1. The wildlife
Due to its geographic isolation, Madagascar’s flora and fauna have evolved over several million years independent of outside influences, making the island one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Over 90 per cent of its wildlife is endemic to the island, with some truly extraordinary, often bizarre-looking creatures calling Madagascar home. Some of the memorable animals you could encounter include the various members of the lemur species (more about them below), the unusual cat-like fossa (the island’s largest carnivore) and a host of fascinating smaller species, such as the Giraffe weevil, a wide variety of colourful geckos and an astonishing number of chameleons – the island is home to two-thirds of the world’s chameleon species (below).
2. The lemurs
Without a doubt Madagascar’s most famous residents, the more than 100 lemur species found on the island are the nation’s most adorable ambassadors. Ranging from small mouse lemurs and the huge-eyed aye-aye to the larger varieties like the famous ring-tailed lemur below) and the charming sifaka, the vast number of lemur species is mind-boggling.
3. The Avenue of the Baobabs
Another Madagascan scene destined to feature on your holiday Instagram feed is the famous Avenue of the Baobabs. This is a dirt road lined with striking baobab trees that connects the towns of Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina on the island’s west coast. The distinctive landscape draws travellers from around the world, making it one of the most visited locations in the region. Most of the baobabs are several hundred years old.
4. The landscapes
Madagascar’s uniqueness extends well beyond its flora and fauna. The island also boasts some epic, almost otherworldly landscapes.
One of the most phenomenal of these would have to be the natural formations found at Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park (below), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the west of the island. Characterised by sharp limestone pinnacles and deep caverns, the park resembles a spiky stone forest.
A second national park, Isalo National Park, features an array of unique terrain and can be found in the southern half of the country. Here, you can see impressive canyons, amazing rock formations, stunning waterfalls and of course, several lemur species.
5. The Ampefy region
In the central region of the island, you’ll find the town and commune of Ampefy, which has a population of less than 20,000. The primary draw of this remote section of Madagascar are the region’s spectacular natural and man-made formations, the two best examples of which are the verdant Lily Waterfalls, a beautiful cascade of water on Itasy Lake, and the multicoloured scenes created by the Analavory geysers (below), a cold geyser formation resulting from the release of excess carbonic acid-rich water through nearby mining pipelines.
6. The beaches
Unsurprisingly, the expansive island nation encompasses spectacular stretches of Indian Ocean beaches. Some of the most picturesque beaches can be found on several smaller islands off the mainland.
Nosy Be, an island off Madagascar’s north-west coast, is the country’s busiest tourist destination, offering luxe hotels and exciting island adventures. It’s also an excellent springboard from where excursions to smaller, idyllic islands can be embarked.
Some of the smaller islands that should definitely be added to your itinerary include Nosy Iranja (above), Nosy Sakatia and Nosy Tanikely, all of which offer pristine turquoise waters and incredible snorkelling.
7. The food
The island’s native population, the Malagasy, has African, Arabic and Indonesian roots, thus the island’s culture and cuisine are truly unique.
Noteworthy national dishes and delicacies to sample include ramazava, a dish of beef or pork served with various greens and spices; mofo gasy (below), a sweet rice flour cake that’s a popular street food; lasopy, a wholesome beef broth cooked with a variety of vegetables, as well as koba, a beloved local sweet made with peanuts, sugar and rice flour.
8. The forests
Though Madagascar has been plagued with some of the planet’s worst examples of deforestation, there are still impressive swathes of indigenous, now-protected forests just begging to be discovered.
Two prime spots to explore are Masoala National Park (below), the country’s largest protected area, and Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a large forest reserve found to the east of Antananarivo, the capital. Both parks offer unsurpassed opportunities to experience the island’s unique and singularly beautiful flora and fauna.
At Masoala, you may just get to spot the elusive and nocturnal aye-aye, while at Andasibe-Mantadia, you’ll most likely see (and hear) the indri, the largest of all lemurs, noted for its characteristic haunting howl that can be heard several kilometres away.
9. The diving and snorkelling
With untouched beaches, protected coral reefs and some of the clearest waters, enthusiasts can expect plenty of superb diving and snorkelling spots around the island.
If underwater adventuring is high on your Madagascar wish list, make sure to plan a snorkelling or diving outing to Ifaty off the south-west coast of the main island (below), Nosy Borah, an island off the north-east coast, and Nosy Tanikely, a north-western island, where you’ll be able to enjoy encounters with magnificent coral reefs, dazzling fish, sea turtles and a host of other marine wildlife.
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10. The history
Madagascar’s history tells a compelling story, with its original seafaring human settlers descending upon the island from South-east Asia possibly as far back as 200BC.
Since then, various settlers from other regions have contributed to the interesting and diverse makeup of the contemporary Malagasy people, their culture and traditions. If the island’s history intrigues, two recommended points of interest in the capital are Andafiavaratra Palace (above), a former hilltop residence of the island’s prime minister that is currently a museum; and the Rova of Antananarivo, another former palatial building that was mostly destroyed in a fire. It’s still open to visitors who can visit the on-site tombs of former Madagascan monarchs.
Another interesting historical site is the pirate cemetery on Nosy Boraha, also known as Île Sainte-Marie. Having a long history of pirates in the region, particularly around the 17th and 18th centuries, the island houses what many consider the only legitimate pirate cemetery in the world. Look out for the skull and crossbones carved into one of the headstones.
– TEXT BY SAUL LIPCHIK
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, INSTAGRAM, FLICKR USER TEE LA ROSA (IFATY)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.