanding.
We spent a full day enjoying Noumea before setting sail, provisioning and going over the boat with the base manager. You may like to spend the first night on the marina, but we decided to cast off late in the afternoon, anchoring at Ilot Maitre, an islet just three miles from Noumea.
Day 2: to Isle Ouen - 20 miles
On the recommendation of the base manager, we left early to make the most of lighter morning winds.
Our heading was for Baie de la Tortue (Turtle Bay) on the south western tip of Isle Ouen. This pretty sandy bay is well situated as a for exploring the adjacent reefs of the southern lagoon during the day, and a good overnight anchorage.
Baie de la Tortue is ideal for an introductory snorkel off the beach or adjacent reef, while there are easy walks to vantage points from which to enjoy the view of the cruising grounds beyond.
Beach at the eastern entrance to Prony Bay.
Plants grow only sparsely on Ile Ouen, and there is evidence of the mineral extractions that have occurred there. The island has two villages. However the resort that once occupied the flat land under the coconut palms has closed down, unable to compete with the Ile des Pins, now well serviced by fast ferries.
Day 3: Baie de Prony
From our anchorage, it is a leisurely 10 mile saile through Canal Woodin to the expansive Baie de Prony on the New Caledonian mainland..
The Cruising Guide to New Caledonia suggests It's easy to spend a week in Prony Bay. On the tight schedule of a charter cruise one or two days has to do. The southern end of New Caledonia is famous for its mineral-rich red soil, which contrasts brilliantly against the deep green cover of the pines.
We motored to the eastern side of Prony Bay to anchor at Bonne Anse, Rade de L'Est, a bay that extends to the east of the large Recif du Prony (Prony Reef). The sandy beaches are fringed with coral reefs and littered with the colourful shells for which Prony Bay is famous.
Motoring up-river in our dinghy
The adjacent land is a nature reserve, with well-marked tracks around the shoreline and up to the lighthouse, from where to view the entire cruising area out to Isle of Pines. In the first couple of likely anchorages we came across, we found the bottom extensively coral. It pays to anchor further up the bay, and explore by dinghy or along the foreshore track.
As you venture further into Prony Bay, it splits onto two arms. On the starboard side is Radedu Norde, with an interesting river at its head that can be navigated by dinghy past the ruins of a colonial prison.
On the port side past Ilot Casey is Grand Nord, famous with divers for Recife de l'Aiguille, with its pinnacle that extends 35m from the sea floor.
As you navigate into the upper reaches at Baiedu Carenage, the water takes on a reddish tinge and the high wooded hills close in. This area is also national parkland, and there are many walks and interesting places to explore from the dinghy if you have the time.
Port Boise and across to Ile des Pins
On our holiday we spent one night in Prony Bay and the following night five miles up the coast at Port Boise, where we rode comfortably at anchor sheltered by the reef across the harbour entrance. There is a wharf here servicing the local Eco resort, which welcomes casual diners. There is no need to book.
Kanua Tera Eco Resort In Port Boise
Our purpose for visiting the resort was to relax in the bar to watch our countrymen the All Blacks play France in the Rugby World Cup, so it was a memorable stop.
We left Port Boise early the next morning, to take on the windward passage of 35 miles up to Kuto Bay in the Ile des Pins. From this direction we were sheltered by the extensive reef marine park to port, as we motor-sailed at 30 degrees to the wind. Halfway across we were into open water and a long swell, which the Catana 47 rode over with relative comfort.
Days 5 - 7: On the Isles of Pines
After an early start we were anchored in Kuto Bay, Isles of Pines in time for lunch. It had been a six-hour passage, we had arrived and seemingly would never want to leave. The best thing to do on the Ile des Pins is not a lot - except take time out to just enjoy being there.
View over Port Boise with Ile des Pins on the horizon.
We had a couple of resident turtles for company in the bay, and the water was alive with marine life. Throw scraps over the side and the small remora sharks appear from nowhere. It seems they prefer to suck on to cruising yachts rather than the larger sharks and manta rays they had evolved alongside.
The Ile des Pins is the tropical jewel in the crown of any New Caledonia itinerary. Kutobeach has sand so white I told the kids they may have to take their shoes off when they went ashore. The sandy bottom extends well out into the bay, unlike many tropical beaches that turn to coral rubble beyond the low water mark. High mountains provide a spectacular backdrop here, dominating a picture perfect foreground that so defines paradise.
The following day, friends we had made the previous evening showed us around the area, after which we dined on fresh crayfish and mahimahi - the fruitful produce of an enjoyable day in paradise.
Tropical island resort scene, Ile des Pins
We spent the next day exploring the Island by rental car. Sailing would have been more enjoyable, but this way we saw all over the beautiful island and still kept to schedule.
Sailing downwind through the Lagoon
Day eight, and we set sail on a reach across open water, heading west for the reef that forms the southern part of New Caledonia. Fish are plentiful here; expect whatever you land to form the basis of several meals. This region is a watery wonderland, described as the largest lagoon in the world.
Navigating around the coral clusters while sailing downwind is surprisingly easy. The crystal clear waters cast colours that define what lies below. Blue is good, if it's turquoise look out for brown, and brown is out of bounds. It is interesting to note the coral island formation being played out in stages.
The islets we are heading for lie close to the outer reef. Ilot Kouare, Marmite and Ua comprise a cluster some 40 miles from Kuto Bay, where there is spectacular snorkelling, diving and fishing, with shelter from all winds.
Footprints on a desert island, New Caledonia
At anchor, the scene was somewhat surreal. Around dusk, sea birds by the hundreds appeared, searching for a meal in the waves but never engaging to fish. A dark shadow glided past some 50 metres astern that I am left to believe was a manta ray. A squawk sounded in the dark, a large form landing on the stern to dine on its catch before being spooked and flying away.
These small islets adjoining the outer reef provide a fascinating route by which to return home, following the trade winds and weaving a course past many points of interest. Allow time to pause however, and enjoy the natural marine environment at its finest.
Day 9 -10: Exploring the lagoon and back to base
Having arrived late, we made a point of not leaving early the next morning, spending time swimming, snorkelling and just relaxing on the boat. We set sail for Ilôt Amédée, located inside the passage just 12 miles out from Noumea and famous for its historic lighthouse,
Amédée provides a great anchorage. It's a nature reserve though which we walked to the impressive 45 metre structure, made in Paris in 1865 of formed iron sheets, shipped out and bolted together on site. Its rolled base and 16-sided structure is a fascinating piece of architecture, well worth the visit on a day that it is open and you can climb to the top.
Sun setting on our sailing holiday
Amédée also offers excellent snorkelling, and several wrecks located close by for any divers on board. There is also a shark observatory.
Sun setting on our sailing holiday
As our last day dawned, we took advantage of our final few hours in this paradise, timing our departure for an easy passage back to the marina at the agreed 5pm arrival time. The base manager directed us to safely park the boat where we could spend our final night aboard.
While awaiting or flight home, we had two nights at a Noumea resort. With the adventure we had just completed, this luxury resort felt like an extended stop in a departure lounge, something of an anti-climax after such a wonderful sailing holiday.