It was high time we showed Ellen around the Ile des Pins, and reacquainted ourselves with some of our favorite haunts. We collected our rental car at the lovely Kou-Bugny Hotel, on the waterfront at Kuto Bay, and drove north.
On the NE corner of IDP is the tricky-to-enter Baie d’Oro. Oro Bay also must be exited at the top of high tide, and in suitable weather. So our time inside Oro Bay has been special – listening every night to the seas crashing on the reef protecting the small anchorage.
On the south shore of the bay is the ***** Le Méridien Ile des Pins. This is the real thing – the honeymooner’s dream resort. Not surprisingly, many of the guests are Japanese newly-weds. We stopped there for our first coffee of the day.
There are several limestone caves on the island, and the most accessible one is the Grotto of Queen Hortense. The trail to the entrance of the grotto is through an impressive rain forest of luxuriant tropical vegetation. We were engulfed by beautiful ferns and surrounded by New Caledonian Kaori trees, which are closely related to New Zealand Kauri trees, really tall tree ferns, and enormous vines. The grotto itself is wide open to the forest, with long stalagtites hanging above our heads as we entered. It was in this bat-filled cave where the Kunie Queen Hortense hid during local political upheavals in the 1800’s.
Near the grotto, we heard the unusual song of the New Caledonian Imperial Pigeon, called a Notou (Ducula goliath), the largest tree dweller pigeon on earth. The song can only be described as sounding like the fog horn on the Golden Gate Bridge. No kidding.
The Melanesian inhabitants of Ile des Pins call themselves Kunie. Vao is the only town/village on the island, where the Catholic church, farmers’ market, post office, bank, doctor’s office, Mayor’s building and épicerie (small grocery store) are located. Eight tribes are scattered around the island, each living on its own tribal land. When a child is born and grows up, the tribal chief allocates a parcel of land for a house to be built. The Big Chief lives near Vao.
The Kunie language is spoken among the islanders, who also speak French. Europeans on the island serve as teachers, police, medical professionals and air-traffic controllers. The main roads and airport were build by American servicemen during WWII.
As we toured the island, we passed some of the homes where the locals live. It is traditional to build two buildings, one for sleeping quarters and a second for cooking and living areas. Some of the buildings have been built in the traditional manner with conical thatched roofs; others have been built of cinder blocks, and still others are framed in local wooden poles from the native Kohu tree, with woven palm fronds for the walls. Often there is a covered outdoor seating and dining area. Gardens are primarily filled with colorful native plants and tropical flowers, overshadowed by enormous Poinciana trees, or in the shade of a huge Banyan tree with vertical roots plunging down from the horizontal branches.
It is popular to decorate a house with fishing net floats that have been collected from the beaches. All sizes and colors of floats make trees and homes appear to be festooned with glass Christmas ornaments. Gardens are often encircled by large clam shells, and planted in Vanilla bean orchids which climb up the trunks of trees. Papayas, oranges, limes, and mandarins grow abundantly in the casual orchards. Occasionally we would see an enormous Mango tree, covered with thousands of flowers. Every few kilometers we would spot a steer, tied in a pasture to graze, waiting to be the invited to dinner at an upcoming wedding. Farmers’ gardens where men have planted their traditional Yams, beneath banana and papaya trees, could be seen from the road.
At Baie Saint-Maurice, we visited the memorial to the first Marist missionaries who disembarked in the Ile des Pins in 1848, and WWI war memorial. Surrounding the religious statue are many wooden poles that have been carved by members of all of the Kunie tribes on the Ile des Pins. Amusing faces and sea creatures are the primary subjects of the carvings.
Near Kuto Bay, where ADAGIO was anchored, is the Gendarmerie (police station), bakery, a couple of grocery stories, and best of all the Boutique owned by our friends Cleo and Albert, where their home is located. Our friends Tony and Brigitte live there, too, and Tony has his own boutique for wood carvings. These four European friends have lived in Ile des Pins for nearly forty years, have built their own houses, gardens and businesses. Originally founders of the first SCUBA dive resort in New Caledonia, they now make and sell their art and written publications from their two gift shops located near Kuto Bay. We have known them since our first visit to Ile des Pins in year 2000. It is always wonderful to see them, catch up on all of their news and learn more about New Caledonia.This