It is up close that the island reveals its charms with picturesque anchorages fringed by powdery white sand beaches and whispering araucaria pines. These pines, related to Norfolk pines, grow tall and slim, usually in clumps Oddly, all the pines near where we anchored sport ten to fifteen feet of new growth at the top, making them look like Christmas trees have been grafted to their tips. Some environmental event in the recent past – drought or hurricane perhaps – must be responsible.
As we sailed south from Grand Terre, we hooked up with our friends Tricky and Jane of Lionheart, last seen over a month ago kite-surfing at Musket Cove. They had chosen to skip Vanuatu this season and hurry on to New Caledonia where there was said to be good locations for their new passion. Much of this past month, they have spent around Noumea where Maitre Island is a kiting mecca. It was our good fortune that they had decided to head south to the Isle of Pines at the same time as we, and that we had both chosen the southern anchorage group.
Upon arrival, the main anchorage of Kuto had a bunch of boats already at anchor, so we decided to try the smaller, but empty Kanumera anchorage, on the opposite side of the same "presque'ile", (a lovely French word for "almost island) for which we were lucky to have the right wind conditions for one night. Lionheart dropped anchor in the western lobe of the bay while we tucked into the eastern lobe. This was a lovely pool defined by massive limestone knobs at the entrance and a perfect curve of white sand. There was, of course, an upscale gite in the corner, with tourists taking the sun in lounge chairs and others paddling around in kayaks. So we did sort of feel like we'd anchored dead in the middle of the resort's swimming pool.
We, of course, could have sat there and enjoyed the scenery all afternoon, but Tricky and Jane saved us from such idleness by collecting us for a walk to the bakery. The walk to the bakery took us across the isthmus between Kanumera and Kuto, with a memorable grove of bugny trees (rather like live oaks with twisted trunks and an interwoven canopy), along the huge beach at Kuto, and then inland along a paved road. Our first stop was little store with basic groceries and, of all things, a Croc boutique! This in a region where Croc copies at half to a quarter the price of originals clad probably 50% of the feet! But they had every Croc style imaginable. After ice cream from the store, the boys lost interest in the walk, so Jane and I padded on another kilometer or so to eventually find the bakery, where…. there was only two baguettes left! Finding a bakery for fresh baguettes is a popular endeavor in French islands, although trying to figure out when you can actually get a loaf other than from 5-7am can be challenging.
The next morning we all went ashore early and met up with our Aussie friends Jim and Paula of Avior for a hike up Pic N'Ga. The trail up starts out shaded, but soon opens out into low scrub and red rubble so reminiscent of hiking in the Sea of Cortez it was eerie. About an hour each way, the top affords a nearly 360-degree panorama of the island and its reefs. Hot and footsore afterwards, we stopped back at the beachside "Snack" (French for affordable place to get anything to eat), for our first Number One beers and a "Sandwich Americain", which is the baguette version of a hamburger and fries rolled into one. How is it the French tend to be slim with all the bread they eat!?! Although a nap would have been my Number One choice for the afternoon, a forecast wind shift suggested we'd best move around to Kuto before nightfall, which we did. Our reward was to find that Kuto is an anchorage full of turtles, something we really haven't enjoyed since the Virgin Islands, plus it is a fine place for a green flash.
The next morning we were up early and on the road by 0630 hoofing it to the village of Vao where there was said to be a Wednesday morning market. We caught a ride in the back of a pick up truck the last few kilometers to find that most everybody at the market were fellow cruisers. The market was very small, but the ladies present did have some lettuce, cabbage, green beans, christophene, carrots and papaya as well as some "market eats". This kind of grazing is one of Don's favorite activities. Here he could choose from sweet crepes to chowmein filled roll-ups, from pineapple cake to some sort of fried banana fritter. Vao is a pretty village with a beautiful church, framed by two schools on either side. The little ones about Kai's age were all assembling for the day as we walked past. It was surprising how westernized they seemed, with their cute little outfits and knapsacks. There was even one youngster peddling to school on his little bicycle with training wheels (much like Kai's Elmo bike), with Dad bringing up the rear (and providing the bulk of the propulsion.) To counter the market snacks, we walked the whole the 6K back. Somewhat pumped by the walk and wired by several cups of caffeinated coffee (we usually drink decaf), we fell to boat projects in the afternoon and got a lot done. The day actually ended with some dancing in the cockpit to our wedding CDs.
That forecast wind shift came through with a vengeance bringing brisk winds from the south. In this part of the world, southerly wind means cold, and we had trouble keeping warm the next couple of days. The plan was to rent a car with Avior on Thursday, but the morning kind of expired without managing to get the car rented. In the end, we lined it up for Friday, which meant we could start by hitting the Vao market again. This time, little lettuce but avocados and fresh herbs!
After depositing our groceries back at the boat, the four of us set off with Don at the wheel (since Jim and Paula figured he'd be better at the left hand drive/driving on the right thing!) The morning was overcast, which was disappointing, and I wondered as we set out clockwise around the island, taking all the turns for each of the bays, if a car for a full day would be a waste of money. After all, it is not so large an island. Our first couple of stops, two of which over-looked the alternative anchorages of Ouameo and Gadji, were underwhelming without sunlight. In the latter at least were several masts poking up from behind an offshore islet.
Things got better when we turned down the access road for the Grotte de La Reine Hortense (Cave of Queen Hortense.) To begin with, it was the first time we had a sense of the Kanak tribes still living here (there are eight clans dividing the island who manage to live relatively traditionally among the tourists), as we passed a field where men and women were cooperatively hoeing a potato field. At the cave itself, was a booth for collecting a 200cpf admission per person…on the honor system, although a lady magically appeared when we needed to make change. (I must make note that this nice lady was the first New Caledonian, Kanak or French, to be overtly friendly!)
What a lovely spot! This is a "don't miss" for anyone visiting Ile du Pins. Set in a cool canyon of forest, the caretakers have planted what essentially is a mini botanical garden. (Of particular interest to me were the very tall trees, which Jim identified as iliocarpus (sp), a tree species I planted in Crystal River! Mine was pruned to look like a Christmas tree. Who knew!) The cave itself is huge! A cavernous maw with a stream meandering into it, the cave penetrates back far enough for it to get quite dark until you reach the far end lit by a gap in the roof. All sorts of stalactites hang from the roof, some growing at an angle as if drawn by the light! At the end is a platform of rock said to be the Queen's bed when she reputedly hid here during tribal wars in the 1850s.
When we were finished taking pictures of ourselves standing in front of various stalactites, we drove on to the Baie d'Oro. Here, on an islet of its own, is the five-star Meridien Hotel. We got no further than the front gate which is atmospherically on the far side of a bridge over a moat-like salt water inlet beset by pine trees. We could have gone on, if we'd been of a mind to pay $60pp for lunch! Instead we found our way to the charming little Gite Chez St. Regis, which perches on the other side of the saltwater moat. Here we had a local beer and tasty omelets with fines herbes and lardons (the French's less charming word for fatty bacon). What we didn't know we could have had, had we ordered ahead, was a chicken/fish/lobster bougna, a local delicacy cooked in coconut milk in a big round packet of banana leaves. That's what most of the tourists who filled in after us had.
The big draw in this part of the island (for those not staying at the Meridien) is the "piscine naturelle", a beautiful natural swimming pool of bright shallow sand occurring between three rocky islands. We walked from Chez Regis across the "moat" and along a trail leading to the piscine with every intent (at least by Paula) to go swimming. But although the clouds had cleared during lunch and the "piscine" was every bit as inviting as advertised, it was just too cold in that southern wind for cruisers to peel off and get wet. Only the dozen or so young Asian tourists (Paula talked to a couple who were Korean) were actually getting in the water!
On our walk back occurred a small mishap. Following the path with my eyes on my feet, I managed to walk full bore into a low tree limb. I cannot even claim the excuse of wearing a ball cap. The result is a charming scabby scrape dead center between my eyes as well as, at the time, a headache. Although this somewhat dimmed my pleasure in the rest of the afternoon, it did not stop us from a 40 minute hike through the woods to see the Baie de Upi, a huge, totally enclosed lagoon filling up the whole southwest corner of the island. Reaching it, however, was anticlimactic as it smelled rather distinctly sewer-like!
Our last stop of the day was the Baie de St. Joseph, just off Vao again, where they are famous for large traditional sailing canoes on which the locals take tourists for rides. The daysails were well over for the day, but as yachties we were interested to see the huge dugouts up close.
We relaxed in the Kuto anchorage one more day, visiting with Tricky and Jane some more, as well as meeting their friends Paul and Glor, who just bashed their way here from Australia on their brand new Fontaine Pajot catamaran. The weather stayed chilly, and clouds brought occasional showers. When we woke early Sunday morning after a night of rain, it did not look especially optimistic for our planned departure, but by golly we were underway by 0600 and by 0800 the skies had cleared and we were enjoying a fine fine reach north, bound for the Baie de Prony.
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