NORTHERN MADAGASCAR'S DIEGO SUAREZ & NOSY BE
The north of Madagascar is the most popular area of the island and features some of its best diving and conservation areas. Starting in Antananarivo, the capital, you will venture to the beautiful bays and beaches of Diego Suarez, and onto the lemurs, chameleons and other endemic species of Montagne d’Amber National Park.
Your guide then takes you onto Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, where the sandstone pinnacles date back to the Jurassic era, and Ankarana Special Reserve to see everything from massive baobabs to dwarf lemurs.
A highlight is the marine paradise of the island of Nosy Be: other islands in this archipelago are famous for - once again - their acrobatic lemurs, delicate orchids and tidal sandbanks. At every point you still stay in the area’s best accommodation, from historical houses in Antananarivo and Joffreville, to low-key but welcoming eco lodges and beach hotels in Ankarana and Nosy Be.
Most of this itinerary is based on road transfers allowing you to really immerse yourself in Malagasy life as you pass quaint villages and verdant plantations of ylang ylang, cloves and cacao.
Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar, known affectionately to locals simply as, ‘Tana’. After touching down at Ivato International Airport, your English-speaking guide will drive you through this vibrant city where at least two million people live. Your destination is the neighbourhood of Ambohimitsimbina or ‘the hill of sighs’, the oldest part of Tana that’s on a sacred royal hill where the queen’s musicians and English missionaries once resided.
Here you check into Lokanga Boutique Hotel; a lokanga is a Malagasy violin, a nod to the area’s musical past. The original house was built in the 1930s and has a varangue or terrace especially placed for the best views of the sunset. It also has vistas of Lake Anosy as well as the Mahamasina stadium.
Inside the owners have spent a great deal of time restoring the en-suite bedrooms with antiques original to the house, like old maps and an Italian baroque bed. Every suite is individually decorated while fireplaces, turrets and shutters all give the Lokanga a timeless feel. There are plenty of modern conveniences too, like Wi-Fi and an on-site restaurant where you can sample Malagasy favourites like zebu chimichurri, cassava leaves and pork belly, and a majunga-style seafood salad.
After a night at Lokanga, you catch a short-haul flight to Diego Suarez, which is on the northern tip of Madagascar and regularly makes global lists of the 10 most beautiful bays in the world. Depending on your schedule, you may take in the three major bays in the area, known as Sakalava, the Bay of Pigeons and Dune Bay, where the water of the shimmering Indian Ocean is every colour between green and blue, and the sandy golden beaches are almost deserted. Lunch is a rustic picnic in the fishing village of Ramena, followed by watching the sunset on Sugarloaf Mountain.
Your accommodation for the evening is the Allamanda Hotel in the town of Diego Suarez (which is also known as Antsiranana). Allamanda is a very contemporary and comfortable, and some suites have views out over the bay. Your room is a welcome respite after a full day of sightseeing.
Montagne d’Ambre, to give it its French name, is a biodiversity hotspot that is home to at least 77 endemic species of bird, seven of lemur and 24 of amphibian, plus an estimated thousand species of flora. A highlight is spotting the world’s smallest chameleon and reptile fans will love seeing boas and leaf-tailed geckos.
To reach Amber Mountain, you will pass through Joffreville, a historical town packed with colonial-era architecture. After a day touring the national park, you return to Joffreville and check into The Litchi Tree, a house that was built in 1902 to house the French colonial admiralty. The Litchi Tree pays great respect to the environment: power is solar generated and water comes from a nearby waterfall, giving it a true off-the-grid feeling.
Now it is time to experience another of the island’s conservation areas; this time, Ankarana Special Reserve. On the drive from Amber Mountain to Ankarana, you will stop at Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1990 thanks to its stunning 150-million-year-old sandstone pinnacles. Over millennia, wind and rain have eroded the red laterite soil, leaving dazzling rock formations – known as tsingy in Malagasy - that are connected by walkways. This is also a wonderful place to see at least three species of lemur: the crowned, dwarf and sportive. Ring-tailed mongoose scurry through the undergrowth while bats inhabit what is thought to be Africa’s biggest cave system. Bigger fauna and flora include baobab trees, the elephant-foot plant and crocodiles in the lakes and rivers.
The Iharana Bush Camp is your home for two nights. With views of the Tsingy massif, this eco-friendly camp has 18 cabanas based on traditional Malagasy architecture with rough ochre walls and satrana thatched roofs. When you are not exploring Ankarana, head to Iharana’s inviting swimming pool, have a massage or sit down to a breakfast of hot croissants or a dinner of freshly grilled prawns. Lake Laka Laka, the Mahavavy River and Mandresy Cave are other local highlights.
On the drive from Ankarana, you pass lush plantations of sugar cane, coffee, cloves, ylang-ylang and cacao that give the air an unmistakable sweet aroma. Eventually, you stop at the village harbour of Ankify where you will catch the boat for the island of Nosy Be, Madagascar’s busiest and most popular destination.
The boat docks at Hellville, the ‘capital’ of Nosy Be, which is known for its 19th-century French colonial-era architecture and old ylang ylang distillery. Manga Soa Lodge is your home for two nights: it has a spa and a swimming pool overlooking the ocean. Not that you will spend much time on your hotel room as Nosy Be is packed with fun activities and adventures, such as a 360°-view from Mount Passot, the island’s highest peak.
The best snorkelling and diving are not right off the beach but a boat ride away to the other islands of the archipelago. Head to the splendid Nosy Tanikely protected marine area for great diving; to Nosy Komba to see lemurs; or Nosy Sakatia, the orchid island. A romantic highlight is Nosy Iranja, two small islands that are linked at low tide by a narrow sandbank.
The truly adventurous may want to venture even further afield to the lesser-known and wilder Radama or Mitsio archipelagos.
After a week of exploring the best areas of northern Madagascar, it is a short flight back to the capital and a welcome return to the hospitality of the Lokanga Boutique Hotel. If you have time, then while away the afternoon either on the Lokanga varangue, sipping an iced drink, or head out for a tour of cultural and historical Tana and its surrounds. Fascinating sites include the Rova, a 17th-century building of the Medina kingdom, the pink baroque Anoafiavaratra Palace and Ambohimanga, an old hillside fortress.
After a peaceful night at Lokanga, it is time to be transferred back to Ivato for your return flight home.
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