Lemurs, baobabs, rainforest, desert, hiking and diving: Madagascar is a dream destination for outdoors enthusiasts – half the fun is getting to all these incredible attractions.
Madagascar is unique: 5% of all known animal and plant species can be found here, and here alone. The island's signature animal is the lemur of course, but there are many more weird and wonderful creatures and plants: baobabs, insects, sharks, frogs, orchids, palms, birds, turtles, mongoose. The list goes on. Much of this biodiversity is under threat, from climate change and population pressure, giving each trip a sense of urgency but also purpose: tourism can truly be a force for good.
The remarkable fauna and flora is matched by epic landscapes of an incredible diversity: you can go from rainforest to desert in just 300km. Few places on Earth offer such an intense kaleidoscope of nature. There are sandstone canyons, limestone karsts, mountains, fertile hills cascading with terraced rice paddies, forests of every kind – rain, dry, spiny – and a laterite-rich soil that gave the country its nickname of 'Red Island'. With 5000km of coastline, the sea is never very far, turquoise and idyllic in places, dangerous in others.
For those who relish an adventure, Madagascar is a one-of-a-kind destination: the off-road driving is phenomenal, there are national parks that only see a few hundred visitors a year, regions that live in autarky during the rainy season and resorts so remote you’ll need a private plane or boat to get there. There are also more activities than you'll have time for: hiking, diving, mountain biking, kitesurfing, rock-climbing, you name it. Oh, and there are plenty of natural pools, beaches and hammocks on which to recover, too.
Madagascar has been populated by successive waves of migrants from various corners of the Indian Ocean. It is unlike anywhere else in Africa or Asia. There are fantastic sights to discover this unique history, but also numerous opportunities to meet local people via village stays, long-distance trails, festivals, taxi-brousse (bush taxis) and Friday night discos.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Madagascar.
One of Madagascar's most recognisable images, this small stretch of the RN8 between Morondava and Belo-sur-Tsiribihina is flanked on both sides by majestic Adansonia grandidieri baobabs. Some of the trees here may be 1000 years old, with huge, gnarled branches fanning out at the top of their trunks – it’s easy to see why they’ve been nicknamed ‘roots of the sky’.
Opened in early 2018, this fabulous photography museum is Antananarivo's best museum. There are four small rooms showing films (in French, English or Malagasy) that offer a fascinating window on Madagascar's past using archival photos – subject matter includes the history of Madasgacar's seven largest cities, important Malagasy identities from the 19th and 20th centuries, a look at the work of an early Malagasy photo studio, Saklava burial traditions, child rituals and other themes.
Isalo is one of Madagascar's most beautiful parks. It contains 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. Add all this to easy access off the RN7 and you understand why this is Madagascar’s most visited park.
If you visit one place in western Madagascar, make it Parc National Bemaraha. A Unesco World Heritage Site, its highlights are the jagged, limestone pinnacles known as tsingy and the impressive infrastructure – via ferrata (mountain route equipped with fixed cables, stemples, ladders and bridges), rope bridges and walkways. Guides are compulsory and cost Ar75,000/135,000 per half/full day for up to four people.
This is one of Madagascar’s flagship parks. Consisting of more than 550 sq km of pristine mountainous rainforest, it covers the Marojejy massif, an area of magnificent scenery. Attractions here are the highly endangered silky sifaka alongside 10 other lemur species and myriad plants, birds and insects. It's accessible to those who want a fairly easy nature walk as well as those looking for a climbing challenge through several levels of montane rainforest.
Far and away Nosy Be’s best beach, Andilana, at the island’s northwest tip, is a long stretch of pearly white sand, with water that’s true azure and clear as gin. It’s ideal for swimming and chilling for an afternoon, with gorgeous sunsets.
A place of outstanding beauty and solitude, this little-visited 286-sq-km reserve is the northernmost outpost of the black indri. It is also home to the silky sifaka, white-fronted brown lemurs and some primordial trees. There are hot springs to visit, too. Getting here is half the fun: by taxi on a rutted road, on foot and by moto-taxi.
Poised atop Ambohimanga hill is the Rova, the fortress-palace. The walls of the compounds were constructed using cement made from sand, shells and egg whites – 16 million eggs were required to build the outer wall alone. Inside, there are two palaces: the traditional palace (1788) of the all-powerful Merina king Andrianampoinimerina, and the European-styled summer palace of Queen Ranavalona I (r 1828–61), constructed by French engineer Jean Laborde in 1870 (he was thought to be Ranavalona’s lover).
Tana’s rova (fortified palace), known as Manjakamiadana (A Fine Place to Rule), is the imposing structure that crowns the city's highest hill. Gutted in a fire in 1995, it remains under endless restoration but the compound can be visited. The palace was designed for Queen Ranavalona I by Scottish missionary James Cameron. The outer stone structure was added in 1867 for Queen Ranavalona II, although the roof and interior remained wooden, much to everyone's regret in 1995…