Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, is a giant wonderland of natural sights and experiences. It's a place of diverse landscapes, climates and tribal systems. Traditional beliefs in taboo (fady) and animism remain strong alongside imported Christianity from 19th-century missionaries and European influences from colonial days gone by. Madagascar both delights and challenges travellers. If you can get to grips with its distinct character, the rewards are endless – including what is arguably the best camembert outside of France. Now is the time to plan a trip to Madagascar – and here's why.
What gets people most excited about a trip to Madagascar is its wildlife. Thanks to millennia in splendid isolation, Madagascar evolved unlike anywhere else on Earth. It's an ecological gem, with a thrilling selection of endemic species. 5% of all the world's plants and animals can be found in Madagascar alone. It's for this reason that many refer to it as the 'eighth continent'.
Lemurs are the big celebs. With more than 100 species dotted across the island, these delightfully endearing primates are inquisitive, playful and easy to spot. To spot the greatest variety, hire an expert guide adept in the art of lemur calls.
Of course, lemurs aren't the only mammals on the block. From tiny tenrecs and bats to the main predator of the pack, the elusive fossa, there's plenty to look out for, not to mention the varied collection of birds and reptiles.
Sadly, Madagascar's wildlife is at great risk. Deforestation (with forest giving way to destructive rice paddies) and poaching are the two main culprits.
The razor-sharp tsingy rock formations are another unique reason to plan a trip to Madagascar. Roughly translated as "where you can only tiptoe," the tsingy are eroded limestone peaks that hide caverns and deep waterways. Within these subterranean caves, hardy flora and fauna manage to eke out an existence.
Make a beeline for Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park (also the country's first UNESCO site), the Tsingy de Namoroka National Park, or the iron-rich red ridges of the Tsingy Rouge Park in the north.
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In true Indian Ocean style, Madagascar serves up some of the most sensational sandy beaches going. Plus they have the added bonus of being pretty crowd-free. What's more, the waters surrounding Madagascar are incredibly diverse. Fish of all sizes call the corals of The Great Reef (the fifth largest in the world) home, while dolphins and manta rays are easily spotted (depending on the time of year).
Head to Nosy Sakatia to swim with grazing sea turtles, or plan a day trips from Nosy Be to see placid whale sharks from October to December. Meanwhile, glorious Ile Sainte Marie is ideal for whale watching between June and September. This is when humpback whales head to the warm waters to breed. If you dive, the ocean is your oyster.
If ring-tailed lemurs don't leap into your mind at the mention of Madagascar, then surely the bulbous baobab tree will. All eight of the world's baobab species can be found in Madagascar – six of which are endemic. A trip to Madagascar is worth the effort even if just to see the stands of these majestic trees.
With the look of being planted roots up, baobab trees are the camels of the forest, able to retain thousands of litres of water, making them well suited to arid environments.
The Avenue of the Baobabs in western Madagascar is rightly considered the place to see them. The best photo opportunities are at sunrise and sunset. If you can't make it to the Avenue, other species of baobabs can be found island-wide.
Madagascar's hilltop capital city, affectionately known as Tana (from the French 'Tananarive'), is a sprawling urban centre that many travellers make the mistake of leaving off their itinerary.
Yes, it's busy, a little gritty, and pollution is a problem but it also stands in stark contrast to the rural landscapes and vast national parks Madagascar is known for. The city has a cooler climate thanks to its elevation. A night or two here is time well spent – and remember, all the thigh-burning steep climbs are rewarded with exceptional views!
Madagascar is the world's leading producer of vanilla. The sweet spice of Mexican origin is painstakingly hand pollinated in plantations, which is what makes it such a luxury item. July welcomes the vanilla harvest when the 'Vanilla Coast' in the northeast is the place to be.
Large quantities of cacao, cloves, pepper and cinnamon, among other spices, are also cultivated, while bananas, pineapples and mangoes grow freely. Don't miss mango season throughout October, when the trees that thrive in the tropical climate to the north drip with juicy ripe fruit, and lychee season, which kicks off in November.
If ever a nation had a mantra, this is it. Meaning 'slowly slowly', 'mora mora', is the go-to answer for everything in Madagascar, especially if you're in a hurry. If you're held up by potholes or displaying any signs of impatience, the response is likely to be 'mora mora'. So, you may as well get in the zone and give in to the island vibe – it will serve you well during your travels.
It's true that the plague is still endemic in Madagascar – typically aggravated by the wet season from July to November. Normally, however, cases are very isolated. 2017 saw a vicious epidemic that hit the headlines and put many would-be visitors off. The good news is that this spread of infection is now over. Look past the sensationalism and you'll see that not only is the epidemic over, but the risk of catching it while touring Madagascar is low, provided sensible precautions are taken.
Top image: Ring-tailed lemur carrying twin babies © Hajakely/Shutterstock