Ah, Madagascar; just the very mention of the name evokes images of the exotic and the tropical. A land of colossal, bulbous baobab trees from centuries gone by, of bug-eyed lemurs and of swinging indri indris, it’s got all the elegance of a onetime French colony; all the wildernesses of East Africa; all the warmth and sparkling sands of the Indian Ocean; all the traditions of a place disconnected and alone and steeped in tribal histories.
The huge island – the fourth biggest in the world, in fact – is a magnet for a whole host of different travelers. Beach lovers can flock to the shining shores of the west coast to snorkel with rays and spot whales. Adventurers can take to the jungle paths, or rattle in the cages of 4X4s to far-flung rainforests in the hills. History buffs can see UNESCO spots that showcase the regal past of the native islanders. Yep, there really is something for everyone in this jewel of the south!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Madagascar:
A single name for a duo of resorts, Ifaty (and its bigger brother of Mangily, also now confusingly referred to as just Ifaty too) is a stretch of sun-kissed onetime fishing villages on the south-western edge of Madagascar island.
Famed for their luxurious hotel resorts and wide beaches of shining yellow sand, they draw some of the biggest crowds in the country.
Most come for the rigmarole of sun, sea, sand and world-class snorkelling that’s offered by the Indian Ocean, while others head in to enjoy catamaran tours on the Mozambique Channel, sample uber-fresh fish curries and encounter the traditional reed villages of the coastal folk.
2. Nosy Be
Just a short hop, skip and a jump across the Indian Ocean waters from the town of Ambanja, gorgeous little Nosy Be is the place to go for Madagascar’s trademark beaches.
Shining in hues of alabaster white in the coves and inlets that ring the shoreline here, they pop up beautifully around little fishing villages like Ambatoloaka, or come dotted with groups of swaying palm trees at Ambondrona.
There are beach parties too, erupting each Sunday along the sands of Madirokely.
And, Nosy Be’s popularity notwithstanding, there are chances for real seclusion to boot – just check out the far-flung islet of Orangea, languishing out at sea from the north-west coast.
3. Nosy Mangabe
Nestled deep between the coastal hills of Helodrano Antongila Bay, which carves its way inland on the north-eastern edge of Madagascar, the small island come nature reserve of Nosy Mangabe is a real must for any wildlife lovers heading to these parts.
Famed for its booming populations of bug-eyed aye-aye lemurs, the spot is a picture of tropical perfection.
Huge fig trees wrangle around groves of palms, ruffed lemurs meet mantella frogs in the undergrowth, and the green hills crash down into secluded bays of bright yellow sand.
Boats to the island and all the necessary permits are available in Maroantsetra; the closest town on the mainland.
4. Tsingy de Bemaraha
A truly dramatic landscape of carved rocks and towering hoodoos, needle-like stone spires and colossal monoliths balanced tenuously atop cliffs, the Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of Madagascar’s most curious natural treasures.
It can be found amidst the long green belt of nature reserves on the west coast, displaying its rugged karst landscapes where the inland highlands give way to the verdant hills closer to the shore.
Today it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site; one tagged for its great biodiversity of dry deciduous forests, rare rock habitats, and the photogenic nature of the sweeping plateau within.
5. Ranomafana National Park
The natural jewel of Fianarantsoa and the home of Madagascar’s famous golden bamboo lemur, Ranomafana National Park draws thousands of people each year to its forest-clad reaches in the heart of the island’s eastern haunch.
Sweeping down from misty montane forests to lowland plains, the territory is crisscrossed by mile upon mile of hiking track, carved out by roaring waterfalls and peppered with multi-coloured lizards.
A word of warning: Ranomafana’s biggest draws lie deep between the mountains and forests, so be sure to bring sturdy boots and strong legs for this one!
6. Isalo National Park
The patchwork of carved rock gorges and winding canyons, blooming oases and palm groves that is the beautiful Isalo National Park can be reached after just a short trip out of either Toliara and Ihosy.
Designated a protected area way back in 1962, this one’s extreme biodiversity and unique natural makeup are instantly recognisable.
Visitors come to wonder at the windswept runiforme mountains and walk beneath towers of stacked stone.
They come to see the rare crested ibis and meet ring-tailed lemurs in the wild.
There are also more than 80 species of endemic birds to spot, along with the famous Canyon of Monkeys, with its dextrous sifakas inhabitants.
Set more than 1,400 meters up in the very highland heart of the nation, the capital of Antananarivo comes brushed with chilly mountain breezes for most of the year.
But those winds might just be the only cool thing about the cityscape, which today pulses with tooting traffic and shouting marketplaces.
The old heart of the city still displays some traces of French colonialism, with its elegant – if age-stained – Parisian mansions cascading down a hillside in the midst of the town.
There are old Malagasy palaces to explore too, along with the famous Croc Farm, and oodles of spice-scented curry houses to boot.
Within striking distance for day trippers from the capital, Andasibe-Mantadia is one of Madagacar’s most accessible national parks.
It covers a vast swathe of verdant primeval rainforest, clocking up a whopping territory of more than 150 square kilometers in total.
Spread over two separate areas, from the sprawling de Mantadia Reserve to the d’Analamazaotra Special Reserve, the whole area showcases a breathtaking array of biodiversity.
There are inland crabs crawling through the forests, swinging diademed sifakas and even fluffy indri monkeys to see.
Andasibe-Mantadia has oodles of hiking paths that offer treks between one and six hours.
Ambohimanga is a place deeply entwined with Malagasy national identity.
Also called, simply, Royal Hill, it was the onetime home of the local kings.
Expanded and added to throughout the 1800s, the mound of palaces and burial grounds, crumbling fortifications and regal tombs, was the kingpin of one of Madagascar’s four quadrants, and the place from which King Andrianampoinimerina launched his now-famed campaigns to re-unify Imerina following more than seven decades of civil war in the 18th century.
Today, visitors can come on a day trip from the capital to tour the UNESCO spot, spying out the kingly court rooms and exquisite timber and stone rova (settlement) architecture.
10. Zahamena National Park
Draped in rainclouds and mist, clad in rolling canopies of emerald green, and hidden between the rising peaks on Madagascar’s eastern edge, the famous jewel of the rainforests of the Atsinanana comes in the form of the Zahamena National Park.
One of the hardest protected areas in the country to get to, this area of just over 400 square kilometers is home to one of the most eclectic arrays of bird life.
Yep, red owls and serpent eagles cruise through the waxy boughs and fern forests, meeting the white-eyed indri indri, dwarf lemurs and other curious simian life.
Bed down in nearby Vavatenina or Ambatondrazaka for the best access to these wilds.
The favoured gateway to the Masoala National Park and the aforementioned wilds of Nosy Mangabe, age-old Maroantsetra makes its home right at the end of the great Bay of Antongil in north-east Madagascar.
An earthy and interesting town, it’s laden with one throbbing marketplace that’s packed with sweet-smelling fruits and multi-coloured vegetables, and has crisscrossing streets of mud lined with tin-shack lean-tos.
It’s also the place where the meanders of the Antainambalana River finally meet the Indian Ocean, giving the spot a laid-back riparian charm to boot.
12. Ile Sainte Marie
The Ile Sainte Marie is an elongated finger of land that stretches along the eastern edge of Madagascar, just across the whale-peppered waters of the Baie de Tintingue.
The stuff of travel brochures and tropical postcards, it’s one of the most handsome enclaves of the country for sure.
Most travelers will alight between the rickety jetties of Ambodifotatra, before breaking out to the secluded coves and beaches to the north and south.
These tend to be powdered yellow sands dotted with big boulders and fringed with coconut palms, complete with the occasional resort hotel hiding between the mangroves.
Also, don’t miss the pirate history, which is best seen at the old buccaneer cemetery!
Sandwiched between the sandy beaches of the Kirindy Mitea National Park to the south and the spreading delta lands of the Andranomena Reserve to the north, it’s clear from the get-go that Morondava’s real pulls lie out of town.
That doesn’t mean the center isn’t worth bedding down in – this seaside spot has some pretty little timber homes and earthy guesthouses, along with a great backpacker vibe.
The piece de resistance is undisputed though.
That honour goes to the revered Avenue of the Baobabs, which erupts in a medley of hulking trunks along the roadway to Belon’i Tsiribihina nearby – simply not to be missed!
14. Masoala National Park
Falanoucs, leaf-tailed geckos and rare lemurs all coalesce between the vast 2,300-sqaure-kilometers of land that is the Masoala National Park.
Jutting out into the Indian Ocean in a mosaic of thick rainforests that cascade down to the crashing rollers of the sea from the cliffs of the Sava Region, it’s one of the largest and most hotly protected places in the nation.
Illegal logging here has been a huge problem, even in recent years, but a UNESCO designation and increased eco-tourism is only set to improve matters.
Today, visitors can come to walk along the famous Cap Est and Alohatrozana trails, to see the virgin forests that dress the shore along its whole length.
Perched high up in the Madagascan highlands and soothed by the cool winds of the mountains, Antsirabe was an obvious choice for the French colonials who came here by the boatload during the heyday of colonialism.
In their wake they built elegant Parisian-style mansions, raised Gothic cathedrals and laid wide boulevards with plane trees casting shade.
They also tapped the healing and relaxation powers of the nearby hot springs, which are still one of the main attractions in the city.
Hop aboard a local pousse-pousse (rickshaw) and check off the sites downtown, before heading to the Ranomafana baths to unwind in the natural waters.