Off the northwest coast of Madagascar lies the popular destination Nosy Be, but by straying from its shores you’ll find a smattering of smaller, more remote tropical islands with luxury lodges set amidst wildlife-rich rainforest, and diving that’s known to be the best in Madagascar.
I brace myself as the speedboat skips across the waves, sending up warm ocean spray. It’s an exhilarating ride from Madagascar’s ‘big island’ Nosy Be to volcanic Nosy Komba. The island’s northern tip is just a short journey across the dividing water but Tsara Komba Lodge is situated in a secluded spot on its peaceful southern shores.
Our boat slowly skirts the coast as islanders paddle by in wooden pirogues, oars knocking against the side of their boats as they cast out nets to catch snapper, kingfish and wahoo. Along the island’s shores, wild rainforest encroaches on golden bays and rocky outcrops, with thatched huts tucked into the vegetation.
The speedboat’s engine cuts out and we drift inland where my French host Lucie, who runs the eco-lodge with her husband Xavier, has her arms outstretched waving us in warmly. Clambering over the side of the boat, I step into the gin-clear water to follow Lucie up the beach, leaving my footprints in the sand.
Here I’m led up stone steps winding through pink bougainvillea, fan-like palm fronds and coconut trees that lean out to sea. Only moments after settling in, one of the lodge’s gardeners comes bounding up the steps in excitement. “Dolphin,” he exclaims, “Come with me.” Barefoot, I follow him down to the beach.
Standing side by side, we face out to sea, and there in the distance I see a dolphin leaping through the waves as it passes the island by. Later, as I’m sharing my story with Lucie she tells me this can happen two or three times a day. “Then from August, we can look out and see the whales too,” she enthuses. This seems to be one part of life on the island that makes this part of Madagascar so very special.
With the island almost entirely taken up by one volcano, vanilla, cacao and coffee plantations are tucked within its forested slopes. Set out on a rainforest trek to seek out these plantations and take in the views from the volcanic peak. A fishing village lies on the northern shores, where islanders sell vanilla and handmade ornaments, as well as taking visitors to see the rainforest’s wild lemurs.
This secluded island is characterised by the abundance of turtles that nest on its shores. Also known as ‘Turtle Island’, Nosy Iranja is actually made up of two separate islets, joined by a 1.2-kilometre sandbar, which can only be crossed at low tide. Eight species of turtles nest here, and with such rich ocean life offshore, snorkelling, diving and kayaking are exceptionally rewarding.
The Mitsio Archipelago
Situated 70 kilometres north of Nosy Be, these are the farthest flung of Madagascar’s northwest islands, but they’re certainly worth the journey, encompassing white sand bays, curious rock formations and baobab trees. Grand Mitsio is the archipelago’s only inhabited island, with a small fishing community, while Tsarabanjina, which means beautiful island, is home to a private island resort of the same name. The natural surroundings are the focus here; go scuba diving, island hopping on the catamaran and snorkelling with a marine biologist.
WHERE TO STAY
This French-Malagasy style eco-lodge combines sleek wooden interiors with furnishings crafted from local materials, and antiques sourced from around Madagascar. The lodge and individual villas are set on the hillside amidst tropical gardens, backed by rainforest and overlooking golden shores. Fishermen sail by in their wooden pirogues, dolphins leap through the water, whales can be seen breaching, and guided hikes can be taken across the island. Speedboat transfers from Nosy Be take around 30 minutes.
Tsarabanjina was uninhabited until 1990 when South African adventurer Richard Walker became spellbound by the island and decided to build a small resort there. Since then, the resort has been handed over to Constance who built a main lodge and beach-facing palm-thatched villas by working with local craftsmen, decorating each luxury interior with bespoke Malagasy ornaments and textiles. The boat crossing from Nosy Be takes 90 minutes but helicopter transfers can be arranged.
HOW TO DO IT
Air Madagascar flies between Antananarivo and Nosy Be, then speedboat transfers go out to the islands. The best time to visit is during the drier months (April to October). Whale-watching trips can be arranged on Nosy Komba from August to December, and Humpback whales can be seen from Tsarabanjina between August and November as they migrate from Antarctica to breed. Trips to Nosy Iranja can be taken from the other islands.