Many locations claim they are paradise. Tim Faircloth of visits one that is the real deal.

The local nickname for the Isle of Pines is I’île la plus proche du paradis, which means “the closest island to paradise”. A quick look around this 15 kilometre by 13 kilometre island tells you why.

Warm turquoise waters lap pure white sand, shaded by swaying coconut palms. Tropical fish dart through coral in the clear waters. The island is one of the most popular cruise destinations for ships based in Australia, with about 100 cruise-ship visits every year.

The Isle of Pines is about 50 kilometres south of the main New Caledonian island of Grande Terre, and a leisurely overnight cruise from Nouméa. Yet it is vastly different from its more French-influenced and often misunderstood neighbour.

The Melanesian culture is still very much alive and thriving thanks to the indigenous Kanak people who make up more than 95 per cent of the roughly 2,500 inhabitants.

Captain James Cook named the island in 1774 when he spotted – surprise, surprise – the pine trees that line the shore. But the explorer didn’t stop. The French eventually claimed New Caledonia in 1853 and promptly Gallicised the island’s name to L’Ile des Pins. They then turned the island that they felt was so close to paradise into a penal colony for 3,000 prisoners

Our 12-night South Pacific cruise aboard Celebrity Solstice delivered us to the island, dropping anchor in Kuto Bay on the eastern shore. This is a tender port and due to the shallow waters surrounding the island, the transfer is a little longer than usual, taking 15 to 20 minutes depending on the winds, which can whip up quickly.

The ships tender drops passengers at a small jetty on the edge of Kuto Bay, from where it’s only a short stroll to the beach or to pick up a pre-booked shore excursion.

All the cruise lines that visit the island offer two shore excursions: a complete around-the-island tour or a more popular day trip to Oro Bay on the western side of the island, where visitors can snorkel among thousands of tropical fish in the protected lagoon that forms a natural aquarium.

We decided to save a few dollars and opted for a shorter, locally run mini-bus tour after snorkelling in the nearby Kanumera Bay. For $25 (they accept Australian currency), we chose a 90-minute island tour offering seven stops, although I only counted five that I actually considered “stops”.

The tour driver didn’t appear to speak a word of English, but he did have a CD on hand to give a running commentary, and he timed the passing sights and scheduled stops perfectly.

The first stop was Notre Dame de L’Assomption, a convict-built Catholic church situated in the middle of Vao village. A short drive away is the Saint Maurice Bay Monument, marking the spot where the missionaries held their first Catholic service on the island.

After a couple of stops at picturesque lookouts and more stunning beaches dotted with locally built outrigger boats called pirogues, we arrived at the Vestiges du Bagne (remains of the prison). The site of the prison built in the 1800s it is a stark reminder of harsher times.

After a few long blasts of the mini-bus horn to round up the last couple of passengers (including me – I got lost in thick vegetation in search of that perfect photograph), we were back on the road for a short drive to our drop-off point at the Hotel Kou Bugny back at Kuto Bay. The hotel itself is not so much the attraction as its restaurant and bar, which are right on the sand overlooking the sparkling bay.

With plenty of tables shaded by coconut palms and overlooking the beach, this is the perfect place to end your day with a cold beer and some very fine French fries.

Given the lack of competition, prices are a little stiff (beer and bowl of fries $10 each). But who cares? You’re on holiday and you’ve just saved a small fortune avoiding the cruise-line shore excursion.

From the hotel, it’s only a few minutes’ walk back to the jetty and the awaiting tender. Along the way we passed some enterprising locals grilling and selling freshly caught lobsters.

For a lasting memory of your visit to Isle of Pines, you can have your passport stamped at the jetty ($2) if you choose to bring it ashore with you.

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This story appears in the Winter 2015 edition of Cruise Passenger, on sale June 18. Pick up your copy at all good newsagents, or click here to subscribe.