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A beginner’s guide to Madagascar

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Marvellous Madagascar is quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. This isolated island off the coast of East Africa is a wildlife wonderland. Some 90% of the plants and animals found here are endemic, meaning they don’t live anywhere else in the world. 

From big-eyed and stripey-tailed lemurs to towering baobab trees and shape-shifting chameleons, the variety and rarity of the plant and animal life here is eye-popping. There are habitats galore too, with tropical beaches, dense rainforests, hulking mountains, red desert and fertile valleys.

When it comes to Madagascar’s human inhabitants, things are also quite interesting. A blend of African and Southeast Asian ancestry has influenced the island’s food, music and customs, and there are 18 distinct ethnic groups living here. Fifty years of French rule that ended in 1960 has added another layer of cultural influence to the mix.

There are so many places to explore on a trip to Madagascar. To help you navigate its riches, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to the best things to do in Madagascar.

Find your favourite beach

Madagascar is big – it’s about the size of France or the state of Texas. This means it has several thousand miles of Indian Ocean coastline to luxuriate in. You’ll also find a clutch of smaller islands off the mainland, all with azure waters and soft white sands.

For a proper beach break, the northern island of Nosy Be is a popular choice. Yes, it can get busy in comparison with other beaches, but its white sands and tropical waters backed by lush forest and dramatic volcanic cones make it a treat to spend time on. The nearby island of Nosy Komba, and Île Sainte-Marie off the east coast, are also picture-perfect. Surfers should make a beeline for Taolagnaro and Mahambo on the east coast.  

white sandy beach

Go in search of lemurs

The charismatic lemur is completely unique to Madagascar. This is the only place in the whole wide world where you’ll spot any of the 100 or so different species in the wild. This makes them incredibly precious and an absolute privilege to see. Most people who visit Madagascar will be on a mission to track down at least a few of them.

Lemurs generally live in the trees and have large, inquiring eyes and a long tail. They are great fun to watch and often unfazed by humans. You’ll be able to find them all over the island in Madagascar’s many national parks and nature reserves.

lemur with baby on its back

Take a night walk in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park

Visiting Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is one of the top things to do in Madagascar. The park encompasses a huge swathe of protected forest with a dizzying diversity of flora and fauna. These humid forests are draped with lichens, dotted with jewel-like orchids, and dense with precious woods and fern trees.

Flitting through the undergrowth are over 100 species of birds, including the pretty and petite endemic green sunbird, with its curved beak and iridescent peacock colours. Lemur enthusiasts rejoice, as you are pretty much guaranteed a sighting of several species here. The indri, with its black-and-white coat, fuzzy ears and startled expression, is a dead cert for a close encounter.

These furry friends are out and about in the daytime, but by night, the forest comes alive with all manner of other critters. Take a guided night walk along the park’s leafy trails, and you’ll be in with a chance of seeing dozens of brightly-coloured frog species, as well as three nocturnal lemurs.

tree frog on a leaf

Bump along the Avenue of the Baobabs

One of the most emblematic views in Madagascar has to be the distinctive silhouette of the mighty baobab tree. The largest can grow to some 30 m high and up to 14 m in diameter. With their thick, silvery trunks tapering skyward, there is something almost prehistoric about these colossal trees.

You’ll see baobab trees dotted across the country, especially in the drier southern lands, but the best place to experience them is on the Morondava road in the west. Here you will find the monumental Avenue of the Baobabs, where dozens of trees stand proud along a stretch of rough red road. Plan your drive around sunset for the most magical views.

large baobab trees

Explore the stone fortresses of Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park

Getting to this UNESCO-listed site demands quite a journey, but that’s often part of the fun. Once you arrive, you’ll find a bizarre landscape of spiky limestone pinnacles that stretch for some 60 mi. The park is slung with a network of bridges and hanging walkways to help you navigate this stony jungle, along with the help of an experienced guide.

The surrounding countryside is full of Madagascar’s customarily exuberant wildlife. Head into the actual forest, and you’ll find lemurs of different stripes alongside a colourful array of reptiles and birds.

bridge over gorge

Head for the hills in Antananarivo

Known more simply as Tana, Madagascar’s capital city has both history and culture in abundance. Spread across two sweeping hillsides, Tana can be hectic and often quite heavy with traffic. However, it is very much the place to be for architecture, museums, shopping and dining.

Head up into the more tranquil hills to explore the colonial-era neighbourhood of Haute Ville and the palace of Rova of Antananarivo. From up on high, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the city below and the vibrant green of the rice paddies stretching out beyond.

Back downtown, the shopping opportunities are numerous, ranging from jostling markets to genteel French boutiques. Spend your mornings and afternoons in art galleries, museums and coffee shops; by night, the cosmopolitan dining scene is a delight.

view of a city on a hill

Taste the world on your plate

The culinary influences in Madagascar are varied, with French, African, Indonesian and Arabic flavours all apparent. The fresh fish and shellfish are sublime and affordable, often served simply with rice and vegetables. For a special meal, the capital has some exceptional French-Malagasy restaurants. Street food is cheap and tasty, and tropical fruits such as pineapple, coconut, mango and lychee are abundant.

lobsters on a grill

Dive into the deep blue

The underwater world in Madagascar is as colourful as anything you’ll find in its forests, and that’s saying something. To the southwest, a huge reef system stretches out, frenetic with underwater life. Both snorkelling and scuba diving are wonderful things to do in Madagascar, and the visibility is usually excellent.

For those who prefer to stay above water, the whale-watching season runs from July to December. During this time, you’ll be able to see either humpbacks or whale sharks stopping off to mate and give birth or to feast in the plankton-rich waters.

whale breaching the water

Make it happen

To make your Madagascar holiday dreams a reality: chat with a local travel expert today and start planning an unforgettable getaway to this singular part of the world. 

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