The far north of Madagascar is dominated by Antsiranana – “the place by the sea” – still most commonly known simply as DIEGO SUAREZ. The town is almost encircled by its vast, indented bay, sparkling azure blue under the Capricorn sun, fringed with beaches and scattered with intriguing islets. This area has a wonderful, breezy climate, perfect for the beach, with most of its metre of annual rainfall coming between December and March, and barely 100mm falling between May and October.
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It’s an easy town to enjoy, with some glorious views, an easy-going atmosphere and plenty of places to stay, eat, drink and generally while away a few days. Striking contrasts – the old colonial and modern architecture, the beaches and hillsides, and the melting-pot cultural environment – make for a memorable stay. There are lots of activities available, too, with excellent diving, snorkelling, kite- and windsurfing opportunities.
The area was first named after a Portuguese captain, Diego Dias, who sailed with the second expedition to India in 1500; his ship went astray and he became one of the earliest Europeans to set eyes on Madagascar. It was then named after his countryman, Fernando Soares, who in 1506 was the first European to land in the bay. However, it was a third Portuguese adventurer, the pirate and slaver, Diego Soares, who stamped his notorious name on the early town after a particularly brutal sojourn in the 1540s.
Almost landlocked, Diego Suarez is reputed to have the best natural harbour in the western Indian Ocean and it played a key role during the French colonial period, particularly when the Japanese threatened to overrun it in 1942. This led to a successful British invasion – the Battle of Madagascar – and the liberation of the island from the Vichy Republic. French and British Commonwealth cemeteries attest to the losses on both sides. Diego remained a French naval base and repair dock until 1973 when it was returned to Madagascar. These days it’s the country’s fifth-biggest town and the third port after Tamatave and Majunga, with its economic mainstays being a tuna cannery, Indian Ocean trade, and some cruise-ship tourism.
Watersports in Diego Suarez
The deeply indented coastline around Diego Suarez offers some of the best diving in Madagascar. With plenty of wrecks and an almost infinite number of anchorages for dive boats, there is no shortage of possibilities for dives and snorkelling trips – though conditions are generally a little rougher than around the very sheltered seas off Nosy Be and its neighbouring islands. If you’re into kitesurfing or windsurfing, you may be in for a treat, especially from May to October when a steady southeasterly breeze, the varatraza, comes into the bay. You can rent equipment at Ramena Beach.
The town straddles a long ridge between two shallow river valleys, with the old town centre and port area sticking out to sea at the end, where the ridge forms a peninsula. The main avenue in town, Rue Colbert, runs in one straight kilometre from Place Foch to the cliffs above the bay. Diego’s main market is the splendidly colourful and welcoming bazary kely – “small market”, a typically Madagascan paradox – while the fine old bazary be (big market) is now a thriving branch of the Alliance Française, the French cultural centre.