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A cruiser's guide to tropical paradise, Isle of Pines

The Isle of Pines is a real tropical paradise. Known by Francophone New Caledonians as "Île des Pins" it is a place where your holiday dreams come true. The water is clear and turquoise, the sands are white, pine trees frame the beaches and the laid-back way of life will melt away your tension.

Isle of Pines is a favourite destination with cruisers. Most travellers who choose itineraries to the South Pacific find exactly what they want: relaxation, sun, sand and natural beauty, where you can simply unwind and escape. Not far off the coast of New Caledonia's mainland, the island is big enough to keep you occupied and small enough that you still feel like a castaway far from civilisation.

The necessities

Getting ashore
The island has coral reefs surrounding the shore, meaning no wharf for cruise ships to dock. Instead, ships drop anchor offshore and transfer passengers via tenders, which are smaller boats. Tendering can be a bit of a nuisance, but most lines are very efficient at transporting you onshore in the morning and back at the boat in the afternoon. Arriving very early or hanging back and waiting for the crowds to dissipate is a good strategy. If you are in a wheelchair, it pays to check with your cruise line that you can access the tenders. These tie up at the jetty in Kuto Bay, in the village of Kuto.

Money
The official currency of New Caledonia is Pacific Francs, and if you are visiting more than one port here it is worth exchanging some (you will probably need them in Noumea). However, many cruisers find they can use Australian dollars, US dollars and/or credit cards. There are not many ways to spend money on the island beyond food, drinks and souvenirs, so don't fret about having loads of cash. However, as in Noumea, most things are quite expensive.

Orient yourself
Kuto Beach, where the tenders come ashore, is in the south-west corner of the island. Within walking distance of the jetty are souvenir stands, food stalls, taxis, a general store, hotels and bars. The beach is a stunning stretch of sand where many visitors swim and sunbathe, and you can walk across the Kuto Peninsula along a short road (past the souvenir stands) to Kanumera Bay - prime for snorkelling with some interesting reef and rock formations. Vao village, the island's administrative centre, is an eight-minute drive from Kuto and has an information office in front of the church, in the village square.

There is free Wi-Fi access available at the Convenience store "Curios Maliska" just north of Kuto Beach.

Language and etiquette
The primary spoken languages are French and the native Melanesian (Kunie). Key tourism workers are likely to speak English, but it is recommended that you give French a go out of politeness. The island's inhabitants are largely friendly and will wave or say hello on the street - it is respectful to return the greeting! Once off the tourist beaches, dress modestly with knee-length skirts or shorts and no topless shenanigans.

The weather
With a gentle year-round climate, it's hard to catch the Isle of Pines on a bad day. There isn't even much of a rainy season, although rare storms and cyclones can occur between December and April. The temperature peaks in January at around 25 degrees celsius, and is at its lowest in June, around a pleasant 20 degrees celsius.

Isle of Pines: What to do?

Eat and drink
Chief amongst the dining and drinking possibilities on the island are restaurants and bars in hotels and resorts. Le Méridien in Oro Bay (20-minutes' drive from Kuto) is an upmarket option, as is the Ouré Hotel in Kanumera Bay near the tender jetty. Both offer lunches mostly for their own guests, but often accept outside customers. The Kou-Gny in Oro Bay is famous for lobster meals served right on the beach.

Snack Kohu on the outskirts of Vao village has milkshakes, toasted sandwiches and other casual meals at decent prices, and the Kou-Bugny Hotel and Les Vieux Bugnys in Kuto are close by the jetty for those who don't want to spring for a taxi elsewhere. For quick bites, try the convenience store or bakery in Kuto or the general store in Vao.

Retail therapy
Don't expect a mall on the Isle of Pines - it's more tropical than commercial. Souvenirs are about as much as you'll find, but you didn't come here to shop, did you? Near the gendarmerie on the Kuto Peninsula you will find a range of kiosks where the locals sell trinkets and handicrafts. Wood carvings can be found across the island in carvers' homes or the resorts, and in the cultural centre at Vao which is open only on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings. Hand-painted pareos, or sarongs, are a specialty at the boutique "Creations Île des Pins".

Activities galore

  • Swimming: available at any of the beautiful beaches around the island, of which there are plenty close by the tender jetty, including Kuto itself, Kanumera Bay and la Baie des Rouleaux (Roller Bay).
  • Sailing: picture-perfect memories! Enjoy the water in outriggers at St Joseph Bay near Vao village. Taxi boats will take you to some of the smaller offshore islands from Kuto.
  • Scuba diving: Kunie Scuba Centre (in Ouameo Bay, a 15-minute drive from Kuto) can set you up with a professional guide to explore the underwater delights of the island including fish, turtles, caves, coral and more. Beginners and experienced divers are catered for.
  • Land tours: Cars, scooters and bikes are available for hire on the island for D.I.Y excursions. Alternatively, minibuses driven by independent operators are available for two-three hour tours at 1700-1800 CFP per person. Ask around for one of these, or keep a lookout when you leave the tender.
  • Hiking: One of the best trails is up N'ga Peak, with an hour-long walk to the summit at 262 metres. The vistas from the top include the entire island and surrounding islets.
  • History: The remains of a French penal colony and a cemetery of deportees lie in the village of Ouro.



Excursions

Book onboard or go it alone?
The Isle of Pines is the perfect place to relax and just enjoy being in the South Pacific tropics. As soon as you depart the tender and arrive onshore, there are multiple beaches, souvenirs for purchase, places to eat, bikes for hire and plenty more - all you need for a chilled-out day on the sand. You can even rent a car or scooter for the day and navigate the island with few worries about getting back to the ship on time - on such a small island, it is almost impossible to lose your way (or be stuck in traffic).

However, if there's a particular experience that you really want on the island, it's a good idea to book one of the cruise line tours. Their excursions are trouble-free and easy - plus, you will be guided by someone who knows what they're doing. Additionally, many of them are short excursions, giving you plenty of time to relax on the sand, before or after.

Island tour
Carnival, P&O, Royal Caribbean and Princess all offer both guided and unguided general island tours. "A Glimpse of Our Island" ("Easy Isle of Pines" on Princess) is a 90-minute bus tour which stops at significant spots such as Vao, St. Maurice Bay and Brush Island. The slightly longer "Island Discovery" is similar but guided, so you can learn a little more. It also includes the fabled Grotto of Queen Hortense, a cave believed to have once sheltered the last Kunie royal.

Turtle Bay and Brush Island
The four major lines also offer this fun getaway to one of the islets offshore. The two-hour boat trip visits Turtle Bay, which harbours Loggerhead turtles, green turtles, stingrays, fish and much more. A great spot for those wildlife enthusiasts! The final destination is Brush Island, which is an uninhabited spot where you can enjoy swimming, strolling and even snorkelling if you can find your own gear. A perfect way to get away from the more crowded beaches around Kuto.

Let's do lunch
The final excursion offered by most lines is "Lunch at Le Méridien", called "Beach Break" by Princess. This one is perfect for a couple celebrating a special occasion! You will be whisked away from the jetty in Kuto for a 25-minute scenic drive across the island to Le Méridien resort in Oro Bay. Once there, the private beach is at your disposal, along with a pool, chaise lounges, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and all the other amazing facilities of the luxury resort. A delicious buffet BBQ lunch is included. At four hours, it is the longest and most luxurious of the excursion options.

Whatever you do during your time on the Isle of Pines, soak up the sun and the tropical surroundings - you won't find another place in the world like it! Have you been yet? What did you get up to? Find out more about Auckland and Noumea in previous posts from our "What to do in..." series available on Cruise Sale Finder.

Written By: Sarah Glover, Content Editor of Cruise Sale Finder

I have enjoyed visiting as much of the world as possible over the years. Europe and the Mediterranean are personal favourites, but there is so much to see very close to our little Australasian corner of the globe- one of my top travel experiences was snorkeling with tropical fish and turtles in New Caledonia! Cruising is a fantastic way to see it all, and we hope to make booking a cruise easier for both first-timers and old salts. From ship tips to destination news and views, we will keep you up-to-date. Happy cruising!

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