The largest island in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is a breathtaking destination in Africa everyone should experience at least once. It may be a long haul, but it’s well worth the journey, especially for wildlife and nature lovers. When you get there, be sure to put some of these top things to do on your itinerary.
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Watch for Lemurs
Madagascar is most famous for its lemurs, with nearly 100 different species and sub-species calling the island home, all of which are endemic. They range in size from the tiny pygmy mouse lemur which measures less than six inches in length to the up to 21-inch-long monochrome indri. Visiting the national parks is the best way to spot them, including the Perinet Nature Reserve with 80 percent of the island nation’s wildlife found here, including nine different lemur species. There is also a wide range of birds and reptiles that can be seen while walking the scenic trails through the lush rainforest.
Go Swimming with Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and they aren’t anything like the star of the “Jaws” films. There’s nothing like a close encounter with these naturally docile fish that can get up to 60 feet in length. They pose no threat to humans and from September to December off the shores of Madagascar’s northwestern island of Nosy Be, you can even jump in and swim with them. During this period they gather here to feed on the blooming plankton and can easily be spotted. Multiple outfitters offer whale shark snorkeling trips and while you’re out on the water you’re likely to see all sorts of other marine life like sea turtles, dolphins and manta rays too.
Take a Stroll Through the Unique Baobab Trees
The western part of the island is home to a collection of magnificent Baobab trees that line a dirt road between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina. Visitors come from all corners of the globe to capture photos and walk through these huge, unusual trees that are totally unique to Madagascar, live as long as a thousand years and grow to nearly 100 feet tall. Sunset is one of the most popular times to come as it offers an especially impressive backdrop with the sky transformed into stunning hues of yellow and orange. If you arrive very early, when it’s still dark, the countless stars and the Milky Way also make for a spectacular backdrop.
Catch the Manakara Express
The Manakara Express is a French colonial-era railway that journeys from Manakara on the southeast coast of the island to Fianarantsoa in the highlands. It takes up to 16 hours to cover the 87-mile trip and while it isn’t luxurious by any means, it’s the ideal opportunity for experiencing one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Roll across nearly 70 bridges, through four dozen tunnels, magnificent gorges and tropical rainforest. At every station, the villagers will be selling items like fish, pastries and fresh fruit.
Snorkel or Dive Among the Marine Life
One of the best spots for snorkeling and diving can be found near the shores of Nosy Tanikely, or Tanikely Island, about six miles west of Nosy Komba, which lies off Madagascar’s northwest coast. This is a protected marine reserve with crystal-clear aquamarine water home to vibrant coral reefs filled with all sorts of marine life, including sea turtles, rays, dolphins, a wide range of colorful fish and some harmless sharks. As this is a marine park, fishing is prohibited and you’ll need to pay a small fee to access the lagoon, but it includes not only your entrance but museum and lighthouse tours. Arrive early in the morning for the calmest, clearest waters – equipment is available on site.
Visit a Stone Forest in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park offers extraordinary scenery that includes waterfalls, dense jungle, canyons and an other-worldly stone “forest” made up of jagged limestone needles. The looming spires, towers and narrow canyons have discouraged humans from exploring much, and while it may seem like the area couldn’t support much life, the hypnotic eyes of lemurs can often be seen peering through the rock. Watch for birds of prey, chameleons and brightly colored lizards too.
Relax on Stunning White Sandy Beaches
Madagascar is home to some spectacular white sand beaches – complete with swaying palms and dazzling turquoise waters with schools of exotic fish like the colorful parrotfish. You’ll find the kind that fantasies are made of here in the Indian Ocean, including the beaches on Nosy Iranja which are frequented by nesting turtles. On the little island of Tsarabanjina nearby discover deserted sandy coves edged by a crystal clear blue sea. There are gorgeous beaches on the mainland too – kite-surfing and traditional surfing are popular around Anakao with their reliable swells.
If you’re in the mood for a big thrill, you might consider learning how to kitesurf. Madagascar is home to La Case en Falafy Kitesurf, a kite surfing school in Ramena that will teach you the basics and then take you out on a guided excursion. You’ll head to some of the island’s top spots like the Emerald Sea Lagoon with idyllic wind conditions and dreamy clear blue shallow waters. Experienced kitesurfers are more than welcome too, and all equipment is provided.
Go Whale Watching
If you visit Madagascar in July, August or September, look forward to some of the world’s best whale watching off the idyllic island of Nosy Boraha. Hundreds of humpback whales migrate through these warm, nutrient-rich waters, feasting, matting and giving birth before making their return to Antarctica. You can often see them putting on a breathtaking display of breaching and tail slapping right from the shore, though closer encounters can be had by joining a whale-watching boat tour.
Take a Selfie In Front of the Queen's Palace
Part of a large royal complex in the capital city of Antananarivo, the Queen’s Palace was built for Queen Ranavalona in the 17th century. Since then, successive generations of royalty added buildings to the complex resulting in an interesting blend of architectural styles. While much of the interior was destroyed by fire in 1995, it’s still an impressive sight, worth capturing a selfie in front of the palace, adjoining chapel, tombs, and gateway. Salvaged relics are being stored inside until restoration is complete.