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Madagascar travel guide: things to do in Madagascar

31 August 2015

From lemurs that sound like police sirens to vanilla perfume, the world’s fourth largest island is full of surprises.

The Avenue of the Baobabs in western Madagascar
The Avenue of the Baobabs in western Madagascar

Little forays around Europe are fun but every so often the dedicated traveller hankers after a meatier long-haul holiday, preferably to an exotic destination with a name that smacks of adventure and enchantment.

Not just a Disney film!

Madagascar is one such place. The name is so full of mystique that the Hollywood studio DreamWorks knew it had to give only this one-word title to its rollicking 2005 animation film for audiences to be enticed into the cinema. They were right.

In the Indian Ocean off the south-eastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. Because of its isolation since splitting from other landmasses many millions of years ago, the flora and fauna have evolved in unique ways, and most of its plant and animal species don’t exist anywhere else, such as the lemur that sounds like a police siren!

As well as being a biodiversity hotspot, Madagascar is an intriguing ethnic melting pot. The original Malagasy population arrived on the island from Southeast Asia 2,000 years ago along the Indian Ocean trade routes; a second migration came from East Africa, with further Arab and Chinese influences, all reflected in the local cuisine. It’s a former French colony and the better-educated still speak French, although English is catching on.

Related: Discover the beautiful islands of the Indian Ocean, Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius.

Capital attractions

So, what’s to see? It’s best to start in the capital, a hectic hillside town called Antananarivo, nicknamed Tana. It has historical, cultural and architectural sites of interest, but its most exciting attraction is simply the exuberant street life. The bustling streets are packed with hawkers selling fruit and vegetables, flowers, mobile phones and much more – even live animals. Motorcycles whizz by in all directions, and at the colourful stalls which line the thoroughfares you can find fresh produce, meats, embroidered linen, leather goods, cotton shirts and handicrafts. If you like vanilla, this is the place for it – Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of the delightful flavouring and even make it into a perfume.

The Tsimbazaza Zoological and Botanical Garden, near the city centre, is set in tropical gardens dominated by giant palms and peaceful ponds. It is home to an array of exotic plants and some of the island’s emblematic lemurs and chameleons. And for those in search of cultural enrichment, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, a short drive east of the city, hits the spot. This walled village dates back to the 18th century and features the residences and burial sites of the once-powerful Imerina community’s royal family. It has seven gates, but the main one is called Ambatomitsangana, meaning ‘standing stone’. The ‘door’ to this entrance is a 12-ton stone disc that is rolled back and forth each morning and evening – a task that needs the muscle-power of no fewer than 20 soliders. The village is central to Madagascar’s spiritual life and its sense of national identity; it’s a place of pilgrimage for islanders from all over this vast country.

To the south of Tana, high on a plateau surrounded by misty green peaks, is the very different village of Ambositra, Madagascar’s lively arts and crafts centre. It’s the perfect place to buy souvenirs from the many artisans’ shops selling woodcarvings, raffia baskets, polished stones, paintings and marquetry. Prices are lower than in the capital, and the pace is more relaxed.

Ranomafana National Park is one of the island’s prime attractions. Its 415 square kilometres contain rainforests, cloud forests, marshes and high plateau forests, and are bursting with (you guessed it) lemurs of many varieties. But not just lemurs: also mongooses, civets, bats, shrews and the odd-looking, hump-backed cattle known as zebu, which occupies an important place in traditional Malagasy culture.

A few kilometres away is the village of Ranomafana. The name, meaning ‘hot water’, comes from the hot thermal springs in the area. You can soak in the village’s thermal baths, swim in the outdoor thermal pool and indulge in a soothing massage.

Related: Memories from Madagascar

Time for a cuppa

An outing to the Sahambavy tea plantation, which lies beside a pretty lake and spreads out as far as the eye can see, is a must for anyone interested in tea (that’ll be all of us then). A guided tour of the estate, which was established in the 1970s, takes you through the whole process from picking to packaging… and drinking it, of course.

Isalo National Park – just over 400 kilometres southwest of the capital – is noted for its variety of terrain, including Jurassic sandstone formations, deep canyons, palm-lined oases, and grassland. But the park’s highlight is the spectacular mountain range of the Isalo massif. As for our ubiquitous lemur friends, the ringtail, brown and sifaka species have their habitat there.

No doubt you’ll also pass the various sacred tombs and burial sites within the park. But be aware, there are some native taboos (or fady) that should be observed as you trek around. For example, it is fady and disrespectful to point at tombs with your finger outstretched. The island’s culture is steeped in magic and mysticism, so that animals, caves, waterfalls and more are all endowed with supernatural qualities.

The resort town of Ifaty on the west coast has wonderful beaches, some of them sandy, which provide plenty of opportunities for snorkelling and swimming. For the brave-hearted, diving with sharks is a popular pursuit there. And in July and August you might spot whales passing through the broad channel separating Madagascar from Mozambique. Inland from the beach is Reniala Nature Reserve whose highlight is the ‘spiny forest’ of weird and wacky baobab trees. It’s an other-worldly setting, like somewhere the Tardis might have landed in an episode of Doctor Who.

Madagascar is a relatively poor country with an undeveloped tourism industry – much smaller than the neighbouring Seychelles or Mauritius. So don’t expect luxury, a sophisticated infrastructure or perfect roads. Its chief allure is as an eco-tourism destination – and the lemurs of course. People go because it’s like no other place on earth.

Experience a range of holidays around the world with Saga Holidays.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.