Madagascar is one of those “lost world” islands, where intrepid travelers – particularly those seeking exotic wildlife in a remote tropical setting – can go days on end without rubbing shoulders with that less-than-endangered species … tourists.
Known for centuries as the Great Red Island (for its red-orange soil), it’s the world’s fourth largest island. The capital of Antananarivo (usually called Tana) is home to no less than 2 million people, with street markets, botanical gardens, a zoo, and museum. Poverty is rampant and English rarely spoken (practice your French). The backpackers and seasoned travelers who make their way here usually aren’t surprised by 40-hour bus rides over potholed roads and hotels that double as brothels. Meanwhile, the landscape is one of contrasts: nature preserves with dazzling wildlife (including 3,000 butterfly species, the famous lemurs, and some of the world’s rarest birds) sandwiched between vast areas ravaged by logging and slash-and-burn agriculture.
As you might suspect, you’ll find great hiking (and mountain biking), white sand beaches (though sharks can be a problem) and classic coral reefs for divers; there’s even a resort island (Nosy Be) with restaurants and nightspots, but that’s probably not what will bring you here. What will draw you is an interest in Malagasy culture (the music has topped world charts) and a desire to walk into rain forest on a misty dawn to hear the eerie, wailing calls from troops of indri lemurs. Get your kicks on Route 7 Join Cortez Travel & Expeditions for one of their Madagascar itineraries or customize your own journey using Cortez’s 4×4 vehicles and multilingual guides. California-based Cortez also books flights and issues visas. www.cortez-usa.com In Tana To visit the market on Rue Rainibetsimisaraka or wander the hilltop Rova palace, base yourself in the capital at Hotel Colbert, a colonial gem. Its two funky bars are where “old colonial hands” mix with modern business people and locals. Rates from $113. www.colbert-hotel.com Beach Bound For beachfront accommodations and thatched-roof guesthouses, try the Relais du Masoala on Madagascar’s northeast coast. It will arrange boat and beach trips and wildlife guides for you. Rates from $51. www.relaismasoala.com On the west coast, Anjajavy Hotel is the island’s only Relais & Châteaux property. Rates from $1,244 for three nights (minimum stay), including all meals. www.anjajavy.com Buyers Beware In 2005, the Malagasy franc was replaced by the Ariary (MGA). If a vendor doesn’t explicitly say Ariary when quoting a price, he likely means francs, and you will need to divide by five before counting your bills. The Ariary is not freely convertible, so plan to spend them all in Madagascar. Plan Your Trip: Fly from Paris on Air France or on Air Mauritius via Mauritius. Comb the beach (and old graveyards) of Nosy Sainte Marie, an ancient pirate haunt (and modern beach resort destination) off Madagascar’s east coast. Read Lords and Lemurs by Alison Jolly, a recent nonfiction book about wildlife, French-colonial history and ancient tribal customs on the island. SWAP stories at one of the many bars around the Tamatave port. Listen to anything by Hanitra Rasoanaivo, the leading lady of the band Tarika, but in particular Soul Makassar, her album about discovering her ancestral roots on Sulawesi. Learn more at www.embassy.org/madagascar.