“Nosy Iranja is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen,” Kary proclaimed.
That was saying something. We’d just left the Seychelles where we’d soaked in the crystal aquamarine water of Anse Source d’Argent on La Digue, shadowed by the towering, otherworldly granite boulders – a tropical scene that has graced the pages of so many glossy travel magazines. We’d also recently lounged on beaches in Mauritius, the Maldives, Cuba, and Whitsundays.
After spending three days on our own in the paradise of the Seychelles, we embarked on our Costa Victoria Cruise (the 2nd port, thanks to the horrible South African Airlines, but that’s another soon-to-be-told story!). The next three ports would be along the coast of northern Madagascar, an African island in the Indian Ocean.
The first stop on our exploration was Nosy Be, a tropical archipelago northwest of the Madagascar mainland. We chose to forgo remaining in the more touristy Nosy Be (“Big Island”), opting for the “premium excursion” – a full-day tour of the nearby island of Nosy Iranja.
Getting to Nosy Iranja
In the early morning, a small fishing-style boat pulled up to the cruise ship to scoop us up for the jaunt to the island. Filled to capacity with close to a dozen passengers, we started chugging toward the open water. We were seated in two rows facing each other along the edges of the vessel, on hard plastic benches with no cushions and nothing to lean back on.
For 90 minutes, the boat jumped and lurched in the choppy sea as my rump and imperfect hip protested. We passed Madagascar’s unspoiled coast and seascape, and cruised through the Komba Canal; we saw unusual island formations such as the tiny Pain de Sucre island jutting up from the sea.
“Isn’t this fun?” Kary shouted, grinning, over the loud, somewhat anemic motor of the boat.
“This is the premium tour?” I said, conjuring up an image of me reclining on the top deck of a large, smooth-sailing ferry. I tried to smile, but I’m pretty sure it was more of a grimace.
Finally, the dark blue of the deep began to lighten and we could see land on the horizon. The nearer we got, the ocean became turquoise, then a shimmering aqua lagoon ringing the island.
“Oh, look!” Antonio, our guide, pointed. Right next to the boat was a large Hawksbill sea turtle. “They’re all over this place,” he said. “They come to breed here along with Green Turtles.”
A Tale of Two Islands
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, as did we.
Stepping out of the boat into the bathwater-warm, knee-deep water, we strode to the beach. We were greeted by the iridescent water, white sand, and coconut palms. Words cannot capture the gorgeous sparkle of the calm lagoon. “Mesmerizing” sounds so cliché, but truly appropriate.
Of course, the first thing I wanted was my Instagram moment, while the tide was out and I could chassé down that narrow, winding sandbar of blinding white sand. So we set our backpacks down and…. let the photography begin!
Snorkeling at Nosy Iranja
When we Kary had taken the required gazillion photos, we got our snorkel gear (I bring my own optical-corrective mask) out of our packs (yes, and our GoPro, too, but it malfunctioned, much to my chagrin). We set out in search of the turtles, which was not easy to do because the water near the shore was rocky and extremely shallow for seemingly forever.
There were schools of exotic fish such as Unicorn and Parrotfish, but alas, we were too shallow to see any more sea turtles. We could have ventured out deeper, but we wanted to explore the rest of the island.
Nosy Iranja is often referred to as “the Turtle Island.” 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.
While no wildlife experience can ever be guaranteed, if you want to see the sight of baby turtles bursting from their buried eggs and scurrying towards the open water, be sure to plan your vacation during the hatching season.
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. We’re both certified scuba divers and would have loved to dive with the sharks, but time did not permit. Next time…
We were fascinated by the simple life in the village, especially Kary who is the ultimate people-watcher.
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.
The children were adorable; some played in the shade created by the hanging textiles, while others ran, laughed, and whooped it up.
Many Malagasy women display an attractive style of face painting. The 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. Form and function! Beautiful!
Hiking to the Lighthouse
At the highest point of the island stands a colonial lighthouse. 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.
As we ascended, we passed stunning scenic viewpoints, more villages, and a primary school. “To continue with their education, students must go away to high school on the mainland,” said Antonio. “This is a hardship for most families, so many young people stay here and learn the occupation of their families.”
The lighthouse, believe it or not, was prefabricated in France by the firm of Gustave Eiffel! We were not allowed to go inside, but the 360° panorama from the ground was magnificent.
Clearly visible was the curvy strip of sand stretching out to the smaller island, complete with beaches and more of that glistening turquoise lagoon.
A Local Feast
At lunchtime, we had a lovely meal put on by the village. It was a veritable feast featuring grilled locally-caught fish, a heaping platter of steaming crabs, juicy pineapple, sweet bananas, and other tropical fruit, a kind of coleslaw made from julienne carrots, and of course the ever-present rice (the Malagasy eat rice for every meal, including breakfast). With the beach and sparkling ocean as our view, we dug into our delicious meal.
A wizened old Malagasy man sporting a huge smile with missing teeth came around to the tables offering samples of his local moonshine – sweet rum infused with vanilla and bananas. Kary was one of the first to partake.
“Remember how sick you got not long ago in Old Delhi?” I whispered to him.
“Yes, but this is strong alcohol; it will kill any bugs or bacteria that may exist in it.” He can’t resist unique foodie experiences. I still say it was the repulsive-smelling fermented tea that made him sick in India. But I digress…
The Long Trek Home
By around 4 pm, it was time to get back into our boat to begin the journey back to the cruise ship before sunset. The sandbar was gone, and the sky was starting to look ominous. We greeted a local with an oxcart before boarding our transport.
About 15 minutes into the journey, the gray sky turned black and opened up, making the water even choppier, lifting me up and slamming me back onto that hard plastic seat. The canopy had to be removed because it was hindering our speed, so add getting wet to my misery. I bitterly regretted not throwing my travel raincoat (takes up almost no room and extremely light) into my daypack.
I glanced at Kary. He was sitting on the opposite side, at the back of the boat, looking out into the ocean. Soaking wet, yet beaming. He caught my eye and tried, unsuccessfully, to wipe the smile off his face.
“It may not have quite been “premium,” but it was an adventure,” he said to me later that night when we were warm and dry, consuming a sumptuous dinner on board. “You love adventure!”
He was right. The whole day had been a grand adventure, even the rickety transport craft. And I’d added a beach to my quest to find the “most beautiful beaches in the world,” right up there, alongside Bora Bora, Koh Phi Phi, Whitehaven Beach, and yes, even the Seychelles.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Costa Cruises during her time in Nosy Iranja, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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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.