The Mozambique Channel isn’t the only geological feature that separates Madagascar from Africa. With a natural environment that has evolved in relative isolation and a culture that’s influenced not only by neighboring African countries but also by India and Southeast Asia, this expansive island offers a singular, enjoyable experience to visitors.
The local cuisine, heavy on seafood and marked by French, Chinese, and Indian flavors, is delicious and not to be missed. Madagascar’s wildlife ranges from the rare (giant jumping rats) to the adorable (aye-ayes) and the bizarre (canopy chameleons). Tourists are rarely seen in the cities, which they often use only as jumping-off points from which to visit Madagascar’s world-renowned beaches and nature reserves. Madagascar’s cities nonetheless offer excellent shopping, topflight accommodations, gorgeous scenery, historic palaces and churches, and opportunities
to experience the country’s extraordinary culture through festivals and open-air markets.
The Top 10: What to Do in Madagascar
Madagascar has some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs, and you won’t have to deal with the seaweed of eastern Africa or the ubiquitous tourists of other diving destinations. The most popular destinations for diving are Nosy Be, in the northwest, and the beaches in the southwestern part of the country. Both areas have a broad spectrum of accommodations, ranging from small hostels to large seaside resorts, and equipment rentals are easy to come by.
Every seven years, families in the Malagasy highlands exhume the bodies of deceased relatives for Famadihana
, a traditional festival involving dancing, food, drink, and contemplation. In Antsirabe, it is possible to arrange an invitation to one of those gatherings through a local tour agency; families who agree to this are generally quite welcoming to foreigners, and it makes for a poignant cultural experience.
3. Isalo National Park:
Tourists often claim that Isalo National Park, situated among the grasslands of Madagascar’s southwestern region, evokes the American West. While the park’s jaw-dropping sandstone formations, hot springs, and vast plains certainly recall the films of John Ford, there’s plenty to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. The Canyon of Monkeys and the sacred Sakalava tombs are perennial Isalo favorites.
4. Restaurant Tour:
Perhaps the most universally appealing attraction in Madagascar is the country’s cuisine, considered by many to be unforgettable. Incorporating a broad variety of influences that evoke the Indian and Chinese roots of the Malagasy, the food here makes broad use of seafood, rice, vegetables, and other meats. It is not uncommon for high-end restaurants in Antananarivo and elsewhere to add a Malagasy twist to French specialties, using such spices as cloves, cardamom, and even the famed vanilla bean, treasured by chefs around the world.
5. Nosy Be and the Islands:
Hands down, the best beaches to be found in Madagascar are along the northwestern island of Nosy Be, which is large enough that, with a little effort, you can avoid the crowds even in the high season. The island’s main city, Hell-ville (no, no, it’s not what you think; the town is named after Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell, a 19th-century French military officer), has several good resorts. It also has access to the island’s other sites, including an ylang-ylang perfume distillery that’s open to visitors, and the highland crater lakes. Several small islands can be reached by water (usually on small boats called pirogues) from Hell-ville, including Nosy Komba (Lemur Island), popular for its pleasant village, crafts, and luxurious accommodations, and Nosy Tanikely and Nosy Iranja, both of which offer superb snorkeling and diving.
6. Trekking in Central Madagascar:
There’s a reason that, after Antananarivo and Nosy Be, this region is more frequented by tourists than any other in the country. Some of Madagascar’s best local art and crafts can be found here, and it is home to several of the country’s national parks, including Andringitra National Park. One of Madagascar’s most beautiful and diverse parks, Andringitra has trails and mountains that are appropriate for a broad range of skill levels in trekking and climbing; experienced climbers may want to attempt the Tsaronoro Massif, a sheer rock face that is considered one of the most challenging in the world. The park has well-appointed campgrounds with running water and rental facilities.
Historically, Antsirabe was a popular vacation destination for French colonists and wealthy locals, who sought out its temperate summer climate and spas. Today, this highland city is famous for the workmanship of its arts and crafts; it also provides access to camping at the beautiful Lac Tritiva, which is rumored to rise mysteriously in the dry season and fall during the rainy season.
8. The Vanilla Coast:
Madagascar exports enormous amounts of vanilla, and the aroma hangs in the air all along the country’s eastern coast. The tourist infrastructure here is less developed, but adventurous trekkers should know it’s a fairly untouched destination. Mananara Nord National Park, though lacking the facilities of parks in central and southern Madagascar, is a pleasant place to visit; it affords access to watching aye-aye (a kind of lemur) on Aye-Aye Island, as well as Nosy Atafana, which has excellent snorkeling and the country’s only remaining coastal forest.
9. Lemur Watching:
Madagascar is the only place where lemurs exist in the wild, and even if you don’t think you’re an “animal person,” these adorable, large-eyed primates are bound to impress you. The best places to spot them are Montagne d’Ambre National Park, Ankarana Special Reserve, and Berenty Reserve.
10. Rain Forest Helicoptering:
It may require a splurge, but a helicopter tour
provides a unique view of Madagascar’s rain forests, mountains, and coral reefs. Helicopters leave from Antananarivo and Nosy Be.
When to Go
The best time to visit Madagascar is in late spring (April through May) and early autumn (September through October). The southwestern and coastal areas can get quite hot during the summer, and at that time of year throngs of European tourists crowd the island. Madagascar’s rainy season, between January and March, renders many roads impassable, and from June through August the northeast is vulnerable to cyclones, some of which obliterated the country’s vanilla crop in 2003.
Although most of Madagascar has a pleasant, equatorial climate, keep in mind that highland locations such as Antsirabe can get quite cold at night, even in the summer. Dress appropriately.