My list of countries visited is endless (last count 130) but there has been one one the list to do for so long – Madagascar. Don’t ask me why – other than its where many people have heard of, few have been and it just being a place of great mystery that has kept me wondering about the place for so long.
As a Travel Agent i get to go to many places, far and wide and see and experience many different things – Madagascar hopefully was going to prove me right on all accounts.
Its not the easiest of places to get to form the UK – with only really Air France, Kenyan Airways and Turkish Airlines operating flights into Antananarivo (Tana as its known on the Island). We chose to fly Air France, as the flight leaves paris in the morning, you will no doubt fly nice and early from your regional airport – then a 10 hour none stop flight to Tana. I expected (and I dint know why as I didn’t have a back pack) but lots of young, grungy long haired folk on the flight – I could not have been further away from the truth. Wirth my fellow travellers it was like we had boarded a flight to the USA, with people from all over the world heading to Tana.
`Upon arrival into Tana on schedule around 10:30pm – the queue for Immigration line was long – so if you get the choice, sit close to the front of the ret of the aircraft, as there is no airbridge and steps go to both the front and the back of the plane. There are 3 steps to enter the country – handing in your immigration card, which is stamped, not read and placed in a pile. Then buying your visa $25 in hard cash (either Euros or Dollars or ATR if you have it) then handing your passport – with the visa in it to a ‘gang’ of 4 of 5 people in a booth, whilst they all look at it, pass it to each other, put their signature on both the passport and various pieces of paper, then hand the passport to someone else, then in turn passes it to you – the whole process took approx 2 hours – so do ensure you can disembark early to get to the front of the queue.
Most tourists would prebook some kind of tour (more on that one later) before they arrive, as especially at peak times, accommodation and internal transport can be impossible to secure. Drivers, guides and hotel reps are all waiting outside in an abundance, along with the tout taxi drivers trying their hardest to hard sell you into getting in their vehicle.
We stayed for out first night at the BoisVert Hotel, a 15 minute ride from the airport at that time of the night, the streets were empty and we had no idea what to expect the following day on our way back in day light. The Boisvert Hotel- quite possibly the finest airport hotel I have ever stayed in. Typical of Madagascar – its an Eco resort, built from local sources trying to fit in with the environment and employing way more staff than guests.
We actually with burst out laughing when we walking into the room – it was noting how we had imagined – simply put – stunning – again the resort making full use of the local resources a huge wet room, amazing artefacts on the walls and floors and 2 (fortunately as Im traveling with a friend) massive beds surrounded by mosquito netting.
Once we were over the initial shock, we just hit the pillows and slept through till morning.
As the majority of people visiting Madagascar fly with Air France (the only carrier to offer a daily service) if you are flying on from Tana you will no doubt do one night in a hotel as we did.
We had a fresh breakfast everything on the plate grown in the hotel itself, and was picked up to be taken back to the airport.
The drive back, as we suspected was completely different – a hive of activity small markets ladened the entire route back. Fresh meats handing in the sunshine feeding the flies, second hand clothes, DVD’s, plastic buckets, batteries, second hand shoes, car parts the usual fascinating stuff you find at the side of any road in Africa.
We arrived the National Terminal to find that the internal flight to Ile Sainte Marie was going on time – this is a rarity for Air Madagascar another word of advice, check in and enjoy the sunshine from the outside, the waiting area is nothing to write home about, there is a place to buy a beer and an instant coffee – at cost. So check in, and wait outside and catch some of the beautiful Madagascan sunshine.
Our propellor jet took us over the middle of the country to the North East of the Island where we crossed the coast line and had the opportunity to go whale watching and saw whales breaching in the Indian Ocean below – again more of that later.
We landed on the airstrip on the island, local teenage playing football by the airstrip – no heightened security here at all the ocean by the side of the strip – it was certainly an Island. The Airport (or building) is new and you can nip out for a cigarette whilst waiting for your luggage – the ashtrays outside of the building are Old Sea Shells – I knew I was going to love it here.
We were staying on the Island for 3 nights at the Princess Bora Lodge – very close to the Airport, but as there is only one flight per day – that shouldn’t worry you at all. We were met at the airport our bags were taken away and we were shown to out Hotel Transfer – a Zebu Cart. (a Zebu is an African Ox) 2 of them pulled us for the 15 minute ride – beautiful road with everyone waving as we went passed.
We were taken aback once again when we arrived at the Princess Bora Lodge – simply stunning. A quick tour of the hotel by the GM then to be taken to the room – really was the WOW factor, double shower, sunken bath floor to ceiling windows bang on the beach – absolutely amazing. We have in fact asked that the hotel rename their “Executive Suites” to honeymoon suites, as they are just perfect for such a romantic occasion.
We hit the beach and swan a few laps in the infinity pool on the beach, and had our first cocktails of the day. Sampling a few of he locally made rums – the coffee, the Coconut and the pineapple were our favourite the pepper one left a lot to be desired – but each to their own.
We, like almost everyone were on a Half Board basis a selection of starters mains and desert all of which are made from local produce – the majority grown on site – and it all tastes so fresh. Lola Produce with a huge French influence really worked well for us – we could not fault the food in any way throughout our entire stay – if anything, its really set the bench mark really high for the rest of our trip.
The hotel is located at the South of the Island and offers an array of excursions, all conducted by the In-House team of guides, it also has a well equipped Dive Centre where you can refresh or take your Padi course from the start. Fifo the Swiss owner is a Marine Biologist and has set up a Whale Research Centre where he takes in Volunteers (mainly made up of locals, and International enthusiasts alike to record the activity of this incredible Hump Back Whale breading ground. The association is called Cetamada. On our Whale Watching trip we encountered more than 30 Hump Back and mix of Females and their carves and their male escorts. we took amazing photos even with out IPhones – we were so close. To hear them was magical, and learned so much about these amazing creatures. Was was even more bizarre – we went out as 16 strangers and came back as 16 friends that saw the same awe inspiring sights, mesmerised by it all – hardly able to speak on the boat, when we saw than breach out of the water, the boat went silent, jaws dropping the only thing you could hear was cameras clicking 10 to the dozen. Then a massive SPLASH as these mighty mammals hit the ocean at great force – it was magical watching them show off. If I were a whale, I would be the one showing off to an audience of onlookers for sure.
A night in the bar after yet another fabulous meal – having the French influence in the hotel really helps the food and gives it the feel that you are eating in the most fabulous of restaurants – yet barefoot in shorts and T-Shirts its a very casual hotel – if you are anything but barefoot – then you are well over dressed.
The hotel is a great pace to use as a base, the majority of guests do not lay around on he beat all day – although there is absolutely nothing wring with doing this, as its the prefect place to do that but there is so much to see and do on the Island. I had opted for a full day guided tour of the Island by Quad Bike. All of the tours from the hotel are done via in house tour guides, so they are completely safe and reliable. I had my own guide for the entire day, so it was pretty much up to me what I wanted to do – I wanted to see as much as possible. We were going to do the full loop of the island so i could see how diverse it is from North to South and East to West.
We headed up the East Coast, the main road to the Capital of the Island (????) was a half decent road, with little traffic, just the odd tuk tuk and occasional motorbike and I think we saw 3 cars. Turning left onto the Road heading up the East coast and all remains of tarmac left behind us. I figured that as I had a quad bike he had brought me up here for an adrenalin rush – but no this was in fact the main road. That said we didn’t pass another vehicle, or for that matter see another vehicle until we got back n the road going from East to West. Flooding has seriously effected these roads over the years and the government have done nothing to repair them, the villagers have repaired where they can, with stones and in some cases sticks, just to make it passable even by foot.
You soon realise how the islanders live. No electricity, no running water and very very little. Living day to day, no real need for money, as there is nowhere accessible to buy anything from. There were no shops at all. As you would imagine the remotest of African Villages. These villages were close in distance, but completely cut off from everything else. Yet – did I see a sad face? No! Did I once feel uneasy or unsafe? Not at all – on the contrary in fact, so many smiling faces, so many people just waving, the boys putting out their hands so you could high five them as you went past – it was beautiful to experience. I feel so privileged to have seen this – i am left as speechless as I was with the Whales.
I have been promised the most amazing crab lunch half way – i was beginning to doubt any food at all – however after driving over a make shift bridge (I was VERY scared driving over it) i came across an idyllic setting by the Mangroves. A quick (very large beer) and I was then walked to a canoe carved from a tree – I am not sure how old it was, or how it was going to float with me, the guide and the boatsman in it – but it did (with the help of myself and the guide scooping out the water that as fast as it came in.
We went over the main waterway, then through a small canal, stepped out of the boat, after being knee deep in black mud, i walked through the mangroves onto the most amazing deserted beach. Mine were the only footsteps here. I was given a large rafia mat, and feel asleep instantly – a gift I have – waking up an hour later still in the shade and ready for my lunch.
We headed back where we went through various small canals in search of crocodiles but none to be found – mainly because there are none on the Island, but it is a perfect place for them Given the hand carved boat I was on, and a small stick for self defence – its probably just as well!
We arrived back into Port Mangrove to the most amazing crab lunch i have ever had. So fresh, so tasty and just lovely – followed by possibly the best desert I have aver had in my life (and I do like my puddings) a simple dish of coconut, caramel and honey – I can still taste it if i close my eyes – I am still eating it.
At the crab shack I bumped into 2 other guests form the hotel that had rented a quad without a guide As they had difficulty with their quad (it wouldn’t go in reverse) I would NOT recommend this, there are only a few road, so theres only a slim chance you would get lost, but if anything were to go wrong with the bike, there is no phone signal, and there is a long long long difficult walk to find anyone to help! You would also not get to see the smaller things i go to see – the family run vanilla plantation, the cinnamon groves, the clove trees that made the whole area smell like Christmas, – the list goes on.
I was taken to a view point, where on one side it looked like Mauritius, with the dance greenery and palm trees here there and everywhere, and on the other side it looked like remote Queensland, with the long stretch of deserted beach and the Indian Ocean – stunning!
Eventually we hit the main road on the West Coast – with stretched of Tarmac Road – what a relief – my arms were still shacking from trip Mid Country. Again hardly any cars, just the occasion bike and Tuk Tuk.
A quick stop at Coconut Bay, where i learned all about the Travellers palm (The Symbol of Madagascar) and how useful it is to use for plates and for water. Coconut bay is the closest oart of the Island to the Mainland, literally 7kms and you can see it very clearly. I also learned here that people on Sainte Maire do not consider themselves as part of Madagascar. They are very proud and think of themselves as Sainte Marinas.
A quick stop at the Pirates Graveyard, seeing Head Stones from 1834 with the Skull And Cross bones on them was all a bit spooky but a fabulous site to get buried in – just a shame they couldn’t appreciate the view themselves..
Back at the hotel – and it was time to catch up with everyone to find out what they had been doing. Most of the guests are in the hotel for just a few days as part of a grand tour of Madagascar – so there are lots of tories flying around of where people have been and where people are going next – its great to get tips from fellow guests that have already been where you are going. We fly bad, ladened with tips for the next part of our adventure.
We leave the island in just a few hours. I am siting here on the beach – I lift my head to see the splashing on Whales Breaching, i can here the Indian Ocean lapping, under the shade of a coconut palm, I really don’t want to leave – and if this is all i see of Madagascar (its not but you know what I mean) then I am already in love with the place – and I WILL return….
After our Zebu Cart ride to the Airport and our shop hop to Tana we were due an overnight stay in Tana itself. Having big ideas of going out for dinner and visiting a market, after our drive to the hotel we decided that was a bad idea so it was dinner in the hotel for us.
Our ride from the Airport to the Hotel should have taken 30 minutes, but we were in the car for a good hour and a half. Fascinated – Tana is a side of the road culture, with plenty of pop up market stalls and regular market stalls everywhere you look. Regular brick and concrete homes, next to dwellings made of wood and mud. Side by side everyone getting on, plenty to buy again, old car parts, chairs or fruit – all from the same stall of course. You understand why it takes forever to get form one side of the city to the other.
You will find on any trip to Madagascar that you will do many stops in Tana, this is due to a few things, first the traffic getting on and out of Tana itself is scary – and the internal flights can be so unreliable. Our 6am flight to Ile Sainte Marie was changed to 11am. etc etc with constant schedule changes – often in days too – it certainly pays to book with a travel agent that can organise new itineraries last minute.
We went on from Ile Saint Maire – you’ll have to come back to read the next part of one of my BEST trips ever.. Madras