Madagascar // Nosy Be and the far north //

The west coast

With their palm-shaded sands and vivid sunsets over the Mozambique Channel, the west coast beaches of Nosy Be – a series of long bays bracketed by rocky headlands – are every inch the iconic image of a tropical paradise. Their warm, safe tidal lagoons are sheltered from the ocean by large sections of reef (which although degraded are still well worth diving or snorkelling) and the paved Route de l’Ouest that runs north to Andilana and then around the island passes just a few hundred metres from the shore, making access easy. And between the hotels and tourists, traditional village life carries on, with fishing boats pulled ashore and women pounding rice or preparing food on the porch.

Ambatoloaka

Just 10km from the capital, Ambatoloaka is the first resort area out of Hell-Ville, and also the busiest on the island. Yet this slip of a tourist town barely existed twenty years ago. It’s still charmingly low-key by international standards, consisting of a single 400-metre lane that runs just a block behind the beachfront and is lined with wooden shops, eating houses, hand-painted excursion and scooter-rental outlets and a couple of bar-discos. The close proximity of everything makes doing a restaurant or bar crawl supremely easy, and you’ll feel like you’re getting a genuine immersion in local life, though it’s a pretty tame scene. After dark, when the centre of Ambatoloaka is a car-free zone, it does become busier and livelier: you leave your vehicle at the town’s small, guarded car park at the north end of the road, and walk in past the barrier.

Past the rocky area at the north end of Ambatoloaka beach, the bay continues for a further kilometre or so as Madirokely beach. This is still fairly busy, the sands and sea not the most pristine, and the hawkers sometimes out in force, but Madirokely is a slightly more refined resort, with its own access road 1km further along the coast highway. A footpath leads between the two resort areas.

Ambondrona to Ampasy

The next beach north from Madirokely is Ambondrona. Again, it’s not the island’s best – the water can sometimes be cloudy here and you may feel a bit besieged by sales people – but the coast road passes right behind the beach and there are several hotels, including Domaine Manga Be. The next stretch takes in the less attractive resort areas of Belle-Vue and Ampasy.

Djamandjary

DJAMANDJARY is the island’s second town and has its own life aside from the tourist industry. As you drive north, on the right you’ll see the biggest Protestant church in Madagascar, built in 2012 by former president Marc Ravalomanana, a Protestant himself who noticed three times as many worshippers outside the former church as inside it. The concrete pill-box shaped houses on the left side of the road are the last standing cyclone-proof homes on the island – a French initiative during colonial times.

A little further north on the right side of the road you pass the SIRAMA sugar and rum factory, standing idle since 2006. There’s even an ancient locomotive sinking in rusty dereliction into the grass by the staff housing. Some 65 percent of Nosy Be’s lush, hilly countryside is held by SIRAMA, the state-owned sugar producer, which used to produce thousands of tons of sugar cane, mostly for the manufacture of rum. However production came to a halt in 2002 and since then much of the farmland has been carved into small, unofficial plots and planted with rice and other crops by islanders. If you want to have a go at hiking up to Mont Passot from here, note that the path, which can also be ascended on a trail bike, starts behind the factory.

Bemoko and around

Beyond the next headland is Bemoko beach – though there’s not much of it at high tide – and the area is less developed and more forested. It faces the hilly and partly forested island of Nosy Sakatia, which has a handful of places to stay of its own. You then pass a coastline of mangroves – and the uninhabited islet of Nosy Ratsy where stillborn infants were traditionally buried.

Andilana

Finally you reach the rocky headland of Andilana with its superb – though very much occupied – north-facing beaches. The sea around Andilana – with little surface drainage and close to the open ocean – tends to be very clear.

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