The relatively wealthy far northeast coast is Madagascar’s prime region for the cultivation and export of vanilla, local prosperity being tied umbilically to the fortunes of the flavoursome pods on world markets. In the early years of this century this Sava region (named after the initials of its main towns) experienced an unprecedented economic boom as vanilla prices rose steeply – roads and airports were built and thousands of migrants moved here – and then a crash as vanilla prices plummeted. This coast is also notoriously prone to cyclones: in March 2004 it was devastated by Cyclone Gafilo, the most intense cyclone ever recorded in the southwest Indian Ocean, and a string of slightly less devastating storms mangled the region in 2007.
Today, Sava remains a relatively well-off area, with the surfaced road between Antalaha and Vohemar one of the best in the country, though the scruffy signs of bust-after-boom, cyclone damage and subsequent repair are everywhere. Inland, in the mountains west of Sambava, are the remote parks of Marojejy and Andanaharibe-Sud – very worthwhile targets if you have a few days.
Leaving the coast at Vohemar to cross Madagascar towards Nosy Be and Diego Suarez, the RN5A is extremely rough and slow. Part-way along this route, near Daraina, there’s the opportunity to see one of Madagascar’s rarest and most beautiful lemurs.