My stay in New Caledonia was primarily about natural history, but we did stay in the capital, Nouméa, and I took a few hours to stroll in the city centre.
Nouméa has barely 100,000 people, but this makes it the only real city in New Caledonia and one of the largest cities in the South Pacific. It serves as an industrial and shipping centre for the region and the base for regional institutions such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
Yet in its dominant impressions, it is like any other city of its period. Built gradually over the 20th century, it's oldest substantial buildings are Deco, with some fairly typical late-century modernism.
New Caledonia is still part of France, and self-conscious Frenchness can be amusing. Streetsigns are obvious copies of the small blue tiles that identify streets in Paris.
In our Best Western hotel (Le Paris), little signs in the hall, illustrated with cliché figures of French hoteliers and maids, assured us that Best Westerns are "the most French of international hotels."
One might wish that France's sovereignty had instilled a European sense of urbanism, but in fact the powers and needs of the car have driven the whole city's design. The central-city waterfront, for example, is almost all surface car parking, reminiscent of many American cities that abandoned their waterfronts in the 1950s and 60s.
Only one other structure, a grim "public market" made of concrete hexagons, reaches down to the water. The French are good at parks and parkways, though, and there are many opportunities to sample the exuberance, grandeur, and weirdness of tropical trees.
The city's site is magnificent: a single hilly peninsula whose edge is dotted with an alternation of small peninsulas and coves much like the edges of Sydney Harbour, with dramatic mountains just to the north.
It's a pattern that invites a multi-centred city. Already Nouméa has three large centres on three of these coves: Centre Ville, Anse Vata, et La Baie des Citrons. (Centre Ville, where we stayed, is the classic office centre with no life after 5:00 PM, while the latter two are the hotel, tourism, and nightlife centres).
It is easy to imagine futures in which Nouméa will be spectacular. Its setting invites comparison to the world's most dramatic peninsula-and-harbour cities, such as Hong Kong, Mumbai, Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco.
Yet the peninsulas are also invitations to create prominent but remote destinations that will enjoy grand views but be hard to integrate into the city. There is already one such: Renzo Piano's Tjibaou Cultural Centre. In the grand style of so many 20th Century institutions, the selected site is the remote tip of a peninsula, accessible only by car, and utterly divorced from the city's fabric. These are great sites for grand architectural statements that do nothing toward building a real city. (The Sydney Opera House may come to mind, but this sits on peninsula just a few hundred metres long, so it is still part of Sydney's pedestrian core.)
Assuming that sea level rises remain moderate, Nouméa may yet become a great small city in this century. It's not hard to visualise it as a tropical Vancouver, a city that worships both to a sinuous waterfront and grand flanking mountains. It will need practical public transport, of course, and an urbanising economic that may not be possible in the South Pacific. And of course, its indigenous population may want something else entirely, if independence from France is achieved by a referendum due after 2014. But the future of the humanity lies in livable and inspiring cities, and this little one could be a gem.