The Isle of Pines is a small island in the archipelago of New Caledonia.
Like French Polynesia, New Caledonia, in the Pacific Ocean, is an overseas territory of France. We were keen to compare this French island-paradise to that of Bora Bora because, just as Bora Bora is touted to be the pearl of French Polynesia, the Isle of Pines is regarded as the most beautiful island in New Caledonia because of its beaches and natural beauty.
Arriving on the island, we were welcomed with a familiar island greeting - tropical flowers! In Bora Bora, we are welcomed with the sweet scents of tiare flowers draped around our necks. But a woven flower crown, Isle of Pines style, is equally as wonderful.
As we walked down the pier where the cruise-ship-tender landed us, on one side we saw the remains of old colonial days when the island was used as a French penal colony. A tropical beach with the signature pine trees that gave the island its name drew our eyes on the other side. (Did you know that in "days of old" sailors planted Norfolk Island pines along coastlines to replace their masts if they were broken in a storm?)
The feeling on the island is quite different to that on Bora Bora. The foliage is not as lush and the towering pine trees dominate the scenery. The turquoise water at Isle of Pines has jagged rocks along the shorelines and around the beaches. The vegetation is more scrub-like as it has to withstand strong winds. Instead of hibiscus, fire trees cover the hillsides and bloom bright red in summer.
On a typical day there would be markets, selling artisan wares, set up here by the wharf and taxis scooting tourists to locations around the island. But, as we had arrived on Christmas day, the locals were taking the day off.
We took the short walk from the cruise ship pier around to Kanumera Bay. This area has a "sacred rock" which is known to be one of two best snorkeling spots on the island. As the rock is sacred, it is not to be climbed on, but locals are happy for tourists to snorkel around the area.
The scenic bay has patches of driftwood and white- sand beach, making it a photographers and beach lovers dream. Most people from the ship chose to while away their day on this long stretch of beach. But we had other plans. We hoped to get to the other side of the island to see as much as possible during our one day ashore.
Before our trip I had researched to find the best snorkeling spots on the Isle of Pines. So the place we most wanted to get to is known as the Piscine Naturelle, or the natural pool. This magical pool is said to be a hidden paradise with a sheltered, clear pool providing a home for coral and fish. It is located near Le Meridien, which is the only luxury resort on the island. But it's a long way from the pier we had arrived at. We headed towards the road and fortunately there was one enterprising taxi driver offering to take people to the natural pool. He was charging $20 Australian per person, each way; which was a high price for the trip. But it was Christmas day and this was our only chance to get there so we jumped into the taxi-van with two other couples.
We were dropped off at a small shack, next to an abandoned resort. The driver told us to follow signs to the pool and be back in 2 hours so he could return us to the ship in time for departure. I had a moment of panic while realizing that we had no idea where we were and that we were depending on this stranger to get us back before the ship sailed. (I recalled, from years ago, our ship's captain waiting impatiently at a Caribbean port for an errant couple who ran half an hour late up the gangplank.) But we began chatting with the friendly young couple from South America, who were sharing the van, so we headed off to face the adventure together.
We discoverd that the signs to the pool were marked clearly and the path was easy to follow through the water. At this point we met Le Meridien guests who were heading back from the pool so we knew we were on the right track, plus which way it was to Le Meridien, should we need a back-up plan to get to the ship!
After an interesting 10 minute walk, wading through the water (reef shoes are a must, just like in Bora Bora) and following the shoreline, we arrived at the natural pool. The sight was jaw-dropping beautiful. Except for one opening to the ocean, the extraordinary pool is surrounded by pines. It's a very safe place to swim as the water is shallow and calm.
While we were there the tide was ebbing out. I imagine that this area is even nicer near high tide. The water was very shallow as we were leaving, which reduced the swimming area. The small number of tourists there were guests of Le Meridien resort as no activity providers or taxis were operating for Christmas day. On a usual day there would have been a lot more tourists here from the cruise ship. So, if you are staying on the island, avoid visiting the natural pool on a cruise ship day as, the less people visiting, the more pristine it feels.
While exploring the pool I donned my snorkeling gear, curious to see whether the beauty below the water was equal to that above.
The water was fairly clear in the natural pool. There was only a small reduction in clarity as a result of the movement of water, flowing in and out between the pool and the ocean, stirring up some sand.
There was not an abundance of fish or many fish varieties to be seen, nor was the coral plentiful. But it was still worth getting in the water to have a look. I spied some giant clams and schools of fish in hiding, and different fish species swam past, including some with bright colors. This safe location would provide plenty to interest people who have only a little snorkeling experience.
Unfortunately, we have been spoilt from snorkeling in some of the most beautiful reef environments - Tahaa, Rangiroa, Bora Bora and our new favorite snorkeling spot on the island of Lifou in New Caledonia. If you are an experienced snorkeler, you will lose interest in the water here fairly quickly. But the combination of the beauty around the pool, the experience of swimming around the pines, and the adventure of finding the pool, does make the trip well worth a visit if you are on the Isle of Pines.
There is one large area of coral near the middle of the pool. This is where most of the fish can be seen. The sandy floor around this main coral formation is scattered with smaller pieces of coral.
I was surprised at how cold the water felt. It was the middle of summer but the water temperature was much cooler than the Bora Bora lagoon usually is, at any time of year. I was shivering after a short time in and tried to warm up by getting out but the breeze made it difficult. New Caledonia gets a lot of wind, which makes it a popular location for windsurfing and kite-surfing. Noumeau has the most popular location.
The "natural pool" is the Isle of Pines most scenic area to snorkel. But Bora Bora has many more snorkeling locations to explore and the coral and fish varieties are more plentiful and colorful than those we saw in the water at Isle of Pines. The water temperature at Isle of Pines was much cooler than in the tropical waters of French Polynesia. So I would choose snorkeling in Bora Bora, over snorkeling in Isle of Pines, in a heartbeat.
The two main beaches we visited on the Isle of Pines were both beautiful long strips of sand with turquoise water. One beach was too windy to be pleasant so we found refuge at the beach in the bay on the other side. There's plenty of beach space for the number of visitors at the Isle of Pines, even on a day when a cruise-ship is in.
Unlike Bora Bora though, Isle of Pines is known to be a habitat for sea snakes. It was harder for me to go in the water and completely relax. I spent the first half of our trip scanning both the water and the ground for snakes. After I didn't see a single snake, I started to relax. I'm ok with seeing sharks in the water in Bora Bora but the thought of swimming with snakes sounds like a horror movie to me!
Bora Bora has only one public beach, 2 mile long Matira, on the main island. In comparing the main beaches on Isle of Pines Vs Bora Bora's Matira beach I would say that they are closely matched in beauty and offer a similar calm swimming environment. But Bora Bora has stunningly beautiful beaches out on the motus, with awesome views back to the main island and Mt Otemanu towering above. New Caledonia can't compete with those views.
-We thought Bora Bora was a small island but Isle of Pines has even less restaurants and shops. There are fewer facilities near the main beaches and tourist spots and no shops or bicycle-hire places nearby. In Bora Bora, practically everything you could need or want is within walking distance of Matira Beach. In contrast, Isle of Pines has only one restaurant on the beach and one within walking distance. To visit a grocery store you would need to get transport into the main town of Vao .
There are also less accommodation options on Isle of Pines compared to Bora Bora. Isle of Pines has only 7 accommodation options. They're mostly simple pension style accommodation or camp grounds so there is limited choice of vacation styles. If you want romance or luxury, Le Meridien would be your only option. An entry level room is $500 a night. You must book well in advance as the limited number of rooms on the island means they sell out easily. This is a similar situation to Bora Bora accommodation but in Bora Bora you have more 4 and 5 star resorts to choose from.
We share how our favorite way to appreciate the beauty of the Tahitian islands is through sailing in and out by cruise ship. It gives a perspective of the island that you just can't get any other way. On leaving the Isle of Pines we could see that there are a number of smaller islands (like motus) surrounding the main island that would be interesting to explore by boat.
The Isle of Pines is an easy location for Australian's to visit as most of the cruise ships departing from Sydney and Brisbane stop there. If you find a good deal for a quality cruise, the Isle of Pines is worth a visit.
Anyone holidaying in Noumea can day-trip to the Isle of Pines. We missed out on this during a previous vacation in New Caledonia as it's necessary to book ahead at busy times of year. A day-trip ticket on the Betico 2 fast ferry is 10,900 francs in economy class which is around $100 USD. Taking this trip means you have to get up really early for the ferry as the sail takes 2.5 hours. The ferry goes between Noumea and Isle of Pines on Wednesday, Sunday and every second Saturday. The weekend timetable is complicated. Sometimes it does a day trip and
sometimes it does a weekend round trip which takes people there Saturday
morning and returns Sunday afternoon. You can book Economy, Comfort or VIP class and the sail takes 2.5 hours. The baggage allowance is 20kg.
The effort and expense of flying to the Isle of Pines brings the cost of a vacation to be very similar to the cost of a vacation in Bora Bora, especially if you stay at the only resort on the island - Le Meridien. The cost per night for a nice room is comparable to an over water bungalow stay in Bora Bora. The uniquenes of the Bora Bora experience plus the extraordinary beauty of the famous lagoon gives great value for money and makes an over water bungalow stay in Bora Bora a much more memorable vacation.
Isle of Pines is also in a beautiful part of the world and we appreciated the beauty and serenity of this little island. But Bora Bora is the winner in our hearts and where we would choose to spend our vacation dollars.