All flights land in the capital, Antananarivo (don’t worry if you can’t pronounce it – even the locals call it ‘Tana’). From there, the most popular place to visit in Madagascar is Nosy Be, a low-key hub on the northern coast. In fact, the north sees the most visitors because it has near-perfect conditions for kite surfing, swimming and diving. Nosy Be and Tsava Komba are key points of the annual whale shark migration. Nearby Diego Suarez is also popular with visitors.
The north of the island is also home to Montagne d’Ambre National Park, a haven for the world’s second smallest species of chameleon, seven species of lemur, ring-tailed mongoose, at least 77 recorded species of birds and the fosa, Madagascar’s only predator. ‘Amber Mountain’ gets its name from the red laterite soil and limestone pinnacles that are characteristic of the area. The nearby farming town of Ambanja is a foodie’s delight with fresh cacao, vanilla, coffee, cloves and ylang ylang coming in from the surrounding plantations.
The rest of the island is not nearly as developed as the north for tourism, making it perfect for adventurous travellers who really want to go to authentic places with little commercialism.
In the west, seek out Tsingy Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve and the Tsiribihina River. Its needle-sharp limestone pinnacles, which soar high into the air, are a World Heritage Site (‘tsingy’ means ‘the place where one cannot walk barefoot’). In complete contrast to these razor-like outcrops is the Tsiribihina River, which feeds the reserve’s lush mangroves. Just outside the reserve is one of the island’s loveliest sites: the Avenue of the Baobabs. This collection of soaring trees is bigger than the famed ‘Baobab Alley’ in Botswana’s Savute region and Baines’ Baobabs in Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park.
The west is generally much drier than the rest of the island and its deciduous trees drop all their leaves over the dry mid-year winter.
The south is one of the most arid areas but this natural dryness gives rise to the fascinating canyons, sandstone outcrops and palm-tree oases of Isalo National Park, beloved by intrepid hikers. Another highlight is the Antsokay Arboretum, where about ninety percent of the of the 900 plant species represented are endemic and you can walk through the ‘spiny forest’ of cacti.
To the south-east is Ranomafana National Park, which is a rainforest wonderland and a sanctuary for the golden bamboo lemur. The east coast is the lushest thanks to moisture coming up from the Indian Ocean – the rainforests of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park support the island’s biggest lemur, the indri, which is about the size of a koala bear and has a piercingly characteristic cry! On a walk to the Sacred Waterfall, look out for Parson’s chameleon as well as rare ferns and orchids.
The south-east is also home to Andohahela National Park that has good walking trails through three diverse landscapes, including the Anosy Mountains, Malagasy Highlands and rainforest. The climate ranges from humid to semi-arid, and it's best to go between the April-to-October dry season. See 13 species of lemur, 130 of birds and 67 of reptiles. The rainforest supports 200 types of tree ferns as well as wild vanilla trees and orchids. In complete contrast, the Spiny Forest (or Ihazofotsy-Manyatsiaka) offers unusual species that thrive in low rainfall.
The Ifotaka Community Forest or Fort Dauphin is also in the south-east and is a good example of government-and-community co-operation for conservation. The Tandroy people are custodians of an area that supports ring-tailed lemurs, Verreaux's sifakas (a type of lemur named after their characteristic alarm call), mouse lemurs, white-footed sportive lemurs and scops owls. If you're very lucky, you may get the see sifakas doing their odd but charming 'dance' on the ground.
One of the biggest lures of the east coast is Sainte Marie Island, which is in the midst of the annual June-to-September humpback whale migration. The whales are very active on the huge reef off the island, with the females giving birth and the males ‘singing’ to attract new mates. The whale song is often clearly audible to visitors thanks to a lack of surrounding noise pollution.
The central highlands are much cooler and drier than the coast and are thus the centre of Madagascar’s agricultural industry, of which rice is a staple crop.