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Just Back From | Madagascar

Africa’s Galapagos is also an Adventure Mecca Words by Jen Murphy

“Unlike mainland Africa, where for safety reasons a safari typically means experiencing wildlife from the seat of a Jeep, in Madagascar, you get up close to animals—sometimes inches away—on foot.”

Most people know little about Madagascar beyond its famous lemurs. But the country’s charismatic poster child is far from the only reason to visit. The fourth largest island in the world—roughly the size of Texas—is often referred to as the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean due to its incredible biodiversity. More than 80% of the island’s plants and animals—chameleons the size of your thumbnail, imposing baobabs, a moth with an 11-inch tongue—exist nowhere else on earth. When Madagascar split from mainland Africa 165 million years ago, its isolation created a Darwinian fantasy land where creatures morphed into oddball freaks of nature. You come here, not for the cute and cuddly, but to see the weird and wacky; creatures both on the brink of extinction and those that scientists have only recently discovered.

Unlike mainland Africa, where for safety reasons a safari typically means experiencing wildlife from the seat of a Jeep, in Madagascar, you get up close to animals—sometimes inches away—on foot. And you’re not battling boatloads of tourists, like you do in the Galápagos, for the perfect view. The country’s remote location, archaic infrastructure, and, until recently, unstable political situation, have largely deterred travelers from visiting. In 2018, Masoala National Park and Nosy Angabe—the largest of Madagascar’s protected land areas—welcomed just 700 visitors.

 

With the introduction of new international air routes (Air France and South African Airways offer one-stop flights from New York) and private air services, plus the debut of the country’s first five-star lodge, Madagascar is no longer just for intrepid travelers. It’s the perfect destination for active travelers seeking first-ever experience bragging rights and undiscovered, natural beauty (think the next Seychelles).

 

You’re likely to begin your journey in the capital, Antanarivo, locally called Tana. Many travelers use the city as a crashpad enroute to their main adventures, but even a half-day tour to Rova, the fortified palace, and bustling Analakely Market, provides a fascinating overview of Madagascar’s complex history and culture. Stay in the heart of the city at Maison Gallieni, a grand, four-bedroom hotel occupying the bottom two floors of the Monaco consulate. If you have an early morning flight, it’s better to stay closer to the airport rather than risk getting stuck in the city’s strangled traffic. Relais Des Plateaux, a simple hotel with a pool, Wi-Fi, and excellent French restaurant, is a great base to shake off jet lag.

 

The best of land and sea can be experienced in the northeast part of the country. Charter flights are highly recommended to avoid the headaches of unreliable domestic air service. Maroantsetra serves as the gateway to Masoala National Park and from town, it’s a two-hour boat ride to reach Masoala Forest Lodge, a family-run beachfront stay with seven treetop tents. Nestled on a private 25-acre coastal rainforest reserve within the park, the lodge will make your Robinson Crusoe reveries come true. Local guides accompany guests on the surrounding trails of primary forest. By day you’ll look for red-ruffed lemurs, camouflaged leaf tail geckos, and pink-hued panther chameleons. After dinner, you’ll attempt to spot nocturnal species like the rare aye-aye lemur and tiny, hedgehog-like tenrec. Owner Pierre Bester is a kayak fanatic and leads guests on explorations of the neighboring mangroves and islands. This fall, Bester will debut a luxury villa, a 40-minute boat ride away, for travelers seeking a true barefoot-luxe castaway experience.

 

Further north in the Nosy Ankao archipelago, Time + Tide Miavana, Madagascar’s first five-star property, showcases the country’s other wild side. Reached by a 30-minute helicopter flight from Diego Suarez, the resort is surrounded by pristine coral reefs and deserted islands. With its 14 palatial, mid-century modern villas and exclusive location, Time + Tide Miavana has been touted as the “next North Island,” a nod to one of the world’s most exclusive island getaways in the Seychelles. But it shouldn’t be mistaken as a fly-and-flop retreat. Time + Tide Miavana caters to next-gen adventurers. The hotel’s sporty GM, Rosco Wendover, and his wife SJ, can facilitate everything from sunrise heli-trail runs that end with a champagne breakfast to kite surf safaris (the wind makes this area a kiting mecca).

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