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.
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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.
As the European spice trade opened with southeast Asia and Indonesia in the late seventeenth century, English ships laden with cash and trade goods rounded the Cape to brave the southern Indian Ocean. Many were wrecked on the reefs of Madagascar, where survivors sometimes parlayed the cargo into settlements with local chiefs and permanent residence and marriage. By 1690, deliberate wrecking and piracy had become a major local industry, centred around the island of Sainte Marie and the comparatively safe anchorages in the Baie d’Antongil.
Although the most infamous of these was William Kidd, his pirate career was short-lived – and, curiously enough, began with his commission by the British crown as a pirate-catcher. Kidd’s nemesis, Robert Culliford, was a more colourful and piratical character, reputedly bisexual, and exceptionally ruthless. Sainte Marie’s most successful pirate was Thomas Tew, who captured a Mughal ship loaded with some £200 million (at today’s value) in gold and silver. (Such booty was by no means uncommon: the vicious pirate Christopher Condent captured more than £120 million at today’s value in a single attack on an Arab vessel.) It is believed that Tew went on to marry a local chief’s daughter and had a son, Ratsimilaho, who founded the Betsimisaraka confederation. Much less sure is whether he was one of the key citizens of the supposed “pirate colony” of Libertalia, believed to have been based around the Île aux Forbans in the bay south of Ambodifotatra, and to have experimented with a radical new social order, in which plunder was distributed fairly among its members, and racial equality was asserted.
The humpbacks of Sainte Marie
Between June and September the seas of eastern Madagascar, and particularly the Baie d’Antongil, are witness to an annual invasion of cavorting humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Leaving their summer feeding grounds in the krill-rich waters of Antarctica, they stream north to the sheltered shallows of Antongil Bay and the west coast of Île Ste Marie where they calve and mate.
Always one of the most entertaining of the baleen whales (toothless filter feeders), with their outlandishly long flippers, humpbacks – which can grow to 15m in length and weigh more than 30 tonnes – spend much of their time in this area simply enjoying themselves – slapping their fins, breaching and singing to each other as they welcome the newborns. After the males have competed for their selected females with bouts of mock fighting and wave-making, the couples pair up to mate. The babies, which suckle their mothers like other mammals, are born eleven months after conception.
The western coast of Île Sainte Marie is one of the best places in the world for shore-based whale-watching, as humpbacks of all sizes can often be seen as little as 100m from the beach, heading north in the early part of the season and back south again later on. Many hotels also offer boat trips to watch the whales and usually follow the internationally observed conventions of whale-watching, designed to keep humans safe and cetaceans safe from harassment. Typical trips last a couple of hours and cost 60,000ar. In the north, La Crique and Atafana are recommended bases (both very close to the Madagascar mainland) and in the south, Libertalia, Princesse Bora and Sambaftra Beach Lodge. For news and information on marine mammals and baleen whales in the Indian Ocean, visit w megaptera.org.
Île aux Nattes
If Île Sainte Marie’s usually empty airport runway and far from busy tarmac road feel far too hectic for your liking, then Île aux Nattes (also known as Nosy Nato, the “island of palm mats”) might be more to your taste. Just 2km long and 1km wide, it’s a roadless, traffic-free, rural idyll, where uniformed children go to school in canoes, coconut trees rustle in the constant breeze and almost every view takes in the shallow, azure sea, teeming with marine life.
Once installed at your chosen lodging, you can do what most people do here – nothing more strenuous than turning the next page or taking another sip – or you can stroll around the island’s perimeter, passing its clutch of low-key hotels, through fields and gardens and across streams and beaches. Some hotels and guesthouses have bicycles to rent. The best snorkelling spots right off the beach are on the west coast from the northern tip to about as far south as Sambatra Beach Lodge. Further south the beach is narrower and the water deeper.
As for its fauna and flora, Île aux Nattes boasts the world’s only black orchid, the rather sinister-looking Cymbidiella falcigera, but no chameleons (one explanation is that superstitious locals exterminated them), while the island’s lemurs are mostly semi-tame hotel introductions. In season, humpback whales pass just beyond the reef on the west coast.
AMBODIFOTATRA, Sainte Marie’s capital, is a one-street town of largely wooden buildings, close to the seashore. Although there are no specific attractions beyond the curiosity of Madagascar’s oldest church, the red-roofed Catholic church of Notre Dame de l’Assomption, which overlooks the creek on the south side of town, Ambodifotatra is a welcoming enough place to hang out – and if you’re on a low budget probably the best base on the island.
North of Ambodifotatra
On the north side of Ambodifotatra, the town peters out into palms and bush and the surfaced road snakes north along the west coast, passing several idyllic beaches – Anjaha, 4km north of town, with its long crescent of palm-backed sand, is particularly lovely. There are scattered family compounds on this northern part of the island, but aside from a handful of small beachfront hotels, no other services. The road has recently been surfaced almost as far as the northern tip of the island, giving you access to the piscine naturelle at Ambodiatafana, a lovely lagoon, and a good swimming spot.