Syamaizar Dowd's Travel Diary: Off-The-Beaten-Track Adventures In New Caledonia
The Singapore-based former pharmaceuticals and biotech PR executive tells us what sparked her independent spirit and passion for far-flung destinations around the world, including her most recent South Pacific obsession: New Caledonia.
Tell us about your first big trip and how it affected your outlook on travel
Growing up, my family and I travelled mostly regionally but at the age of 17, I left Malaysia for the UK to attend a boarding school and a few years after to university.
I remember arriving at Heathrow on my own with two large suitcases, having to navigate the London underground for the very first time and be greeted by the imposing St. Pancras station, then continuing on my journey to my boarding house in the Midlands in that cold and dreary British weather.
This was when I grew up almost instantly and learnt the true meaning of independence and survival, especially in my travels. I began to see every inch of Europe extensively and started experiencing the country organically as nothing daunted me anymore after that.
What brought you and your husband to New Caledonia last year?
I’m obsessed with the South Pacific and the Polynesian/Melanesian potpourri of culture. Every end of the year, we choose one destination in the archipelago to ring in the festivities. This year we chose New Caledonia for its proximity to Australia where we celebrate Christmas annually with my husband’s family.
We've put Noumea on hold for a while now to discover other more remote destinations, but we felt like it was the right time to visit. Situated merely 3 hours away from Sydney by flight, Noumea offers one of the most convenient connections to the South Pacific. The capital is relatively more developed and definitely more cosmopolitan than any of its neighbours, so it suited our need for a touch of sophistication in our destination of choice.
What are the perks of a New Caledonian New Year’s Eve?
New Caledonia being a French territory offers the most Western modern conveniences but with an unmistakeably Pacific charm and casualness. Especially around Noumea, there are plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from with the upbeat vibes and atmosphere that match any other developed city in the world for you to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
The gastronomy movement is evident given the French influence – throw in the Melanesian charm and you get a heady tropical mix.
What are your top recommended restaurants & bars in Noumea?
Le Roof in Anse Vata has the most photogenic set up in Nouema. Standing on a stilt and perched out over the water, the sunset from your table hitting the water is guaranteed to awe friends at home. The dining is elegant, the seafood is the highlight and the sea gulls (and dolphins if you’re lucky) will keep you company all night.
Chez Toto in downtown Noumea in the heart of Quartier Latin is almost always guaranteed to have a queue. Its small bistro style is quaintly French and the prix fixe only means every course you get is guaranteed fresh, delicious and authentic without having to fly to Paris.
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If you can't live without your avocado toast and flat white while on holiday, park yourself at the buzzing seafronting Lemon Bay Café along Le Plage Baie des Citron and take in all the action out on the water. This is probably one of the best cafes for craft coffee and the freshest croissants.
This semi open-air overwater bar is chic and tastefully done with the perfect setting for sunset drinks. XO Club turns into a more upbeat spot in the evening with sophisticated clientele with plenty of space for conversations in between hitting the dancefloor.
Arguably the best spot on the island for tapas and pizza, La Bodega Del Mar attracts a large, diverse crowd daily to its casual spot by the water. The relaxed dining transforms into a bar and nightclub later in the night with fabulous live music run regularly featuring local and French artists. The atmosphere is fantastic, the energy is magnetic and before you know it, the sun will slowly rise over the water in the distance.
Best places to sample the local fare?
Head over to the Port Moselle market (locally known as Le Marche) in downtown Noumea strategically placed by the marina. This is where islanders come for their fresh supplies and the place is heaving with trading activities and gourmet offerings.
Come early to catch fishermen unloading their fresh catch from the boat straight to the stalls. Buy local lobsters or sample the pre-packed ‘poisson cru’ or Tahitian salad made of raw fish with coconut milk and lime, unique to the South Pacific.
Move over to the dry section of the market where you can smell freshly baked pastries from multiple stalls away. The hot croissants are offered by the trays, replenished every so often to cater to the long queue. Artisanal produce, mostly sold by the owner themselves line the walls - from terrine to olives to cured meat, you can sample them all while discussing the ingredients with the friendly local merchants.
Next door, colourful locally-grown fruits and flowers and vegetables are a feast to the eyes. Grab a bag of mixed fruits and sit by the water and take in the scenery with soft Pacific Island music humming in the background.
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Where did you stay in New Caledonia and would you recommend it to others?
Le Meridien Noumea has the most scenic setting. Situated at the end of Anse Vata beach the sprawling ground is beautifully landscaped with great multiple dining options. Le Lagon is Noumea’s answer to a boutique hotel. Within walking distance to the beach, the rooms are large and modern with all the facilities of a large hotel: great value for money.
Sheraton Deva Resort & Spa is situated an hour and a half away from Noumea, in the quaint little town of Bourail. The resort offers majestic Melanesian tribal style huts dotted across its vast grounds. The swimming pool looks out to the sea and the beachfront dining on the sand is as tropical as it comes.
What are your top recommended places to see in New Caledonia?
You can’t come to New Caledonia without visiting the architectural beauty that is Tjibaou Cultural Center. Designed by the famed Italian architect Renzo Piano (who designed Center Pompidou in Paris, Whitney Museum in New York and the Shard in London), the majestic curved wooden structures are modelled after the tribal grand huts and pay homage to the indigenous Kanak culture. After taking in the sculptures and paintings indoor, take a leisurely stroll in the vast landscaped garden that sits in a mangrove - absolutely stunning.
A few hours drive along the northwest coast of New Caledonia is the sleepy rural town of Kone. Most visitors plan for a stopover here to visit the mangrove swamp nearby that has developed a few unusual natural designs.
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The most recognisable is the surreally perfect heart shape that is known as the Heart Of Voh. Book a day trip out on an open top microlight flight where the pilot will hover over the mangrove clearing where you take the heart shape in all its glory.
If that view itself isn’t enough, the pilot will then fly the gyrocopter over miles of a turquoise-hued World Heritage listed lagoon where we spotted numerous manta rays playing in the water.
If you think of paradise, think of Isle Of Pines on the southern tip of the Grand Terre. Accessible by boat and plane, this little dot on the map is the epitome of tranquillity with its abundance of untouched bays. Head to Oro Bay’s natural sea water swimming pool and be mesmerised by the white sand and clear water, backdropped by pine trees unique to this part of the world lining up the beach.
Any useful tips for travellers in this region?
The best way to see New Caledonia is by car, especially to access outer towns that are off the beaten track. Most major car rental companies are available at the airport and the driving condition on the main island of Grand Terre is excellent. Within Noumea taxis are available but they need to be booked in advance for every trip.
Over the 12 days that we were in New Caledonia we drove over 1,000 kilometers in our SUV, stayed in 5 different hotels in different rural towns across the country. The rest of New Caledonia is a stark contrast compared to the capital of Noumea and there is something really charming about the under-developed part of the country.
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Besides the fact that you hardly encounter any foreign tourists in these little towns, English is also rarely spoken so this is an excellent opportunity to brush up on your French!
We took in the serenity of the crystal clear ocean as we drove along the coast, we gawked at the surreal flora & fauna lining the interior spine of the island, we contemplated our big city life as we slowed down our car cruising through the smallest village in the middle of nowhere. This is the part of the world where you need to hit the road to be able to understand the reality of life down in South Pacific.
Any local crafts spots that you’d recommend for memorable souvenirs?
Like most of the South Pacific destinations, wood sculptures are an important part of their culture. On weekends, local artists and designers set up stalls at Le Marche where you can peruse not just various different forms of sculptures but locally made paintings, accessories, island clothing and home décor to bring home with you.
Take home a custom-made colourful island printed dress with you or an island shirt for him from any of the boutiques in Chinatown in downtown Noumea. The made-to-measure or ready-to-wear. The pieces are so loud and vibrant, they'll make excellent gifts back home or even for you to remember South Pacific by.
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What do you look forward to in a destination?
I love choosing a destination based on the makeup of its culture.
Almost every Pacific island that we’ve visited, apart from the common thread that they share being in the same remarkably beautiful archipelago; the people and its culture couldn’t be more different from the other.
As we traipsed from one island to the next, we started to learn the important differences between various cultures, the nuances of life so isolated from the rest of the world, their political struggles, their strong faith that transcends through daily rituals.
Interacting with the children hovering together staring at this stranger in their village on my morning run in Vanuatu, sitting with a tribal chief slowly sipping kava in a remote atoll in Fiji, or listening to an elder humming religious chants as she dances with oversized manta rays in the middle of the ocean in Tahiti: these are what my memories of a destination are made of.
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