Although it’s an island off an island, and geographically remote, Île Sainte Marie – rarely known by its Malagasy name of Nosy Boraha – is one of the most cosmopolitan parts of Madagascar, having long been a base for foreign traders. Various European pirates left their mark here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the French used it as a toehold from which they went on to colonize the whole of Madagascar – and it’s a favourite retreat for Malagasy and French holiday-makers and now South African visitors.
Sainte Marie is not really a lemur area, local species having long ago been eaten by their human primate cousins, but the island offers a winning combination of ravishing tropical landscapes, crystal-clear seas for snorkelling and diving, including some enticing wreck dives, and from June to August some of the best humpback whale-watching in the world.
Sainte Marie is exposed to the westerly trade winds of the Indian Ocean, and cyclones frequently cause extensive damage and even loss of life, which explains why most of the island’s hotels are situated on its more sheltered western side. The weather can play havoc with travel schedules, especially in the first few months of the year. In theory there are almost daily flights and boats every morning to the big island, but bad weather and rough seas often put paid to them. If you’re planning a visit here, be sure to build some wriggle room into your itinerary: it’s not unusual to be stranded here for days.
From the airport, whose runway spans the breadth of the island’s southern tip, a tarmac road runs north to Ambodifotatra, Sainte Marie’s capital, through overhanging forest and palms, and partly along the seashore. Located along the road are most of Sainte Marie’s hotels, interspersed with local houses and a scattering of simple shops and restaurants, some for budget tourists.