Nouméa was founded in 1854 by Tardy de Montravel, who called it Port-de-France, and in 1860 the French moved their capital here from Balade. A French governor arrived two years later and convicts condemned to the penal colony on Île Nou followed in 1864. In 1866, the town was renamed Nouméa.
Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited in 1890, remarked that Nouméa was "built from vermouth cases." Like Rome, Nouméa stands on seven hills. The town remained a backwater until 1942, when American military forces arrived to transform this landlocked port into a bastion for the war against Japan. Admiral "Bull" Halsey directed the Solomon Islands campaign from his headquarters on Anse Vata.
Today this thriving maritime center near the south end of the New Caledonian mainland is a busy, cosmopolitan city made rich by nickel and tourism. Well over half the population of the territory resides here: 165,000 people if residents of nearby Mont-Dore, Dumbéa, and Païta are included. It's the only South Pacific town with a white majority (less than a quarter of the city's population is Kanak).
Bathing beauties bask at Nouméa's swank Anse Vata beach, where most of the luxury hotels are found. Windsurfers, funboarders, and sailboaters hover offshore, and it's clear that this is a moneyed tourist's paradise.
Nouméa is a very French city, and you sense that the Kanaks feel out of place. The swank French suburbs of southern Nouméa contradict the Kanak tenements and squatter settlements to the north. Leave touristy Nouméa, and you're back in Melanesia, among the island's original inhabitants, who still value land and custom more highly than money. From European consumers to traditional tribes, it's quite a contrast, and you can't claim to have seen the territory until you get across to the northeast coast or out to one of the neighbor islands.
When planning your day, remember that on weekdays nearly everything in Nouméa closes for the 1130-1330 siesta—a two-hour break! Afternoon hours can be variable, so it's best to attend to important business first thing in the morning.
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