Madagascar

Discover this African isle rich with nature. The luxury market finally has.

BY JEN MURPHY — Fall 2019

e’s watching you,” whispers Claret. I sense an entire forest of creatures watching me, yet my untrained eyes see only Jurassic-size palms and thick tangles of vines dangling like dreadlocks from the trees. Claret, my young Malagasy guide, urges me to step closer to a moss-covered branch. “Now you’re staring at him,” he chuckles.

The camouflaged critters of Madagascar can make a safari here feel like playing the toughest game of “I spy,” where you guess an object based on descriptors. We have been trekking for nearly an hour in Nosy Mangabe, an island reserve in northeast Madagascar that’s part of Masoala National Park. Claret, a skilled naturalist, has given up on giving me clues and has positioned my face inches from a leaf-tailed gecko the size of my forearm. After a few seconds, I finally spot its E.T.-like toes suctioned to the tree, then its baby crocodile snout and bulging, marbled eyes, and its signature tail, shaped like a rotting leaf with nicks and tears.

Emboldened by its statuelike appearance, I lean even closer. Claret now decides to tell me that upon waking the lizard jumps, but that I shouldn’t be startled or scared. Free of large predators and venomous creatures, Madagascar offers one of the safest safari experiences possible. But the country isn’t for the squeamish. You don’t come here to see charismatic species such as gorillas or giraffe. An island of misfits, Madagascar is home to extraordinary freaks and creepy-crawlies that you view not from a Jeep but up-close on foot.

The world’s fourth-largest island — roughly the size of Texas — Madagascar split off from mainland Africa 165 million years ago, drifting into the Indian Ocean like Noah’s ark. Its creatures, left in an evolutionary bubble, adapted and morphed into Darwinian fantasies — chameleons the size of a matchstick head, moths with 11-inch tongues, giant leaping rats.

Some have called it the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean, but Will Bolsover, founder of U.K.-based travel outfitter Natural World Safaris, challenges that Madagascar knocks the socks off the Galápagos Islands in terms of flora and fauna endemics. More than 80 percent of the island’s plants and animals exist nowhere else on Earth. “You come for the funky small stuff, not the big stuff,” Bolsover told me when planning my itinerary. Plus, you have it all to yourself.

The country’s remote location, lack of infrastructure, and unstable political situation until recently have largely deterred all but scientists, researchers, and the most intrepid of travelers from visiting. In 2018, Masoala National Park and Nosy Mangabe — the largest of Madagascar’s protected land areas — welcomed just 700 visitors. “It’s a travesty the destination isn’t in the public eye more,” says Bolsover, who has been leading trips to Madagascar for more than 20 years. But he hopes that’s primed to change thanks to new international air routes and private air services, plus a handful of new luxury lodges catering to adventurous travelers with discerning tastes.

ith Natural World Safaris’ new “Madagascar Rain Forest & Island Idyll” itinerary, I effortlessly and comfortably experienced the country’s northeast and northern coasts in just 10 days. From the capital, Antananarivo, I flew by private charter to the small town of Maroantsetra, where my plane landed on a sliver of airstrip shared by a herd of cows and a pétanque court, a remnant of the country’s years of French rule, which ended in 1960.

Before arriving in Madagascar, I knew little about the country beyond its famed vanilla beans and star endemic attraction, the lemur. The latter drives most of the country’s tourism, but I learn wildlife is just one reason to put Madagascar on top of your travel list. Nicknamed the eighth continent, Madagascar also entices with a fascinating melting pot of cultures: East African, French, Malaysian, plus 18 ethnic groups. The food (rice being the staple), languages, and religions reflect these various influences.

A red-ruffed lemur. PHOTO BY LOUISE JASPER.

According to UNICEF, 91 percent of the country lives on less than $2 a day. I had been prepared for abject poverty, but found Maroantsetra — the gateway to Masoala National Park — a bustling little town. For every thatched-roof hut, I saw a wooden home with a concrete front porch, and the locals surprised me with their sense of style, particularly their chic hats, which Claret later explained are a point of pride. At the boat dock, a Malagasy woman named Paola greeted me in Chanel flip-flops, a gray wool cape, and pink-rimmed shades before sending me off with Claret for our short journey across Antongil Bay to Nosy Mangabe.

Claret, to my astonishment, treks through the muddy rain forest in his battered bare feet. I later learn he’s conditioning them. When tourist season ends, he must go back to farming rice fields to support his family. More tourism may not solve Madagascar’s poverty, but I wonder if more jobs could help improve lives. 

After my gecko encounter, Claret tells me to close my eyes and take his hand. I’m hoping he has found a lemur, but instead he takes me to a cave filled with more than a half-dozen stone tombs. Most Malagasy practice a fusion of Christianity and traditional beliefs deeply rooted in fady or taboos, Claret explains. A unique ritual known as famidihana, or the “turning of the bones,” is akin to a Malagasy family reunion but involving the dead. Families rewrap the corpses of their ancestors in new silk shrouds and talk with the deceased. They don’t believe you can move on to the second life, he says, until the bones are fully decomposed.

Encountering an aye-aye, the very animal I’m hoping to see, means a sure sign of death for many Malagasy. This elusive lemur’s beastly appearance — face of a ferret, batlike ears, beaver teeth, and a bony, witchlike middle finger — led many villagers in the past to regard it as an omen of bad luck that must be killed on sight if seen during the day, though now it is protected by law. Of Madagascar’s 100-some species of lemurs, more than 90 percent face extinction in the next 20 years due to deforestation, mining, and poaching, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But on the hopeful side, Claret tells me, ecotourism shines a spotlight on their plight and new species continue to be discovered.

iscovery should be Madagascar’s biggest selling point. In an age where much of the planet feels discovered, Madagascar is that rare place where you can still feel like an explorer. The pull of the unknown led Pierre Bester, the South African founder of Masoala Forest Lodge, to Madagascar. Bester pioneered the first commercial sea kayaking expeditions in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zanzibar. In 1998, his kayak exploits led him to the Masoala Peninsula, where rain forest meets the sea. So stricken by the area’s natural beauty, he decided to move.

Some people have the money to open something perfect and complete all at once. Others, like Bester, build their dream piece by piece and grow it with time and love. When Bester opened the lodge in 2004, it consisted of five tents on a paradisiacal patch of beach. His German wife, Maria, whom he met in 2010 as she completed a journey across Africa, was the Wendy to his Peter Pan. With the help of a woman’s touch, the lodge has evolved to include seven treetop tents with hot water and showers and a tented spa, plus a new luxury villa, slated for November, a 40-minute boat ride away.

A panther chameleon

Nestled on a private 61.7-acre coastal rain forest reserve within Masoala National Park, fronting Tampolo Marine Reserve, the lodge can only be reached by a three-day trek from Maroantsetra or a two-hour boat ride. Upon arrival, I immediately know my castaway dreams have come true. The treehouses are the epitome of barefoot luxury, outfit with enormous beds and hammocks strung from oceanfront decks. In the Beach House, Wi-Fi is spotty but accessible if you’re patient, and guests can help themselves to an honor bar stocked with French wines and house-infused rums. With sustainability top of mind, Bester ships in very little. Bread is baked in-house, coffee is grown on the peninsula, cinnamon is harvested nearby, even the chili sauce is made from locally grown peppers. Nearly all of the staff, about 20 men and women, come from villages along the peninsula, including the neighboring village of Ambodiforaha, where Bester’s two young children, ages 5 and 3, attend school.

Claret and I spend our mornings hiking in the primary rain forest near the lodge, never seeing another human, just red-ruffed lemurs playing in the treetops and a pink-hued panther chameleon digging a hole to lay its eggs. After dinner each evening, I join him for a night walk along the lodge’s trails. After dark, the forest comes alive with nocturnal species such as the tenrec, a miniature hedgehog, and the teacup-size mouse lemur. 

hile I came for the wildlife, I’d come back for the activities — hiking, island hopping, kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling. Each night, I’d arrive to dinner ready to boast about my epic adventures paddling mangroves and exploring sacred islands, then I’d sit down around the banana-leaf covered table and listen to Bester talk of the time pirates chased him or the time a hippo nearly ate his kayak. A real-life adventurer, he estimates he has kayaked nearly the whole of Madagascar. Each day, no matter how big the swell, Bester kayaks at least an hour if not more. On an outing back in the late ’90s, he discovered the three private islands where he’s now building luxury villas, the first of which will open this fall.

Madagascar, he tells me, is the last undeveloped spot in the Indian Ocean. He realized that he could offer an exclusive product for travelers looking for the next Seychelles, Reunion Island, or Mauritius. Crusoe’s Cabin, a two-floor hardwood villa with a kitchenette and bathroom with hot showers, can sleep four. A private chef and guide come with the villa, so guests can have their own private island experience.

Bester stumbled upon Madagascar’s most exclusive private island resort, Time + Tide Miavana, a few years back when he ran out of water on an 18-day kayak journey. If Masoala Forest Lodge embodies Robinson Crusoe, Miavana is James Bond. The arrival is the first clue that Miavana will make your wildest dreams come true. “Anything you want, we can do,” my pilot, Heinrich, tells me on the 30-minute helicopter flight from Diego Suarez, Madagascar’s northernmost port, to Nosy Ankao, the largest of the five islands in the Levens archipelago. The journey doubles as an aerial marine safari set to a soundtrack of Coldplay and Eddie Vedder, courtesy of Heinrich’s playlist.

From high above, the sea looks like a patchwork of emerald, sapphire, and turquoise smeared with the whitewater of waves breaking over a dark-hued coral reef. Heinrich dips us down low to get a view of the dozens of rays and olive ridley and hawksbill sea turtles playing in the surf. Miavana, which opened in late 2017, appears like a mirage in the distance. Madagascar’s first true five-star luxury lodge doesn’t disappoint. I’m handed a glass of Champagne even before the helicopter’s blades have stopped twirling, and my personal butler shuttles me by buggy to my palatial beachfront villa, one of 14 spread discreetly across the sand.

Fascinating finds at Time + Tide Miavana’s Cabinet des Curiosities

Like Bester, the intrigue of the unknown first lured Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peyre to Madagascar’s northeast coast in the 1980s. I didn’t think Bester’s unbelievable dinner conversation could be topped until I sat down my first night with Peyre, a partner in Miavana. He’s a gentleman pirate, treasure hunter, conservationist, and geologist who first came here on a caving expedition. He displays his “treasures” in Miavana’s Cabinet des Curiosities, a natural history museum of sorts showcasing everything from the skeleton of an extinct pygmy hippo to an elephant bird’s egg valued at $25,000 and amulet-studded tribal headwear once worn by Malagasy royalty. Any other country’s government would make someone turn in these precious artifacts, but according to Peyre, Madagascar’s government doesn’t value its natural and cultural treasures. “These tribal costumes would have been sold and shipped to France,” he tells me.

Miavana’s elephant bird egg

Peyre’s mission to help protect this region dates back to the 1990s. After witnessing villagers on Nosy Ankao slaughtering tortoises for food, he started a marine algae business that could employ and feed locals. Over the last decade, the effects of climate change warmed the waters to the point algae could no longer thrive. That prompted Thierry Dalais, a South African-Mauritian private equity investor and one of the farm’s investors, to approach Peyre with the idea for Miavana.

Dalais knows a thing or two about over-the-top beach retreats. The original investor in North Island in the Seychelles, one of the world’s most exclusive island sanctuaries, Dalais wanted to re-create a hotel that could contribute to restoring and protecting a place of natural beauty. Miavana was five years in the making, with no expense spared to get things right. The resort employed up to 600 local Malagasy workers, including 95 percent of the island’s 400 villagers during construction. Workers removed nearly 10,000 nonendemic casuarina trees during landscaping and replaced them with endemics such as palms and fig trees. And through a translocation program, the endangered crowned lemur now has a sanctuary here to breed.

The architects behind North Island designed the midcentury-modern villas outfit with Smeg appliances, Mad Men-worthy furnishings, and private pools. This could easily be a fly-and-flop destination resort for the uberwealthy, but that’s not the point, Peyre tells me. Miavana targets the next generation of luxury travelers. For me, the real luxury of Miavana is having untouched, unexplored nature all to myself, plus Miavana’s cutting-edge toys and talented team to help me access it.

The hotel’s sporty general manager, Rosco Wendover, and his wife, S.J., the front-of-house manager, are the perfect facilitators. Their team arranges unreal outings, including a sunrise heli-drop atop a cliff so I can trail-run across a ridgeline to a Champagne breakfast and a SUP-and-snorkel safari. Miavana’s team guarantees you’ll go home with adventure bragging rights.

The wind in this part of Madagascar makes it a kitesurfing mecca, and I can now unofficially claim that I’m the third person in the world to have kited Nosy Ankao. To say Madagascar is the next Galápagos or the next Seychelles doesn’t quite do it justice. Upon leaving, I couldn’t help but predict Madagascar will be Africa’s next great adventure base.

DETAILS: Natural World Safaris offers a combined stay at Masoala and Miavana from $14,750 per adult and $8,200 per child sharing. The 10-day “Madagascar Rain Forest & Island Idyll” includes round-trip scheduled light-aircraft charter flights to Masoala, round-trip flights to Antsiranana, round-trip helicopter flights to Nosy Ankao, all airport and boat transfers, lodging, and most activities. 866-357 6569; naturalworldsafaris.com

EXPERTS’ TRAVEL TIPS

Tourism, especially on the higher end, is still in its infancy in Madagascar. Here, three trusted experts with their fingers on the pulse of travel on this African island offer tips for a smooth journey.

Pick your dates carefully. Temperatures vary throughout the island’s many climatic zones. Avoid mid-December through March, the cyclone season, says Will Bolsover, U.K.-based founder of Natural World Safaris. Dry season, April to October, has cooler temperatures. Go between July and September for the best whale-watching; September through early December for birding; and October and November for a chance to see baby lemurs. 

Be prepared for some challenges getting around. Reaching Madagascar isn’t as hard as you’d imagine; Air France and South African Airways offer one-stop flights from New York. But once there, youcould face some hurdles. “While traveling around the island, arm yourself with patience for delays or last-minute schedule changes,” says Erika Reategui, president of First in Service Travel, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency headquartered in New York. Point-to-point private charter flights maximize time in each location. The majority of roads are unpaved; hiring a local driver is highly recommended.

Don’t be scared of the dark. “Be sure to try a night walk,” says Reategui. “Your hotel can organize one at a nature reserve, and since many animals are nocturnal you should have good luck spotting a mouse lemur or an ancient-looking-type chameleon.” 

Indulge in the cuisine. The country’s assorted cultures — African, French, Malaysian — heavily influence the food. Donna Evans, a travel adviser with Exceptional Adventures, an Andavo Travel affiliate and Virtuoso member based in Denver, recommends visiting a local village market to try specialties such as kaka pizon, which are similar to fried wontons; and koba, peanut butter wrapped in banana leaves. She advises you only eat from vendors or at restaurants recommended by your guide or hotel.

Explore the capital. Most trips will require at least one overnight in Antananarivo, or Tana as locals call the capital. For early morning flights, book a hotel by the airport, such as Relais Des Plateaux, says Bolsover, as traffic can get snarled in this large city. If you have time, he recommends taking a city tour and staying at Maison Gallieni in the city’s historic heart. 

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