The Madagascan Island of Ile Sainte Marie is tucked away on the north-east of a country so varied with endless rolling rice paddies, national forest, dry desert and rural life that you would hardly expect to find such an idyllic beach paradise.
After two weeks of long drive days and a variety of scenery we boarded the ferry for the island of Ile Sainte Marie. The ferry port is overcrowded, dirty, bustling, loud and exactly as I expected. The ferry itself was overloaded with cargo and passengers the way Africa is notoriously famous for, and also as I imagined.
There are a few companies who can deliver you to the island and a few different entry ports so do your homework and choose which suits you best. It can get choppy so plan ahead with seasickness tablets, and you might want to take some fresh mint to rub under your nose as the life-jackets have a particular ‘lived in’ smell, but apart from that everything was as expected and took 1.5hours.
Ile Sainte Marie and Ile Aux Natte Island
It turns out the new Mayor arrived to Ile Sainte Marie on the same ferry as us and the locals had turned out to welcome him with in droves. A 4×4 packed with speakers was the catalyst for blasting music, gyrating bodies and smiles stretching from ear to ear. At first I wondered if this was a typical welcoming for foreigners to the island, like the ultimate VIP enticement to stay forever but alas, they had bigger fish to fry and after he disembarked the Malagasy baseline and people followed him away and up the street.
Ile Sainte Marie port town has all the usual suspects you could wish for including money machine, pharmacy, restaurants, bars and souvenirs. As few places on the island actually take card as payment, it’s a good idea to withdraw enough money here and get creative with where you hide it. There are lots of mosquitoes here and it’s a malarial zone so even if you have taken antimalarial tablets (which are not a prevention to malaria) you’ll need to have enough spray of choice although the breeze does help.
We stayed to the East of Ile Sainte Marie in the Hotel Vanivola, a beautiful place with the only pool on the island. The hotel reception has a pool table, T.V viewing area, bar and services for booking activities. This then opens out to the swimming pool, relaxation area and beautiful views perfect for sunset. Whilst this was a lovely hotel and fitted our purposes perfectly, there are a few reasons why I wouldn’t stay at this hotel next time:
– The low tide, crustaceans and coral reef make it impossible to swim and we were warned not to swim even at high tide for safety reasons
– The drinks are expensive and let’s face it, on a beautiful paradise island there is nothing better than washing down a beautiful sunset with endless gin and tonics
– The pool is filled with water from the well which looks dirty and whilst the water is clean and has been treated with chlorine, it’s not ideal. The same goes for the water from the basin tap. When I have the option of swimming in salt water I don’t see the point of swimming in a chlorinated pool.
– Depending on your preferences there are much better choices and for me the island of Ile Aux Natte Island has more to offer in terms of that quintessential island experience
So what is there to do?
The hotel will help you organise different activities which is perfect for those who either don’t speak the language (French or Malagasy), don’t mind paying extra for the hotel to handle the arrangements or just want an easy life. These include a whale photo Safari (June to September), scuba diving, quad bikes, hiring scooters and sport fishing.
The first evening after arrival we wondered down to Chez Nath which is run by an Italian woman named Nathalie who set up her business in Ile Sainte Marie two years ago employing only locals. She offers beautiful bungalows at a reasonable price and as she speaks French, English and Italian she is a great source of information for a new arrival. Be sure to test one of her famous pizzas as the chef practices black magic cooking in the kitchen and the fire oven gives the crust a beautiful finish. The place has a lovely homely feel and her friendly nature and cheeky dogs will help you relax instantly. Be sure to take Peewee for a walk along the beach as he makes for great company.
Here is a wonderful reggae band we ran into
A few doors down you’ll find Chez Ludo where you can rent scooters at a cheaper price than the hotels, this in my opinion is the best way to discover the north of the island. You don’t need a driver’s license, insurance or anything except money for that matter and you can bargain for the right price. We paid 40,000MGA (Ariary) per scooter in low season but we heard of people going as low as 25,000MGA so bargain as far as you feel is fair. Keep in mind if you crash the bike, you own the bike!
As I mentioned above be sure to rent a scooter and head to the north of Ile Sainte Marie until the tarmac runs out. It’s one straight road so you can’t go wrong but you’ll have fun along the way dodging pot holes, and suicidal chickens. The journey north is spectacular and paved with rural villages drying cloves in the sunshine, idyllic Indian Ocean coastline, towering palm and coconut trees and it doesn’t take long before the traffic disappears and it’s just the sound of the engine coasting along narrow roads.
The entire trip north takes roughly 1.5 hours depending on how many times you stop and after the road ends and sand begins near Ambodirano village, you’ll be swarmed by a sea of touts telling you to pay for the beach, parking, guiding services and buy food from their restaurant. You can take your bikes the 150meters down to the beach but it’s 2000MGA to have someone watch your bike and in my opinion it’s one less thing to worry about. You don’t need a guide and you also don’t need to pay to visit a public beach. I do recommend ordering a lobster which the restaurants will cook whilst you swim, and served hot with a cold beer after you’ve finished.
After walking down to the beach, turn right and you come to three sacred pools. The warm water is separated from the Indian Ocean by a granitic gate of about hundred meters. During each tide, the sea fills these natural basins by crashing against the rocks’ belt. The scenery here is nothing short of spectacular.
Ile Aux Natte Island
Sambatra Beach Lodge is situated off the North East Coast off mainland Madagascar, across from the Southern tip of St Marie, a paradise called Ile Aux Natte Island. It’s a 45min flight from the capital Antananarivo or roughly a 14 hour travel day IF your various modes of transport connect. On arrival to the tip of St Marie Island, a 10 minute pirogue (wooden boat) will deliver you across the estuary to Ile Aux Natte Island for 2,000MGA per person or right to your lodge of choice if you pay extra (roughly 10,000 per person extra).
We were lucky enough to have arrived early to Ile Aux Natte Island and made our way directly to Sambatra Beach Lodge, an English speaking establishment which is owned and run by a charming South African man named Vincent.
Upon arrival you’ll find a row of 6 bungalows, all with private beach front views and westerly facing view for sunset. It also happens to be situated on the best part of the island for swimming and is very beautiful. As the island isn’t built up it’s the ultimate place to wind down, share a few laughs with the owner Vincent, and wash away the stress in the Indian Ocean in this “home away from home” atmosphere.
There is a beach front bar and restaurant, plus bungalows are individually decorated, have a toilet hot water shower and a private covered patio with an amazing view of Sambatra’s Reef.
As the sun set we made the decision to stay longer on the island and enjoy a few drinks with the lodge host. Vincent arranged our boatman to circle around the island to pick us up later and our tuk tuk (actually pronounced pousse pousse) to drive us back to the hotel. As our pirogue drifted towards the mainland, a blazing sunset raged to the West and the Indian Ocean warmed our hands, it was one of those delicious travel memories which ends up being an unforgettable memory. My advice folks is to stay at Sambatra Beach Lodge for a truly idyllic experience.
To help you imagine why is was so hard for us to leave this island paradise, here is the view we enjoyed over a gin. For your ease I have time-lapsed it.
I’ll leave you with a little story about those strange things that happen in strange countries. I had done some hand washing of clothes in the shower and with a full pile of soggy clothes ready to be hung outside, I stuck on a pair of underwear from the previous night. I immediately felt a sting so quickly pulled them down to see a huge ant fall to the ground. As I final justice I squashed him before realising it had bitten me where no man should ever be bitten. Note to self…stop leaving clothes on the floor!
If you want to read any other Africa blogs, check these out:
A guide to travelling Sudan
Everything you need to know about travelling in Cameroon
How to spot gorillas in Lobeke National Park
The ultimate guide to travelling in Ethiopia
The Danakil Depression – one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on earth
Tanzania – Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater
Botswana and the Okavango Delta
Happy travelling folks