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Introducing Northern Madagascar

If you’re unable to decide between an over-easy beach vacation or a ‘lace up your boots and forge a new trail’ kind of holiday, you’ll dig travel in Northern Madagascar.

White-sand beaches, air perfumed with ylang-ylang and vanilla, snorkelling in a sea of emerald, mangrove swamps and centuries-old baobabs are all hallmarks of Madagascar’s most interesting, diverse and, at times, disparaged region. Villages of simple homes made from sticks sit flush with the lux new tourist resorts.

The eclectic region is split into two distinct parts. Nosy Be is Madagascar’s premiere kick-back-and-relax beach destination. The island is as swanky (and expensive) as the country gets, with a number of posh resorts (although they’re not exactly Bora Bora luxury-wise). Overall it’s a charming place, with gorgeous water and delicious seafood, where it’s very easy to lose track of time for a week or so.

The Diego Suarez area is Madagascar’s best-kept secret, and especially appealing to those seeking paradise lost – it sees far fewer visitors. Here you’ll find two national parks still so wild that four new species of lemur were discovered in 2006 alone! There are kilometres of hiking trails through psychedelic forests of spindly red rocks and past trees with tumours shaped like giant squid growing off their sides. On the coast, palm-fringed sandy shores, sparkling sapphire water and an emerald sea keep beach bums smiling for days. Diego is the place to go if you want to race quad-bikes over dunes or try kitesurfing in one of the three beautiful bays framing the city.

Getting There & Away

Air Madagascar (82 211 93; Ave Sourcouf, Diego Suarez) flies between Nosy Be and Milan (€871) twice a week; it also has flights from Nosy Be to Antananarivo (Ar304, 600), Réunion (Ar600, 000) and Diego Suarez (Ar132, 000) three times a week. From Diego Suarez there are daily flights to Antananarivo (Ar304, 600) and regular flights to Sambava (Ar192, 000), Toamasina (Ar525, 600) and Mahajanga (Ar288, 000). Remember, if you fly Air Madagascar into the country you are eligible for a 50% discount on domestic flights – bring your outbound tickets to the Air Mad office. Note that ticket prices fluctuate wildly in Madagascar, and are dependent on the cost of petrol, as well occupancy, so use these rates only as a guide.

Sailing yachts regularly come into Nosy Be, and many are prepared to take passengers. Their principal destination is the Comorian island of Mayotte.

The road journey from Diego Suarez to Antananarivo is a long and arduous one, particularly if you elect to do it by taxi-brousse (bush taxi; Ar60, 000, at least two days). The worst patch of road is the 200km of the Route Nationale 6 (RN6) south of Ambanja. To Mahajanga (Ar55, 000, 36 hours), expect a similarly arduous ride. To the east, the route to Ambilobe takes around two hours, followed by at least a day of potholes before you arrive at Iharana.