Antsirabe is best-known for its thermal springs. The city emerged as a spa town in the late 1800s when Norwegian missionaries built a health retreat here (still in use to this day). French colonists then turned it into a chic getaway from nearby Tana, hence the numerous turn-of-the-century villas and the broad tree-lined avenues so typical of French cities.
Fianarantsoa (Fi-a-nar-ant-soo), or Fianar for short, is like a mild version of Tana. Surrounded by hills, it is both a regional commercial, administrative and religious centre, and a major transit point. Tourists typically come here to spend the night on their way to Ranomafana or Isalo, or to take the train to Manakara.
Out here it's all about what lies beyond the end of the sealed road, and the area that surrounds the remote western town of Morondava is at once worth visiting in its own right and the starting point for so many adventures into the wild. Close to town, the Allée des Baobabs is the sunset or sunset photo that defines a nation.
Île Sainte Marie
The best thing about Île Sainte Marie is that it contains all the ingredients for a great vacation and great travel. This is a very long (57km), thin, lush, and relatively flat tropical island surrounded by beaches and reef, and spotted with thatched villages. The port of Ambodifotatra, a quarter of the way up the western coast, is the only sizeable town.
Despite the off-putting moniker (named for Admiral de Hell, a French governor of Réunion), Nosy Be’s main town is anything but hellish. Rather, it’s an upbeat, comparatively smart place where frangipani and bougainvillea frame crumbling ruins of old colonial buildings, pavement cafes bustle with tourists and expats sip strong espresso.
Two fine national parks and a sapphire boom town provide many reasons to linger in southern Madagascar's cauterised interior. Parc National de l'Isalo is one of Madagascar's best, with good wildlife and even better landscapes. Parc National de Zombitse-Vohibasia is a little-known jewel for birdwatchers. In between the two, Ilakaka feels like Madagascar's wild west.
East of Antananarivo
Leaving Antananarivo and heading east, the RN2 passes through gloriously diverse landscapes, from the wooded hills around Lac Mantasoa, to the major-attraction rainforest parks of Andasibe, and onwards to the peaceful, tropical Pangalanes canals that follow the east coast.
Parc National de l'Isalo
Parc National de l'Isalo is like a museum dedicated to the art of the desert canyon. Gorges here are filled with yellow savannah grasses, sculpted buttes, vertical rock walls and, best of all, deep canyon floors shot through with streams, lush vegetation and pools for swimming. All of this changes with the light, culminating in extraordinary sunsets beneath a big sky.
Nosy Be’s southernmost beach is one of the island’s most touristy, although not its best. Its popularity with foreign men of a certain age in search of young Malagasy love is what gave Nosy Be a bad name. Many travellers will feel uneasy about the sleazy atmosphere, particularly in bars and restaurants.
The Sava region (known for its four principal towns, Sambava, Antalaha, Vohémar and Andapa) is disconnected from the rest of the country, with the exception of the airports at Sambava and Antalaha, and one rough road: the 157km piste between Ambilobe and Vohémar, for which you will need a 4WD, has been badly degraded by the rains of 2015.
Réserve Spéciale Ankarana
Réserve Spéciale Ankarana is a striking and undeveloped fantasy-land that’s home to uniquely Madagascan sights: psychedelic fields of spiky tsingy (limestone pinnacle formations) sitting next to dry forests. Running through and under the tsingy are hidden forest-filled canyons and subterranean rivers.
While Manakara is geographically on the east coast, virtually all travellers visit on a round-trip from Fianarantsoa, often by the famous FCE railway, making Manakara an important part of many a highlands itinerary. It is also a highly underrated destination that should not be overlooked.
Ambositra (amboostr) is located in the centre of a picturesque valley lined with rice paddies and ringed by verdant peaks. The town is famous for the quality of its woodcarvings and marquetry (objects inlaid with coloured woods), which you'll find in dozens of shops, along with raffia products and other souvenirs.