People are fascinated when we say we’ve been to Madagascar. There’s something familiar, yet wildly exotic about the African island. Everyone has heard of it, but few have been to it. They’re intrigued, as was I. Our Madagascar holidays were quite memorable.
Floating in the Indian Ocean just off the east coast of Africa, Madagascar is the world’s oldest island, dating back 100 million years when it split off from the Indian subcontinent. Covering an area of 226,657 square miles, it ranks as the fourth largest island in the world (behind #1 Greenland, #2 New Guinea, and #3 Borneo).
The first settlers reached Madagascar by outrigger canoes from Indonesia between 350 BC and 550 AD. Over time, they were joined by others arriving from Africa, India, China, and Arabia.
In 1895, the French took control of the island, and the French language remains today. Once magnificent turn-of-the-century French colonial architecture remains – but crumbling, in the major cities on the north coast.
Madagascar’s cultural melting pot has created a unique set of beliefs and rituals.
The Malagasy face painting custom has been passed down by the women of the Sakalava tribe, incorporating elaborate yellow and white patterns (and sometimes blue) and flower designs. The paint, made from tree bark, is not just decorative, but also protects the skin from sun damage and acts as a natural mosquito repellant.
Translated as “slow, slow,” the Malagasy lifestyle is casual and relaxed. Adults and children alike are happy to make new friends.
Famadihana is a funerary tradition of Malagasy, considered quite bizarre by Western standards. The ceremony, known as the “turning of the bones,” begins with people exhuming the remains of their deceased relatives from the family crypts. They swaddle the corpses in fresh silk shrouds and write their names on the cloth to be remembered. Then several family members hoist the cadaver over their heads and dance around the tomb to the beat of live music before returning the body to its grave.
The ritual is done every seven years, with the belief that the spirit of the dead will join their ancestors after complete decomposition and an appropriate number of ceremonies. While the practice is in decline with the younger generation, their elders cling to it as a way to respect the dead. It’s also a means to gather together the members of the deceased person’s family, making it the third biggest family gathering after a wedding and funeral.
Madagascar is often referred to as “the eighth continent.” Because the island was isolated from the rest of the world for such a long time, it contains an interesting mix of animals and plants, 90% of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Since the arrival of humans some 2,000 years ago, Madagascar’s flora and fauna have suffered, e.g. the forests and lemurs are disappearing.
Warning: In many places, children will approach you with geckos and other creatures perched on a stick. They will offer to let you hold the stick (or the creatures). Do. Not. Do. This. The wildlife is mistreated – I saw several of them fall from the stick to the ground, repeatedly. It’s cruel.
Madagascar Holiday Logistics
Visiting Madagascar can be a challenge. Infrastructure is dismal, to say the least. Unless you are looking for a very extreme adventure driving off-road, getting lost, taking up lots of time, cruising the Indian Ocean with Costa Cruises is the easiest option for seeing the north and northeast coast of Madagascar.
Where to Go
Might as well start with the best. Nosy Iranja was our favorite place in Madagascar and one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen. Nosy Iranja is comprised of two islands, Nosy Iranja Be (larger) and Nosy Iranja Kely (smaller), connected by a thin, mile-long strip of sugar-white sand which is only accessible at low tide. Nosy Kely is a private island without much to do; most visitors spend their time on the larger island.
Snorkeling at Nosy Iranja is nothing short of dreamy. Iridescent water as pristine and crystal clear as you can find anywhere in the world. And bath-water warm. There were schools of exotic fish such as Unicorn and Parrotfish, and if you’re lucky you’ll encounter one of the inquisitive sea turtles that frequent the island.
In addition to snorkeling, there are also some 16 or so dive sites around Nosy Iranja, including the “Plateau of Sharks,” where white tip, gray, and leopard sharks are frequently spotted.
The island’s biodiversity of pristine marine life, lush rainforest, and flora and fauna lure a plethora of sea turtles to its shores to lay their eggs. Nosy Iranja claims to be the only island in the Indian Ocean that is a nesting place for two of the eight ocean turtle species, the Hawksbill and Green Turtle.
There’s a small village on the larger island. Secluded from just about everything in their hideaway paradise, locals exist by fishing and farming, as well as selling art, textiles, and handicrafts, and sometimes providing a buffet meal for the limited number of cruise passengers who stop by.
At the highest point of the island stands a colonial lighthouse was prefabricated in France by the firm of Gustave Eiffel. To get there, we hiked along a path, some parts of which were paved with stones, while other areas were a simple dirt footpath. It’s not a difficult hike, but the blazing sun at midday made it seem a bit long.
Here’s a more in-depth guide to Nosy Iranja.
Originally named Diego Suarez, the port city was named after two Portuguese adventurers. The first was Diego Dias, who sailed with the second expedition to India in 1500 AD. When his ship veered off-course, he became one of the earliest Europeans to set eyes on Madagascar. The second was Diego Soares, a pirate and slaver, who stamped his notorious name on the city after his ruthless stay in the 1540s. Antsiranana was a French naval base and repair dock until 1973 when it was returned to Madagascar.
In 1975, this city on the northern tip of Madagascar was renamed Antsiranana. It sits on sparkling blue Antsiranana Bay, the second-largest lagoon in the world, behind Rio de Janeiro. The deep, natural harbor is made up of several small bays with the landmark Sugar Loaf Island at the southern edge. Sugar Loaf, known locally as Nosy Lonja, is considered sacred by the locals.
Antsiranana is the country’s fifth-biggest town and the third busiest port after Tamatave and Majunga, with its mainstay export being tinned tuna. Antsiranana is also one of the popular ports for Costa Victoria which visits between December and March. The ship drops off thousands of visitors for just one day, turning the usually sleepy city into a bit of bedlam.
There really isn’t a beach right in Antsiranana, but there’s a resort called Meva Plage where you can stay or just spend a day lazing by the pool. Although it sits on the water, the shade, comfort, and luxury of the resort pool are more of a draw.
A small public tropical garden is within the city and worth a short stroll to see plants indigenous to the area.
Antsiranana is perfect as a jumping-off point for nature-lovers who want to explore more off-the-beaten-path of Madagascar.
The Tsingy Rouge is a stone formation of red laterite shaped by erosion of the Irodo River. Over centuries, water and wind turned limestone oxides into jagged peaks that some say resemble knives, while others call them fairy chimneys. It’s one of the most Instagrammable places in Madagascar, especially with the backdrop of blue sky in the late afternoon.
Tsingy Rouge is a great experience but not easy to get to. From Diego Suarez, it’s a 3-hour drive through terrible road conditions suited only for a jeep, four-wheel-drive, or ATV (all-terrain vehicle).
The tsingy area is not big, so to make the long, hot, uncomfortable ride worthwhile, you can combine the trip with a visit to Ankarana Reserve if you like.
The unique geology of Ankarana attracts adventurers seeking to explore the caves, rivers, and underground passages in the reserve. The ancient limestone plateau was created 150 million years ago.
Several ancient Antakarana kings were buried in the caves, and the locals consider it a sacred place.
Les Trois Baies
Also known as the three bays, these white sand turquoise bays are known as Pigeons’ Bay, the Duns Bay, and Sakalava Bay. Some of the best surfing in Madagascar can be found here.
Montagne d’Ambre Natural Forest
Founded in 1958, Montagne d’Ambre National Park was named for the amber resin that seeps from the trunks of trees in the preserve. It’s a magical place – an unspoiled tropical rainforest, filled with waterfalls, crater lakes, and amazing wildlife. It’s one of Madagascar’s most biodiverse areas, with a high number of endemic flora and fauna found only within its deciduous forests, such as orchids and baobab trees.
Montagne des Francais
Montagne des Francais, (“Mountain of the French”), is a historic and protected site consisting mainly of dry deciduous forest. The forests are rich in endemic fauna and flora and it’s one of the best places in northern Madagascar to see the unique and stunning baobabs.
Former pirate haven, the port of Tamatave is also known by its Malagasy name, Toamasina. It’s Madagascar’s second-largest city by population and the country’s largest port. It’s located across from the French island of Reunion, on the east coast of Madagascar, with one of the country’s few large harbors.
Decaying, but oddly interesting, French colonial architecture is seen throughout the city, most in need of repair. Wide, palm tree-lined Independence Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the city, giving a nostalgic air of days-gone-by.
The tropical avenue is filled with cars, scooters, and lots of pousse-pousse (rickshaws).
Vibrant and frenetic, Bazary Be market (“big market”) is a huge labyrinth of shops. Aisle upon aisle, barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, are overflowing with stands selling souvenirs, fabrics, rum, hats, and other handicrafts. There’s also a street market in the center.
Canal des Pangalanes
Cruising along the canal was one of our favorite things to do in Madagascar! We climbed into a dugout canoe and set off down the man-made canal, which also connects to a series of mangroves, rivers, and lakes.
Along the way, we passed Malagasy villages and aboriginal people tending to their everyday chores, primitive as they are. The canal is their source for so many day-to-day necessities. A far cry from our Madagascar holidays itinerary.
There were men throwing fishing nets and women washing clothes. Children lined up on the sandy shores, waving as we drifted past the lush vegetation.
We stopped at a typical tourist trap called Eden. Resting in the festive pavilion with loud live music, and gyrating traditional dancers, we were offered and samples of local juice to combat the heat.
Tapakala Village and the Morenghy People
It was evident that the small village on the banks of the river had been apprised of our imminent arrival. We were herded past the friendly local villagers into a line to “visit” (more of just a photo op) with the local medicine man, which we slipped away from.
Wandering on the dirt footpath into the village, we encountered a most unusual ceremony. A long row of mothers with their toddlers and youngsters dressed to the nines, sitting under elaborately decorated arches of flowers. They were adorable, some with faces painted in Malagasy style. Naturally, each setup had a basket for tips, but no one begged for money.
About a 2-hour drive north of Tamatave, are the ruins of Fort Manda, the only surviving fort on the coast. Built in the 19th century by King Radama I to protect against sea invaders, most of the fort’s cannons remain intact. Shells, sand, and water were used to construct the walls, which took eight years to build.
Like much of the north and east Madagascar, in 1898, the fort was conquered by the French, and later became a refuge for pirates.
Many people travel to Madagascar to see some of the animals that are unique to the island. I do not promote animal tourism and do not like zoos, but I’m including this, albeit reluctantly, in Madagascar holidays for those who want to see this kind of wildlife. Parc Ivoloina is a recreational and educational zoological park home to lemurs, reptiles, amphibians, and other native Malagasy species.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Patti has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.