1 Noumea Noumea is on New Caledonia's main island, Grande Terre, which is about 1,500km from the Queensland coast. The French territory's only city has a generous helping of Gallic restaurants and cafes. Around town you'll also find delicatessens and liquor stores with well-stocked shelves of reasonably priced French wine, cheeses and pates. Noumea is an incongruous mixture of French sophistication and island simplicity. Melanesians and Polynesians in cheerful floral dresses shuffle along the streets between luxury Mercedes-Benzes. The white outline of a church peeks above the city rooftops. Local youths practise rap-dancing under the bandstand at Place des Cocotiers, the main park. A self-guided walking tour highlights key historical buildings - the first signpost is at the City of Noumea Museum, opposite Place des Cocotiers. 2 Diving The world's largest coral lagoon offers an amazing array of exotic fish, crustaceans and shipwrecks for scuba divers. There are underwater caves dotted with coral-like madrepores, unusually shaped sea sponges and fluorescent corals. New Caledonia's reef is home to almost 2,000 fish varieties, including 200 unknown species. However, there's no need to be an avid diving fan to enjoy the lagoon and the second-largest barrier reef in the world. For a luxurious, romantic experience, sleep right over the reef lagoon in an overwater bungalow at the Coral Palms Island Resort on Ilot Maitre. The islet has a chapel for those keen to renew their marriage vows in an idyllic setting ( www.newcaledonia hotelsresorts.com). 3 Ocean walk Step into the pages of a Jules Verne novel. Dressed in a wetsuit, underwater boots and a space-bubble helmet, you can stroll into the ocean on an underwater escalator and feed schools of brightly coloured fish with bread. At the bottom, you bounce almost weightlessly among the fish and coral, observing the marine life like an alien in a spacesuit ( www.newcaledonia tourism-south.com). 4 Kanak culture The Tjibaou Cultural Centre is a space-age architectural monument designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. It features permanent exhibitions of Kanak and Pacific art and is a venue for live performances. Although the building pays homage to Kanak culture through a design said to capture the Melanesian soul, it hints of a Noumea trying to break out of its sleepy island mould. The Kanaks are New Caledonia's indigenous Melanesian people. They originated in Southeast Asia and are believed to have settled the islands about 1500BC. James Cook discovered New Caledonia in 1774. It became a French province and penal colony during the rule of Napoleon III and droves of French were drawn there by the weather and relaxed living. In recent years, Vietnamese and Indonesian communities have added to the rich cultural melting pot ( www.adck.nc ). 5 Markets On Saturday mornings, New Caledonia's markets become hubs of colour and activity where French, Melanesians, Polynesians and Asians get together. Stalls sell locally made crafts, clothes and fresh produce and seafood. Soak up the atmosphere and the hustle and bustle of the marketplace while you sip on a coffee. Nearby is an impressive marina where rows of luxury yachts idle. Asked to whom the magnificent vessels belong, a resident Frenchwoman replies: 'Why, everyone who lives here owns a yacht.' 6 Play boules Noumea's beaches aren't simply for sunbathing and swimming. One of the most common sights during the late afternoon is teams of boules players in friendly competition. Otherwise known as petanque, boules is the French version of lawn bowls and is played with metallic balls - in this case, under swaying palm trees. 7 Isle of Pines The Isle of Pines is an idyllic setting, with long white beaches, vivid turquoise bays and soaring emerald pine trees. BBC documentary producers used this untouched landscape as the backdrop for part of their Walking with Dinosaurs series. Like New Zealand, New Caledonia is a tiny fragment of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland (which once included Australia). It split from Australia 80 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still the dominant land animals. Except for bats, there are no mammals in New Caledonia. Instead, it's a world of reptiles, with more varieties of lizard than anywhere on Earth. Ancient rock drawings, pottery and 2,000-year-old giant bird bones have been discovered on the island. Its highest point, N'ga Peak, offers superb views and can be hiked in a couple of hours. Try diving at Vallee des Gorgones and you'll stand a good chance of spotting eagle rays and leopard sharks among the coral. The Isle of Pines is 20 minutes by air from Noumea or three hours by catamaran. 8 Loyalty Islands The Loyalty Islands comprise Lifou, Mare, Ouvea and Tiga. The southern coast of Lifou, the capital, is peppered with caves and bays. At the north end of Lifou is the village of Doking, home to a tribe that lives on a 40-metre cliff overhanging the ocean. The Loyalty islanders have preserved the traditions of New Caledonia and keep alive the myths and legends surrounding their community. An Air Caledonia travel pass allows cheap movement within the islands ( www.air-caledonie.nc ). 9 Bourail New Caledonia's second-largest town and main agricultural centre, Bourail, is towards the middle of the main island of Grand Terre. The surrounding area has vast open spaces that make a visually appealing change to the rest of the island, with stunning bays nearby. Hunting and fishing are the main pastimes among the locals. A rodeo is held during the annual August agricultural fair. Depending on the season, turtles can be seen laying their eggs at nearby Baie des Tortues. 10 Hienghene On the northeast coast of Grande Terre, about five hours' drive from Noumea, is Hienghene, with its wall of black limestone. In places, cliffs climb 60 metres above the sea. Razor-sharp pinnacles point towards the sky, hiding caves full of swallows and bats. If you're feeling energetic, you might want to try the three-day hike along the Chemin des Arabes, across Grande Terre's central mountains to the west coast ( www.tourismeprovincenord.nc ).