The island of Nosy Be (“Big Island”) presides over Madagascar’s tourism industry like a brightly cloaked magician, conjuring perfect holidays out of the seductive natural environment and putting most visitors under a deep spell. Indian Ocean traders have been visiting and settling on the island for centuries, but it jumped onto the world stage in 1841 when the queen of the Boina Sakalava tribe invited the first colonial rule in Madagascar by calling on the French to help her people against their Merina oppressors on the mainland. An imperial governor was installed, Admiral de Hell, and French and Réunionais Creole settlers followed soon after.
For the vast majority of today’s visitors, arriving on direct flights from France or seasonal charters from Italy, this is the only part of Madagascar they ever see. With its fringe of glorious beaches along the west coast, you can see why: arriving in Nosy Be’s primary-coloured landscape, with its deep-blue sky and opalescent sea, golden sands, and tropical verdure draped with purple bougainvillea, is a tonic for greyed-out Europeans. It’s the kind of lush environment where fence posts sprout leaves and turn into hedges. And the sensual perfume of ylang-ylang flowers is everywhere.
All is not perfect however. Since the demise of the ylang-ylang perfume distillery and the SIRAMA state-run sugar plantations at the turn of the century, Nosy Be’s inhabitants rely increasingly on tourism. This has its dark side: prostitution and exploitation are evident in some resort areas, and the brutal murder of two Europeans in 2013 saw a slump in tourism from which the island has yet to recover.
None of this is likely to have any impact on your stay: the beaches and marine life are still beautiful, the interior is an underrated bonus and the surprisingly remote Lokobé rainforest is a real draw for wildlife enthusiasts. Nosy Be itself is just the largest of more than twenty islands scattered in the Mozambique Channel off Madagascar’s indented northwest coast, several of which have inviting lodges.