Up to 90% of the flora and fauna found in Madagascar is unique to the island, which was cut adrift from the African mainland millions of years ago and has evolved in sweet isolation since. Mother Nature had a chance to experiment in Madagascar, and experiment she did.
Nowadays the island is home to around a quarter of our planet’s primates and they exist in glorious variety: big and small, social and solitary, adorably cute and downright freaky. The primates’ story is played out across the animal groups: there are several hundred types of frog, dozens of bats, over a hundred snakes (mostly small, all harmless) and almost half of the world’s chameleons. It’s a similar story where flora is concerned, too.
But Madagascar is not just a nirvana for naturalists: the island offers splendid beaches, scuba diving and surfing; gnarly rock climbing and caving; lazy river trips; spectacular scenery; and warm, welcoming people with interesting beliefs and cultural practices.
The island is divided along its middle by a high plateau. Lush rainforest runs in a band down the eastern side, while drier deciduous forests lie to the west. In the far south is the unique arid spiny forest, home to the island’s wackiest plant life. Giant baobab trees populate the western regions.
A mix of influences provides telltale evidence of the Polynesian settlers, Arabic presence, Bantu tribes-folk and European arrivals of the past, all of which have culminated in a fascinating cultural melting pot. For sheer diversity, Madagascar hard to beat.
Things to see and do
Dabble in the macabre at Amabalavao – the so-called ‘home of the departed’ - where the revered bones of exhumed ancestors lie. The spectacular crags of Ambondrome and Ifandana crags were the site of a mass suicide in 1811, though the region is also known for its Ataimoro paper and silk weaving today.
Perhaps the most sacred site in all Madagascar, Ambohimanga (literally ‘Blue Hill’) was the original capital when the great king Andrianampoinimerina began his reign in 1787. The compound is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and comprises more than a dozen impressive stone gates, the king’s house and various elegant royal summerhouses.
Relax on the idyllic beaches in this isolated southwestern Vezo fishing village. Also on offer are pirogue (dugout canoe) trips to nearby mangroves and islands, including one that’s home to the world’s southernmost breeding colony of red-tailed tropicbirds. A day trip to the salt lake at Tsimanampetsotsa National Park is a must.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Being not far from the capital, this is the most accessible rainforest reserve, and also one of the most rewarding. Frogs, reptiles and birds abound, but top of the bill is the indri, the largest of all living lemurs. These creatures sing a haunting song – reminiscent of whale song – which carries for miles across the forest.
Revel in the distinctively French flavour and ambience of Madagascar’s history-rich capital. The quaint winding streets and vast markets are best explored on foot, but you can’t go far without a steep climb – this city is built on seven hills. For the best views across all of Antananarivo, head to the area around the Queen’s Palace and treat yourself to a sundowner while looking over the city from the terrace of nearby Lokanga hotel.
See the wonderful arts and crafts in Antsirabe: taking a pousse-pousse tour of artisanal workshops is the thing to do in this bustling highland town. Marvel at the skill of local craftsmen creating toys from recycled tin cans, wooden sculptures, zebu-horn jewellery, polished gems and minerals, embroidered tablecloths, silk scarves, raffia handicrafts and more!
Near to Tuléar, this botanical garden showcases some 900 plant species endemic to Madagascar’s arid south. You’ll learn about the plants and how they are used by local people in construction, for food and for their medicinal properties. Birders will also find this place rewarding and there are some bungalows for those wishing to linger.
This natural avenue of imposing Grandidier’s baobabs is one of Madagascar’s must-see sights. Located some 45 minutes from Morondava on the dusty track to Kirindy Reserve, Baobab Alley is best visited around sunrise or sunset because the softer lighting brings out the red tones of the tree trunks and makes for a splendid photo opportunity.
Explore the lush, volcanic region of Ampefy, renowned for its spectacular geysers and waterfalls on the banks of beautiful Itasy Lake. Amidst rolling hills, the thunderous torrents of Chute de la Lily’s cascades are an unforgettable highlight – but be prepared for a near-deafening, reverberating roar!
Grab your surfboard and hit the waves that break on offshore coral reefs to experience the island’s little-known surf thrills. The surf at Libanona Beach in Fort Dauphin is suitable for beginners. Other top surf spots include Lavanono and Anakao, while the far northeast of Madagascar is the place for kitesurfing.
The Mitsio islands have fantastic beaches, glorious turquoise waters, and some truly world-class dive sites. Revel in the deep-water discovery of boxfish, barracuda, rays, sea urchins, starfish, eels, and a thousand other creatures of the reef. The area is best explored by chartering a catamaran from Nosy Be.
Montagne d'Arbre National Park
Discover waterfalls, orchids and lemurs at ‘Amber Mountain’. This 18,500ha (45,715-acre) national park is the country’s oldest, protecting some splendid montane rainforest. Ranging in altitude between 850m (2,790ft) and 1,475m (4,840ft), the mountain has its own microclimate. Sanford's lemurs and crowned lemurs are easily seen, as well as countless reptiles and birds, including some endemic to the area.
Follow the exotic perfumed lure of Nosy Be and the surrounding islets of Nosy Komba (famous for its black lemurs), Nosy Sakatia and Nosy Tanikely (a marine reserve with exceptional snorkelling). On Nosy Be itself, sweet-smelling plants such as ylang-ylang, vanilla, lemongrass and patchouli fill the air with a delectable fragrance.
The rova (palace) surveys the capital city from its highest point, recently partly rebuilt following a terrible fire in 1995. The original wooden palace was built by Frenchman Jean Laborde in 1839, then its exterior later clad in stone by a Scottish missionary, James Cameron. Take a tour of the compound to learn about Madagascar’s dramatic royal history.
Sahambavy Tea Estate
For almost half a century, this estate has been producing green tea, and since 2004 black tea as well. The 335ha (828-acre) plantation yields more than 550 tonnes of tea every year, most of which is destined for Kenya. Guided factory tours take around one hour and end with a tasting.
Unique to Madagascar, the dry and inhospitable spiny forest of the far south is a most curious and startling ecosystem. All of its botanical wonders are perfectly adapted to this tough environment, often preserving precious water in their swollen succulent forms protected by vicious prickles. The strange waving fingers of octopus trees stretch up into the sky, adding to the habitat’s otherworldly feel.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
Delve into one of the most striking national parks on the planet. At Tsingy de Bemaraha, there are undisturbed forests, lakes and canyons – but top of the bill is the incredible limestone karst known as ‘tsingy’. These vast forests of limestone pinnacles make for a landscape unlike any other.
Spend three to five days floating down the tranquil Tsiribihina River to the east coast, ending up near to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. If you want to get off the beaten track, then other less touristy rivers include the Manambolo, Mangoky, Mahavavy, Betsiboka and Onilahy.