For years, New Caledonians have used the catch phrase “France in the Pacific” to promote their country to the international tourist market. It’s certainly that, with fashionistas crossing paths with the more casual clad in brightly colored clothing reflecting an island lifestyle.

It’s that softened, exotic Pacific attitude that makes this destination even more appealing, especially among travelers into warm tropical weather, captivating culture, inspiring landscapes and water that’s as intensely turquoise as it is rich with marine wonders.

While Aussies, New Zealanders, Japanese and French have flocked to this South Pacific paradise for years, no one I knew could offer me any firsthand advice before I journeyed there myself. In fact, I wasn’t exactly certain where it was in the South Pacific. By the time I returned, however, I realized it was in a place that defines natural beauty.

For perspective, New Caledonia is composed principally of the Isle of Pines, Loyalty Islands (www.Iles-loyaute.com), and mainland divided into Northern (www.tourismeprovincenord.nc/US/index.php) and Southern (www.newcaledoniatourism-south.com) provinces. The archipelago is splendidly tucked amid a trio of better-known getaways.

Its capital city of Noumea lies 1,224 miles northeast of Sydney, 1,122 miles northwest of Auckland and 805 miles southwest of Nadi, Fiji. So it’s a perfect stop for travelers heading to any of these more prominent destinations.

But for those into diving, there’s little need to go elsewhere. The mainland is cocooned in the world’s largest lagoon, with water temperatures that range from an inviting 70 to 82 degrees. The reef can be as close as a mile from the coast in some places and as far as 40 in others.

This magnificent marine environment bursts with fluorescent corals, sea cows, starfish, sea sponges, turtles, sea urchins and even humpback whales. So to tag it as an aquatic paradise is somewhat of an understatement.

Upon arriving at Tontouta International on my Aircalin (www.aircalinusa.com) flight from LAX, I hit the ground running. Even before I checked in at Le Meridien Noumea (www.lemeridien.com/noumea), I took in the Tjibaou Cultural Center (www.adck.nc). This move paid off in trumps since it provided me with a solid background on New Caledonia’s Kanak people and what I’d be exposed to during my adventures.

Housing a collection of art and traditional craftwork gathered throughout New Caledonia and the wider Pacific, this architectural masterpiece showcases the Kanak culture via three “villages” linked by a pathway that winds through gardens along the footsteps of their mythical First Man, Tea Kanake.

The distinctive “Great Houses” stylized design reflects traditional house forms of varying height and surface treatments, given a deliberate unfinished aspect as a reminder that Kanak culture is still evolving.

After a healthy dose of local insight, I headed back to the colorful capital of Noumea. In 1854, a French naval officer, Tardy de Montravel, was so charmed by the natural port that he laid claim to the site. Since then, it’s been fashioned by sailors and missionaries, governed by the French military and claimed as a U.S. Army headquarters during WWII.

Today, this peninsula city emits a distinctive European feel with its colonial buildings, town square, gardens, markets, designer boutiques, patisseries and sidewalk cafes. For handy sightseeing, a small train makes a scenic circuit with stops at key sites between the city center and the main tourist area of Anse Vata.

Tight on time but determined to explore the Southern Province’s interior landscapes, I opted for a highly recommended Caledonia Tours (caledoniatours@lagoon.nc) excursion to Blue River Park. Our host, Francois Tran, was perhaps the most well versed guide I’ve ever encountered.

While I could have rented a car and ventured there on my own, I would have certainly missed so much of the magic that could only be shared by a native in the know. Both a gentleman and a scholar of all things New Caledonian, Tran shared with us the 22,350-acre forest reserve that’s home to a plethora of native plants and wildlife, including the territory’s rare and revered cagou birds.

Missing out on the Northern Province and Loyalty Islands, I did manage a day trip to the Isle of Pines – yet another good move. This sliver of heaven that measures a mere 5.5 miles wide and 11 miles long proves once again that good things come in small packages. Even before my 20-minute Air Caledonie (www.air-caledonie.nc) flight from Noumea’s domestic Magenta Airport landed, it was obvious how this beauty garnered the moniker “The Jewel of the Pacific.”

Etched with towering Araucaria pines, aquamarine lagoons and powdery white sand beaches, it’s stunning in every sense of the word. Here, I finally dove into the warm water world that surrounds this remote destination.

After an island tour, I sailed on a traditional Melanesian pirogue (outrigger), kayaked and snorkeled in a natural swimming pool at Oro Bay. If you’re into aquatic bliss like I am, Isle of Pines will put you over the edge.

True to nearly everything in New Caledonia, this was yet another of those dreamy places I never wanted to leave. The only consolation was in knowing I could return.

dawnarobertson200A freelance writer based between Honolulu and San Diego, Dawna specializes in destinations and adventures in the Hawaiian Islands, Mexico, the South Pacific and Western United States. Her stories have appeared in publications that include The New York Times, Global Traveler USA, San Francisco Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Smart Meetings, Family Fun, Hemispheres, Outside and Travel Agent Magazine. She is a frequent contributor to TravelAge West, a bi-weekly magazine targeting retail travel agents and wholesalers in the Western United States. An avid marathon runner and photographer, Dawna is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Visit www.dawnarobertson.com