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New Caledonia Travel Guide

Graves of Early Protestant Missionaries, Mare
The graves of early Protestant missionaries
at Nécé on Maré.

The Loyalty Islands

Loyalty Islands Province accounts for around 10 percent of New Caledonia's land area and population. This coralline group, 100 km east of Grande Terre, consists of the low-lying islands of Ouvéa, Lifou, Tiga, and Maré, each about 50 km apart, plus several islets. Though Captain Cook never saw them, the Loyalties are visible from the tops of New Caledonia's mountains. The people are mostly Kanak, although Ouvéa was colonized by Polynesians from Wallis Island hundreds of years ago. In 1899, the French government declared the Loyalties an indigenous reserve, thus they were spared the worst features of colonialism, and the vast majority of the 17,500 residents are Kanak.

The Protestant missionaries who arrived on Maré in 1841 and Lifou in 1842 had already converted most of the inhabitants by the time the French colony was declared in 1853. French Catholics arrived at Maré in 1866, and a period of religious strife ensued. After a battle on Maré in 1871, some 900 Catholicized islanders were exiled with their French missionaries to the Isle of Pines. Be aware that almost nobody in the Loyalties speaks English.

The lifestyle in the Loyalties is unhurried, and many people grow their own yams, taro, and sweet potatoes in bush gardens. Traditional round houses resembling beehives with conical roofs are still common on these islands. Though a thatched Kanak case may look primitive (or quaint) from the outside, it's likely to have a clean tiled floor, electric lighting, and a TV inside. During the cool season, the locals often light a fire in the stone hearth of their case. Many families also have an adjacent European style house, but you can tell how they feel more comfortable in their case.

If you're here for the sand and sun, the Loyalty Islands have some of the finest beaches in the world. The locals are pleasant and friendly, and the camping is fine, but meals, transportation, and a good part of the accommodations are overpriced. Ouvéa tends to be easier than Lifou or Maré, since you can walk to many places, and some gîtes will prepare a repas simple if you don't wish to pay outlandish prices to consume lobsters, coconut crabs, flying foxes, and other endangered species. Unfortunately, the gîtes cater mostly to highly paid French civil servants on weekend trips, and their tariffs are set accordingly.