As the World Health Organization and public health professionals around the world are working tirelessly to contain and combat COVID19, the current novel coronavirus, the Viking teams on board the Sun and back home at corporate headquarters have been working around the clock to keep us safe. From enhanced screening, to increased emphasis on frequent hand washing, to strategic changes to our itinerary, these travel professionals are doing everything possible to ensure our health and well being while we’re enjoying this world cruise. The latest itinerary changes include significant re-routing in and around Australia; the elimination of our visits to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kota Kinabalu, and the Philippines; more days in Cairns, Darwin, and Bali; and the addition of visits to New Caledonia, Townsville, and Surabaya in Java. The itinerary will also include Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Cochin, Marmagoa and Mumbai. We’re pretty sure there will be more changes ahead between Bali and Mumbai, but for now this is what we know. In addition to the port changes, the team is making significant changes to the excursions available while in port, so one can only imagine the scheduling, pricing, and charging nightmares they’re enduring to get this right for each of 900 passengers! We’re choosing to go with the flow and make the best of each day.
We left the beautiful city of Brisbane a couple of days ago and headed east on the Coral Sea en route to our “new” port of Noumea, New Caledonia. British explorer Captain James Cook first landed on this beautiful island in 1774 and named it New Caledonia because it reminded him of Scotland (Caledonia in Latin.) A special collectivity of France, New Caledonia includes the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Chesterfield Islands, the Belep archipelago, the Isle of Pines, and several remote islets. French people, and especially locals, refer to Grande Terre as Le Caillou (“the pebble”). French is the predominant language, and all residents can vote in French presidential elections.
The capital city of Noumea, our “home” for two days, reflects a unique mix of French, colonial, and indigenous Kanak culture. During World War II, Noumea served as the headquarters of the US military in the South Pacific. The five-sided US military headquarters complex was adopted after the war as the base for a new regional intergovernmental development organization now known as the “Pacific Community.” The US military introduced many modern conveniences to the area, and a stylized US flag stands as a prominent monument near the center of town expressing the warmth New Caledonians feel towards Americans.
A visit to The Musee de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (WW II Museum) provides a glimpse of what it must have been like for the population of New Caledonia to double with the presence of 50,000 Allied Troops during WW II. This small museum, housed in former Quonset huts, outlines the story of the important role New Caledonia played in the Pacific Ocean Theater. Although most of the exhibits are in French, there is enough English for most visitors to follow the story line. Doug, however, was longing for Gina to translate every word, ‘cuz that’s how he “does museums!”
Across the street from the museum are the remains of the Gaston Bourret Hospital. Originally built as a fort in 1854, the Gaston-Bourret grew to 500 beds and served the military and local residents until a new, modern facility was built in 2016.
The French began sending convicts to New Caledonia in 1864. Over the next 30 years, about 25,000 “hard-labour convicts and petty offenders” made the six-month sea journey from France, and those who survived were housed in a penal colony. The convicts carried out most of the original construction in and around Noumea, including public buildings, churches, and even some homes. Once freed, the ex-convicts who were sentenced to eight years or more were subject to “perpetual residence in the colony” even after they had served their sentence. Most of them established families and became productive citizens. Today, a penal colony museum stands as a memorial to these earliest settlers. While some of the buildings have been restored, the original prison bakery and the former penal psych hospital are probably better reflections of the difficult times. The handwriting on the wall isn’t legible, but if those walls could talk, oh the stories they’d tell!
A panoramic tour of Noumea reflects the colonial and strategic military history and more contemporary nature of this capital city. With picturesque, relaxed beaches and clear, azure waters all around, it is also becoming a popular tourist destination. The discovery of nickel deposits has turned this city into a major seaport, and has drawn migrants from Europe, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China who are contributing to the dynamic multi-cultural artistic, architectural, and culinary scene. A focal point of Noumea is Coconut Palm Square, with its pedestrian-friendly walkways and colorfully-lit fountain.
The Bibliotheque Bernheim was a highlight during our visit to Noumea, for its design as well as its history. The Exposition Universelle of 1900 was a world’s fair held Paris to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. The fair, visited by nearly 50 million people, displayed several major structures that remain to this day, such as the Grand Palais, Petit Palais, the Gare d’Orsay (now the Musee d’Orsay), and two of the original entrances of Paris Metro stations by Hector Guimard. It also brought international attention to the Art Nouveau style. In addition, they included pavilions of French colonies featuring their traditional architecture and local products. The French colony of New Caledonia highlighted its exotic varieties of wood and rich mineral deposits in a pavilion designed by a Monsieur Bley. After the event, at the request and expense of Lucien Bernheim, a French industrialist who moved to New Caledonia and established nickel and chrome factories, the pavilion was dismantled and shipped to Noumea to become the town library and museum.
Although New Caledonia wasn’t on our original itinerary (in truth, we had barely heard of it before our visit!) we really had a great time and could have stayed longer. We barely saw the beaches, art museums, and restaurants, and we’d like the chance to meet more of the friendly, welcoming people.