Nosy Be, which means “big island” in Malagasy, is Madagascar’s most popular beach resort thanks to its laid-back towns, unique wildlife, and amazing snorkelling.
Located just off the coast of Africa, the world’s oldest island is home to weird and wonderful animals, a lot of which cannot be found anywhere else on earth. From a chameleon the size of your little finger to an inch-long frog, these bizarre creatures have evolved in isolation for over 60 million years, and coming face to face with them is an experience of a lifetime.
For those who don’t fancy a jungle trek, Nosy Be offers much more: year-round sunshine, bright blue seas, and a vibrant nightlife.
1. Meet its unique inhabitants
Located in the southeastern part of the island, Lokobe reserve is the last remaining primary forest in the region, and home to the endangered black lemur. Access to the reserve is through the picturesque village of Ampasipohy, where colourful fabrics hang from clothing lines, and the aroma of crushed spices on coal fire fills the air. Hire a local guide to show you around the forest and prepare a sumptuous lunch on your return from the trek.
The reserve is mostly known for its black lemur, but also shelter other nocturnal species such as gray-backed sportive and mouse lemurs. Walking around Lokobe, you will spot chameleons, camouflage geckos, various snakes and frogs including the world’s smallest species Stumpffia pygmaea (frog) and Brookesiaa minima (chameleon).
Getting there: Ampasipohy can be reached by car or on a pirogue (traditional outrigger canoe) from the village of Ambatozavavy.
2. People and Culture
The first people to settle in Madagascar were from Indonesia, followed by Africa before the French took over in 1895. Today, much like its neighbours, this French-speaking island has an amazing ethnic mix of people from Southeast Asia, East Africa, and India. Marodoka, the first village of Nosy Be, still holds remains of an Arab mosque and a 19th-century Indian cemetery. In 2009, a local group called Ravinala (traveller’s tree) Association took it upon themselves to protect the cultural heritage of the region through traditional shows in the form of Sakalava (ethnic group of Madagascar) women singing and dancing to the rhythms of wooden sticks clacked together.
The Malagasy are known for their phrase ‘mora mora’ meaning ‘slow slow’, which is reflected in their relaxed and easygoing attitude to life. The children here are always happy to welcome a new face, pose for pictures, and even challenge you to a dance competition if you are willing!
3. Explore the capital Andoany (also known as Hell-Ville)
Named after the French governor of Réunion Admiral de Hell, Hell-Ville is anything but hellish. Beautiful colonial buildings line the sea promenade, and brightly coloured ancient Renault taxis add to the old French charm. To get a real sense of what life is like in the capital, head to its bustling port and the main shopping street, Boulevard Général Charles de Gaulle. The indoor market next to old Théâtre Municipal is where you’ll find organic fruits, vegetables and the freshest catch from the archipelago’s waters. When the night falls, channel your inner Whitney Houston at one of the many karaoke bars.
4. Watch the sun go down at Mont Passot
Nosy Be is the largest of more than twenty islands scattered in the Mozambique Channel off Madagascar’s northwest coast, and Mont Passot is the perfect spot to enjoy its panoramic views. Standing at 329 metres, the now extinct volcano is a popular sunset spot with both tourists and locals.
Surrounding Mont Passot are eight small crater lakes brimming with Nile crocodiles and freshwater fish. Hikers can explore the area through three pedestrian circuits varying from 4 to 6kms. The Amparihibe route – longest of them all- takes you through orchid alleys, sacred lakes, and ylang ylang plantations. Antsahamanavaka covers teak forests and waterfalls while Antsidihy is ideal for birdwatchers.
5. Go island hopping
A short boat ride away (75 minutes) are two paradise-like islands of Nosy Iranja. Conjoined only by a strip of white sand, its turquoise waters, white sand, lush coconut palms, and tropical flowers are an Instagrammer’s dream. The south of the island is an important breeding reserve for hawksbill turtles and attracts rare species of birds.
Nosy Komba, literally meaning Lemur island, is where the black lemurs reside. So accustomed are they to human attention that within seconds you could have three sitting on your shoulders trying to grab food off your hands. This is the moment to get those beautiful close-ups and animal selfies.
6. Snorkelling & Diving
If you’re getting the “eat, sleep, snorkel, repeat” feeling then head to Nosy Tanikely. Ten minutes from Nosy Komba, the shores of this uninhabited island are teaming with untouched corals, stingrays, turtles and plenty of fish. Alongside healthy reefs, divers can also see leopard sharks, schools of trevally and barracudas.
Humpback whales are a common sighting between September and November. Also keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, manta rays and whale sharks, as they just happen to appear. June is the coldest month when the water temperature drops to 26°C compared to 30-32°C in the month of November.
7. Eating and Drinking
Start your day with a trip to the colourful markets for a selection of organic fruit and vegetables. If you’re looking for breakfast on the go, try the popular fried bananas fritters or the traditional breakfast of rice porridge with slices of meat. For lunch, explore the varied selection of fresh, and flavoursome seafood -prawns, fish, and crabs – mixed with herbs and coconut milk, cooked Asian style. For nightlife, Madirokely beach is popular among herds of tourists sipping Three Horses Beer (or THB) and rum at the many bars and restaurants. Le Taxi-Be is where the party’s at with live music and entertainment until dawn.
Nosy Be’s biggest music festival is Donia — a four-day celebration of cultures from across the Indian Ocean. Fifty thousand people descend on the island (around May/June) to see acts from Mauritius, Réunion, Rodrigues, and Comoros perform their best reggae, rock, and Creole tunes. Apart from music, there is also a carnival, seminars and other sporting events.
The music genre Salegy originated in the region and can be heard at most shops, restaurants and dance floors across the island. Jaojoby, Ninie Doniah and Vaiavy Chila are some of the bands popularising Salegy tunes.
You definitely want to leave room in your bag for souvenirs. Scattered all around are stalls selling everything from intricate toys made from raffia, a native palm, to more elaborate masks carved out of wood and ebony. Handmade Richelieu-embroidered table runners, coasters and bedspreads decorate almost every village, and the women who make them are happy to give you a master class. Miniatures of the symbolic baobab tree can be found in abundance, as can essential oils made from ylang ylang.
10. Take a few days to explore Antananarivo
Also known as Tana, Antananarivo is Madagascar’s crowded, chaotic capital city and a pit stop for most travellers heading in search of lemurs, baobabs or a beach. Built on three levels, the city’s lush green rice paddies and colonial buildings are best admired from the hills, when you are furthest away from its dreadful traffic jams. Visit the fortified palace of Rova, Musée Andafivaratra and admire Lac Anosy. Wander the aisles of Tana’s fantastic markets: Analakely for household goods, and the craft market of the Route Digue.
Twenty four kilometres from the city is its best attraction, the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga. The UNESCO World Heritage site, which consists of a well-preserved royal city and burial site, remains a place of worship for many Malagasy people.
There are no direct flights from the UK. Air Madagascar (www.airmadagascar.com) fly from Paris to Antananarivo four times a week and TSARAIA (www.tsaradia.com) provide domestic connections within Madagascar.
Where to stay:
Walking distance from all of Hell-Ville’s attractions is Hotel Sakalava where rooms start at £30 per night excluding breakfast.
When you are ready to party, move to Hotel Clair de Lune. Their traditional cottages are a 10-minute walk from the beach and trendy bars. Each cottage can sleep two and cost between £50-100.
For more details go to Madagascar Tourism Board.
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