The Polynesian, African and French influences have created a taste explosion. A zebu steak tops even the best organic beef, while the subtle flavours of coconut, groundnut, vanilla, ginger and local greens add depth to an enormous variety of sauces which accompany rice at every meal. Don’t miss the fruit-based sweet treats and exotic juices.
To describe Madagascar as a wildlife vacation destination is to dismiss one of its greatest assets: its people. Malagasy culture revolves largely around ancestor worship, and local taboos, called ‘fady’. Fady vary from village to village, and may forbid pointing at tombs, hunting certain animals, sitting in doorways during the rice sprouting season, and singing at mealtimes.
Visitors often wonder what they can do to help during their Madagascar vacation. Many fantastic charities operate here – volunteers can work in community development, construction and reforestation, for example. Alternatively, donate money or necessary items. Shop at local cafes, craft stalls and markets to support the economy directly – you’ll get so much more out of your trip, and so will the community.
Much of Madagascar can only be accessed by river; there are no roads, but you can canoe along the waterways for several days, camping in remote spots. Hundreds of small communities live along the banks, and you’ll see people going about their business and greeting you – this is one of the most relaxing ways to really discover Malagasy life.
Everybody loves lemurs. They are believed to have floated across to the island some 60 million years ago, and have now evolved into over 100 species, all unique to Madagascar. Favourites include the panda-faced ring-tailed lemur, the “dancing” sifaka and the metre-long indri, which “sings” like a whale.
A vacation in Madagascar offers world-class scenery: towering limestone pinnacles, waterfalls and natural pools, rainforest, highlands and semi-desert. Leaving your vehicle behind allows you to really experience these otherworldly scenes, and multi-day treks will really take you off the tourist track, into true, deserted wildernesses.
The shallow, turquoise and jade seas off Madagascar’s north coast make for idyllic kayaking experiences – particularly around Nosy Be, and Masaola Peninsula in the northeast. You can paddle from place to place, trailed by a dhow, take guided tours; cruise along mangrove swamps; and spot fantastic sea life, including dolphins and whales.
Anyone with a well-developed sense of adventure will be right at home in the Tsingy – a spectacular “forest” of tall limestone pinnacles which can be trekked through and scrambled over while wearing harnesses. Getting to the Tsingy is an odyssey in itself: an epic drive or short flight to Morondava, followed by a hike through a lemur-filled forest.
In a country as poor as Madagascar, every pound you spend that goes back into the local economy goes much, much further than expected. Foreign-owned, all-inclusive resorts prevent that money filtering down, so most of what you spend will never benefit the local people at all. You are enjoying a vacation in Madagascar – give something back.
Your Madagascar vacation is likely to start and end here, and while there are enough markets and palaces to keep you amused for a few hours, “Tana” is really not worth spending more time in than necessary. Tourists can feel hassled, prices are inflated and the characteristic, laid-back Malagasy vibe is less evident in the urban sprawl.
Volunteer organisations claiming to “change your life” are missing the point. In a country as desperately poor and undeveloped as Madagascar, the priority must be improving the situation for local people and conserving the rapidly vanishing environment – and this means hard work. Vacations disguised as voluntourism erode trust and can do more harm than good. Do your research.
Madagascar’s vacation “capital” is certainly a beautiful tropical island – but with its international airport, all-inclusive resorts, yacht trips and expensive restaurants, visitors to Nosy Be are likely to never experience anything of Madagascar. Step away from your sun lounger and get to know the people, landscapes and cuisine that make this country so exceptional.