Ile Des Pins

58-square-mile (152 sq km) Ile des Pins lying to the southeast of Grande Terre is rightly called the “Jewel of the South Seas.” James Cook discovered it in 1774, and gave it the name “Pine Island” because of its proliferation of araucaria trees, many of which have grown near to the 200 foot (60 m) mark. Ile des Pins, known to the Kanaka as Kunie, is breathtakingly beautiful, with heavenly beaches covered in fine, white sand, jagged, rocky coastline and picture-perfect lagoons. The reef area is full of superb diving grounds, and stalagtitic caves are a joy to explore for spelunkers.

About 1500 people live on the island, and they welcome visitors with great friendliness. The largest village and the administrative center is Vao in the south. The Town Hall and the so-called Chefferie (the house of the chief) are both on the main street. A path begins behind the Mission Church (built in 1860) and leads up to the chapel Notre-Dame-dela-Salette. The view from here is worth the little climb. Queen Hortense was buried in the cemetery. After the death of her father Great Chief Vandegou II in 1855, Hortense acceded the throne, ruling until 1883. She was skilled in cutting deals with the Catholic missionaries, who had started arriving from France in 1848. About a hundred yards from the village, on the Baie de Saint-Maurice, stands a memorial to these missionaries. The monument is surrounded by totem poles.

The Bale St. Joseph, about 1.5 miles (2 km) from Vao, has a beautiful beach. It is also called Baie des Pirogues, because of the many canoes (pirogues) that ply its waters, with their sails puffed up in the wind. Glass-bottom boat tours are available around the splendid Baie d’Upi. A 45-minute walk takes you from the bay to the Oro Peninsula, where the Baie d’Oro invites its visitors for a swim. It can also be reached by car on two roads that fork off of RM 3.

A 30-minute march on a path leading off the main road east of the airport leads to the Grotte de Wemwanyi (also known as Grotte de d’Oumagne). Even people without any experience need not fear this light cave with large stalactites An unmarked path leads about 2 miles (3 km) southeastwards to the Grotte de Waacia (also: Grotte d’Ouatcha), but you should hire a guide to see it. Queen Hortense allegedly hid in this cave for months during the political unrest that shook the isle from 1855 to 1856.

Following the main road further in a northwesterly direction toward Kaaji (Gadji), you should stop in Wapwanga (Wapan) for a shopping spree at the Grande Case, where shells, handicrafts and jewelry are on sale. At he beginning of the century, Kaaji was the capital of the island and the residence of the big chiefs. RM 1 leaves starts here to follow the western flank of the island, crossing a plateau before descending to the south. Penal camps once lined the road, which, after 1872, received numerous political prisoners sentenced in the wake of the Paris Commune.

Just before the left-hand turnoff toward the airport, there is a right fork to the Grotte du Paradis (also called Grotte de la Troisieme, after the third penal camp. The entrance of this freshwater cave is easily accessible, and the pools before it are nice for a dip. Only experienced divers should attempt to explore the mostly flooded cave with its forest of stalactites. Two miles to the south (3 km), a track leads to the beach of the Baie d’Ouro; and shortly thereafter, to the left, a path takes you to the Cimetiere des Deportes, a cemetery where 250 political deportees are buried. In the community of Ouro a little way southward, you can see the ruins of old prison buildings that once belonged to the penal colony. The village of Kuto is on the Baie de Kuto, and the Baie de Kanumera has clear, calm waters. Both bays are lined with white sand beaches fringed with tropical vegetation. The highest point on the island, Pic Nga (838 ft/262 m), can be climbed in just about an hour.

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