Antananarivo & Around
Antananarivo is a bustling place with activity on every corner. Here people flood the streets, walking down the middle lanes between traffic, knocking on taxi windows, selling everything you can imagine – fruit, sunglasses, flowers, cell phones, calculators, bamboo, even live animals.
Pirates aren’t stupid. They figured out how juicy Eastern Madagascar’s treasures were and looted its coastline centuries before the rest of us caught on. A couple of hundred years later the real pirates are gone and the secret is out: there’s plenty of leftover booty in the form of dazzling pearl beaches, sparkling sapphire water and lush jade rainforests.
Mada’s second city, Toamasina (often still known by its French name Tamatave) was developed as a resort during colonial times. Photographs from a hundred years ago show French holidaymakers posing in long bathing costumes in front of wooden beach huts. These days, the town is a popular holiday destination among the more affluent Malagasy.
Driving the thousand odd kilometres between Antananarivo and Toliara on the famous Route Nationale 7 (RN7; Route du Sud) takes you straight through Central Madagascar, where the scenery is as stimulating and surreal as the culture.
There seems to be a pousse-pousse (rickshaw) for every person in Antsirabe (ant-sira-bay), a bustling city where the look and attitude is classic highland Madagascar.
The Great Reef
Hot, weird and wild, Southern Madagascar is a cinematographer’s wet dream. Filled with the world’s most exotic flora and surreal landscapes, the countryside looks like no other place on earth. This is the Madagascar of the Discovery Channel, and the country’s most visited region.
Slightly grimy and definitely sweltering against the humid backdrop of the Tropic of Capricorn, the ‘white city’, so-called by central highlanders because of the light-coloured buildings, is becoming southern Madagascar’s leading town. The approaching views are outstanding: you can see vast sand dunes which run along the coast.
Madagascar’s second-largest city, Fianarantsoa, is nothing to write home about. Although it resembles Antananarivo with its hillside location, steep cluttered streets and pollution, it lacks most of the capital city’s charm.
Diego Suarez & Around
It’s still the country’s undug tourism sapphire, but don’t expect the Diego Suarez area to stay this way forever. The regional tourism board is working hard to get the place on the world’s adventure map, and we guess it won’t take long. This region pretty much sells itself.
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.
Despite being Madagascar’s number-one beach destination, attracting thousands of sunscreen-slathered tourists from across the globe year round, Nosy Be and its surrounding islands remain paradise in the buff. Luxury doesn’t always mean electricity or even a good mattress, but it’s this exact lack of 21st-century fluff that makes it so appealing in the first place.
Diego Suarez (Antsiranana)
Diego is far from the prettiest spot in the region, but its central location – almost equidistant from the beaches and national parks – makes it a good place to anchor oneself. Plus its wide streets, old colonial buildings and generally sleepy feel give it a languid, genteel air only experienced in the tropics.
The ‘wild west’ attracts two types of cowboys – those in search of tough travel in rough country and ones looking to charter a private plane to the ultimate hidden paradise. Madagascar’s hard-to-reach western region – divided in two, with no roads linking the south and north – looks like it fell off another planet. It is pockmarked with trippy natural attractions.
Ile Sainte Marie
Said to resemble a mildly pregnant woman lying down, the slender 57km-long island of Île Sainte Marie lies 8km off the coast. It’s been popular with Europeans ever since the days when it was inhabited by pirates, and even now its Malagasy name, Nosy Boraha, is rarely used.
North of Tamatave
This tasty little slice of Mada's coast will satisfy those seeking a little quietude. Just north of Toamasina, beyond the well-kept zoo at Ivoloina, is the sleepy little resort town of Mahavelona (Foulpointe). Feel free to relax, but don't swim away from the hotel area, unless you want to personally feed the sharks.