They head to the sea for some R&R on picture-perfect beaches, fringed not only by white sands but reefs where divers come face-to-face with rays and a variety of sharks, and snorkelers get close-ups of a rainbow of corals and graceful turtles. The Indian Ocean islands, which lie on the historic trade routes that link China and India to Africa, are also culturally fascinating, for successive waves of immigrants have created a melting pot of cultures.
Located 250 miles off the southern coast of Africa, Madagascar is the dream-destination of nature-loving travelers, for this mini-continent of an island (like the Galapagos Islands) serves as a laboratory for evolution. Its most famous attraction is the island icon—the leaping lemurs, with 49 different species. These primates share the diverse corners of the country with a variety of neon-colored chameleons, carnivorous plants and 250 endemic bird species. Travelers come for guided trekking through rainforests and nature reserves; shopping in colorful local markets; meeting the gracious Malagasy people in their riverside villages and settlements; and unwinding on beaches in the northwestern archipelago of Nosy Be.
Here, outstanding nature reserves include the Berenty Reserve in the south (ring-tailed lemurs live here), the Perinet Reserve near Tana (short-horned chameleons and iridescent tree boas are at home here), the Montagne d’Ambre National Park (crater lakes, waterfalls and a wealth of wildlife can be found here), and the Ankarana Special Reserve (crowned, Sanford’s brown, and northern sportive lemurs call this reserve home).
Beyond the nature reserves, what are the top things to see and do in Madagascar? How lucky can a writer get than having a peripatetic friend, Rebecca Darin Goldberg, who just returned from spending a year on the fourth largest island in the world.
GOLDBERG’S TOP THREE MUST-SEE EXPERIENCES ARE:
• The lemur experience: Whether walking in the Andasibe National Forest or adventuring onto Lemur Island in the Perinet Reserve, hourly one hears the loud call of the indri. It’s the largest of the lemurs and one that will pose for or jump right onto visitors.
• A tree-hugging experience: Located in the picturesque, laid-back seaside town of Morondava, the Avenue of the Baobabs, with giant trees, some of which are a thousand years old. Recommend clients visit the site at sunset, as the vibrancy of the colors as the sun hits the tree trunks takes a page out of a Dr. Seuss book. Morondava is the place to buy the Malagasy traditional dress: a lambahoany.
• An experience in stone: Even from a photograph, you can understand why Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But photos don’t do justice to this limestone forest—it’s a rock climber’s dream spot, a hiking adventurewithout equal and a place where one finds such wildlife as the striped mongoose.
HOTEL PICKS: The Vakona Forest Lodge in the Perinet Reserve offers 28 bungalows surrounded by gardens; the Ankarana Lodge in the Ankarana Reserve is also made up of bungalow accommodations, surrounded by a limestone formation and a dry savannah; and the beautiful beachside Anjajavy l’Hotel in Anjajavy is a Relais & Chateaux property where guests get comfortable in villa accommodations.
TOUR SAMPLING: Kensington Tours offers several luxury Madagascar options—from 4-day packages as an add-on to a South Africa tour, to a 15-day itinerary covering Madagascar in-depth. The 9-day Madagascar Highlights, priced from $3,210 pp dbl, visits Antananarivo, Ambrositra, Ranomafana, Fianarantsoa, Isalo and Ifaty. With a private guide, travelers are treated to walking safaris, visits to hidden waterfalls and hot springs, art workshops and beach time.
GETTING THERE: South African Airways offers flights from New York’s JFK to Ivato International Airport (TNR), in Antananarivo, via Johannesburg.
Exotic, history-rich Zanzibar offers an intoxicating blend of Arab, African and colonial influences. Once the commercial center of East Africa, this Indian Ocean archipelago still resonates with history. Stone Town, Zanzibar City’s Old Town, is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a maze of narrow streets and alleyways lined with former sultans’ palaces, mosques, bazaars and shops. Travelers should take note of the coral houses with their carved wooden doors that are works of art detailed with benedictions from the Koran and augmented with brass spikes. Well worth visiting are the Museum of History and Culture, with its exhibits of the dhow culture of the Indian Ocean and the Swahili civilization; the Palace Museum, devoted to the era of the Zanzibar sultanate; and the Old Fort and Slave Market.
Each evening as the sun sets, Stone Town’s Forodhani Park transforms into an open-air food market. Recommend clients sample the local specialties: urojo, a mango and tamarind soup served alongside chickpea fritters, boiled potatoes, cassava flakes, chutney and as much hot sauce as one dares, following it with hand-pressed sugar cane juice mixed with ginger and lime.
Zanzibar is the place to dance to taarab music, a blend of Swahili poetry and Egyptian, Indian, Indonesian and Western rhythms. Equally enticing, of course, are Zanzibar’s white-sand beaches.
HOTEL PICKS: A top-of-the-line choice in Stone Town is the new Emerson Spice hotel, occupying two gorgeous historic buildings—one a 19th century Swahili sultan’s palace, the other Zanzibar’s first photographic studio. This intimate property offers six traditionally decorated rooms with antiques and verandahs. For a private island oasis, recommend the Mnemba Island Lodge, on its own isle off Zanzibar’s northwest coast, with white-sand beaches and spectacular coral reefs. Here, there’s ample time to kayak, windsurf and go deep-sea fishing.
TOUR SAMPLING: Goway positions its Zanzibar offerings as 4-day package extensions to its longer wildlife safaris in East Africa. A 4-day Spicy Zanzibar package features 11 hotel choices—most beach resorts and a couple in Stone Town; all include all meals and return transfers to the airport, and provide for leisure time for snorkeling and diving, a tour of Stone Town, and a dhow trip around the island. Hotel choices (all prices based pp sharing) range from Swahili House in Stone Town, priced at $369, and the all-suite Azanzi Beach Hotel, priced at $489, to the deluxe 30-villa Baraza, priced at $1,553, which adds all private airport transfers, local alcoholic beverages, afternoon tea and complimentary WiFi.
GETTING THERE: South African Airways offers flights from New York’s JFK to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. Daily flights link Dar es Salaam and Arusha to Zanzibar; there is also daily ferry service from Dar.
Anjajavy l’Hotel: anjajavy.com
Ankarana Lodge: ankarana-lodge.com
Emerson Spice: emersonspice.com
Goway: (800) 245-0920; goway.com or gowayagent.com
Kensington Tours: (888) 503-6660; kensingtontours.com or kensingtontours.com/agents/fit/Login.aspx
Madgascar National Tourism Board: madagascar-tourisme.com/en
Mnemba Island Lodge: andbeyond.com
South African Airways: flysaa.com
Tanzania Tourist Board: tanzaniatouristboard.com
Vakona Forest Lodge: hotelvakona.com/en