( Lonelyplanet) – It’s not just because of its epic desert landscapes – canyons, ravines, gorges, savannah-like plains and their numerous ochre hues
That Isalo is so popular, it’s also because there is so much to do here: hiking, via ferratas (fixed cable routes), horse riding, mountain biking, 4WD circuits and swimming in natural pools. Let’s not forget lemur and birdwatching, nor admiring the technicolour sunsets and exquisite clarity of the night skies.
The ‘big island’ is a dream destination: you could spend two weeks here and in the surrounding islands and still feel like you haven’t had enough. It’s not just the world-class diving and snorkelling, the turquoise sea, the exquisitely soft light and arresting views; you can also visit vanilla and ylang-ylang plantations, explore kilometres of inland trails, see fabulous wildlife in the marine and nature reserves, feast on an abundance of seafood and sail to small islands nearby.
Ile Sainte Marie
How this little gem of a tropical paradise has managed to remain so unspoilt is a wonder: Sainte Marie is quite simply heavenly. There are whales and turtles, beaches you could only dream of and miles of tracks accessible only to hikers and quad bikes. Île aux Nattes, the tiny island at its southern tip, ups the ante on the Robinson Crusoe dream: you go there by pirogue and simply walk around. No cars, no tuk tuks. Bliss.
Tropical Haute Cuisine
The freshest of ingredients combined with traditional and colonial culinary influences have produced a divine strand of fusion cuisine. The zebu meat rivals beef in succulence and tenderness, spices add piquancy to sauces, and the tropical sun-ripened fruit finds its way into anything from sorbets to macerated rum. Antananarivo has the best selection of restaurants, but Mad Zebu in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, La Table d’Alexandre in Nosy Be and Chez Samson in Île Sainte Marie are other establishments worth seeking out.
Parc National Marojejy
With its pristine mountainous rainforest, thick root-filled jungle and waterfalls, Marojejy is a primordial place, where the ‘angel of the forest’ (the endemic silky sifaka) inhabits misty mountains, and spectacular views of the Marojejy Massif open up through the canopy. A superb trail crescendos through the landscape over two days, climaxing with a tough climb to the summit (2132m). The nearby Réserve Spéciale d’Anjanaharibe-Sud is well worth visiting too: travellers will be rewarded with the wail of the indri.
Sunset at Allée des Baobabs
Few things say Madagascar more than this small stretch of the RN8 between Morondava and Belo-sur-Tsiribihina. Lined with majestic baobabs, it comes into its own at sunset and sunrise when the trees cast their long shadows on the red sand and the sky lights up with orange and purple hues. In addition to the Allée, you’ll find plenty more baobabs across southern and western Madagascar. Some live for up to 1000 years and reach epic proportions: Majunga’s sacred baobab measures 21m around its trunk!
Tsingy de Bemaraha
There is nothing else on Earth quite like the jagged limestone pinnacles of Parc National Bemaraha. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the serrated, surreal-looking peaks and boulders are a geological work of art, the result of millennia of water and wind erosion. Just as remarkable is the infrastructure the national park has put in place to explore this natural wonder: via ferratas (fixed-cable routes), rope bridges and ladders, with circuits combining forests, caves, pirogue trips and even abseiling.
Diving & Snorkelling at Anakao
Madagascar boasts the world’s fifth-largest coral reef – 450km of fringing, patch and barrier reefs from Morombe in the north to Itampolo in the south. Work with local communities and marine conservation areas have helped maintain the reef’s health despite increasing pressure. Anakao has some of the best infrastructure on the reef, with the added bonus of whale watching in winter. Other spots that will blow you away are the ‘cathedrals’ at Ifaty and Mangily and the serene village of Ambola.
Seeing lemurs in the wild is a must-see for most travelers to Madagascar, and with good reason. This is the only place to see them, and they are simply wonderful: cute, agile, graceful, loud, elusive, weird – there are more than 100 species, all different and captivating in their own way. You’ll see different species in different parks but the Andasibe area is probably one of the best. Not only is it home to half a dozen lemur species, including the wailing indri, it also mixes national parks with excellent community-run reserves.
This is Madagascar’s only cultural site on Unesco’s World Heritage list, and with good reason: Ambohimanga was the seat of King Andrianampoinimerina, the Merina sovereign who decided to unify the warring tribes of the island so that his kingdom would have no frontier but the sea. The cultural significance of the site goes beyond history: Ambohimanga is revered as a sacred site by the Malagasy, who come here to invoke royal spirits and request their protection and good fortune.