As far as genuinely fascinating destinations go, you can’t beat Madagascar. Beyond the exported images of baobabs and beaches are ancient forests and wetlands filled with peculiar creatures, secret bays once bedevilled by pirates and crumbling citadels built by feuding kings and queens. And that’s just the start…
This is because on Madagascar – the oldest island on Earth – two very contradictory influences have converged to create something quite sublime. On the one hand is a natural history that has unfolded in almost total isolation. On the other is a melting pot of humanity that’s left virtually no one out. Indonesian, African, Arabic, European – all lay claim to an inextricable mishmash of culture that colours Madagascar’s anthropology. And it’s these two seemingly opposed forces – isolation and accessibility – that together have created an island that is truly, in every sense of the word, unique.
For visitors, it’s a recipe that couldn’t be more intoxicating. There are endless shores and ancient reefs, forested trails and lazy rivers. There are tropical islets filled with the smell of ylang-ylang blossoms, valleys that radiate with the scent of lavender and markets where vanilla wafts between pots steaming the air with the aroma of boiling rice. You can hike along vast and deep terracotta canyons that glow red at dusk, ride through primordial jungles on mid-century railroads or zoom through pastel-coloured coastal towns in yellow tuk-tuks. You can explore underground caves home to troglodyte crocodiles, climb massifs once fortified by Allied soldiers or brave suspension bridges that dangle between precipitous spires of limestone carved by the wind. You can also just take your towel down to the beach, order a bottomless cocktail and a barrel of seafood and do absolutely nothing.
You cannot, however, do them all. And therein lies the challenge for anyone planning a holiday in Madagascar. At more than half a million square kilometres it is the fourth-largest island in the world. It spans more than 15 degrees of latitude and straddles the southernmost tropic. Its climate, landscape and infrastructure are as varied as they are on some entire continents. Variations in culture, language and customs are not far behind. To travel from the east to west coast by 4×4 could take as much as three full days. From north to south you can easily triple that.
And so, what makes Madagascar most unique of all is how to plan a holiday here. Whether it’s the swashbuckling shores of the south, the languid beaches of the north, rainforests of the east or semi-arid wonderlands of the southwest, each region is poised to offer different types of traveller exactly what they are looking for, all the while remaining quintessentially Madagascan.
Experiencing all that Madagascar has to offer would take even the most expedient traveller at least a year. The distances are too great and the infrastructure simply too poor to zip from one end to the other, and there’s just no way to tick all the boxes on a two- or even three-week-long holiday. The most enjoyable way to experience this unique destination is to do it one region at a time. With its mix of world-class beaches, exotic cuisine, sublime wildlife and cultural interactions, not to mention superb hospitality and variety of hotels and lodges in all the right places, you won’t feel like you’re missing out by taking it slow. This is an island to experience one magnificent region at a time, with the added bonus that by revisiting you’ll be supporting the conservation organisations and local traders and businesspeople that depend significantly on tourism to keep this wonderful destination going.