Madagascar might just be the perfect mix of different things we find to love in cruising destinations. Most boats crossing the Indian Ocean stop in, unless they are on a delivery or a schedule to get around the world; I don’t need to convince any cruisers to make it a destination. But for those contemplating cruising in the Indian Ocean, consider this a teaser for the awesomeness that lies ahead.
1. Incredible sailing
I’ve raved and it bears repeating: Madagascar’s diurnal daily breezes provided simply glorious sailing. Swells that have traveled across the Indian Ocean get blocked by the island, so there’s flat water to move us even more comfortably and swiftly along. Easily the best sailing of any country/region we’ve been in since we started cruising in mid-2008. It is THAT GOOD.
2. Scenic environment
While we were there, BBC ran a piece about the striking rock formations of Ireland that get some squillions (or whatever) visitors per year, and that the exact same phenomenon of columnar basalt covers a cliff-side point of land in Nosy Mitsio. That’s just one example. Whether it was a hillside hike to a view, a walk among baobabs, or turquoise waters in the Barrens, Madagascar offered one breathtaking scene after another. And unlike most of the places we’ve been in the last years, it’s not been trashed: in general, it was unusual to see plastic garbage. This is mainly a function of the local economy: people are so poor, the packaged consumer goods that the trash we see usually comes from simply isn’t part of the average person’s daily life. But Madagascar also just outlawed the use of plastic bags for consumers; signs were up in the grocery stores before we left. A hopeful sign that they can keep the garbage in check when individual buying power grows.
3. Welcoming people
We were repeatedly made welcome by Malagasy, and there was a general tone of warmth and interest. I love to go wandering around and stumble into random interactions, like mostly-mimed “conversations” with the lady who sells me a kola nut drink, or practice English with the schoolboys playing dominoes. In Madagascar, those interactions were easy and enjoyable. People were open, genuine, and interested in engaging. It’s so refreshing, after spending a lot of time last year+ in places where local folks weren’t all that interested in interaction unless they had something to sell you, or belonged to cultures that discourage fraternizing with outsiders.
4. Extraordinary wildlife
LEMURS! Really, it’s ALL the amazing wildlife in Madagascar, where something like 90% of species are endemic – but let’s be honest. Lemurs are cute, approachable, and we’re related to them. There are easy opportunities to interact with lemurs directly. For the record, there is some dissent among the crew: Mairen insists that zebu, Madagascar’s Brahman cows, are her favorite thing about our time here (“they’re so funny! And they have those cute wooden carts!”). It’s my blog so I choose to trump her. 😉 But yes: lemurs. Chameleons. Crazy looking spiders. WHALES.
5. Interesting everyday life
The life and culture of Madagascar are just so very different than what we know: it provided something to learn every day, on every walk and every conversation, even just by sitting in the cockpit. So many things were surprising, the result of people living a dramatically lower tech existence, that it almost stopped being exceptional. Like seeing irons that use hot coals (pretty sure I’ve only seen those as historical object or in museums before), not to mention kids using a slate for school. To be in a place where commerce really does happen under sail (and, the beautiful dhows and pirogues). Where grains and greens are pounded by hand for dinner.
In Madagascar, we could afford luxuries we’d normally pass up on. Dining out. Sundowners at a bar with friends, instead of the cockpit. Taking taxis without really thinking twice about it. Shopping for handicrafts (still missing that hand-carved wooden bowl from Mahajanga, should’ve gotten it!). Without increasing the monthly grocery budget we could get luxury treats like good cheeses and breakfast cereal (that’s not a joke, cereal costs what I call “stupid money” in a lot of places). So many things we’d normally pass up! It was nice, really nice, to indulge a little. And after paying really high fees for formalities in almost every other Indian Ocean country (no, wait, actually- EVERY OTHER ONE)- fees here were only nominal. FINALLY.
7. Underwater vibrance
It’s fair to say we are somewhat jaded after snorkeling or diving some of the best places in the world, but Madagascar gave us a lot to love. We were honestly blown away by what we saw on a day trip to go snorkeling at Nosy Tanikely, a daytrip sail from the popular Crater Bay anchorage in Nosy Be. We didn’t get to visit the marine parks near Nosy Hara to the north, but heard good things. Farther south along the west coast, the Barren Islands have more biomass and coral coverage than anywhere else in Madagascar. Not easily impressed… but we were.
8. Delicious food
Because of our budget, eating off the boat is relatively unusual for us. But here we could indulge in shore side dining a lot, and all of it was delicious (for more, read about eating my way around Nosy Be). The capper was our last night with friend JP, who treated us to an incredible multi-course French dinner from local ingredients. The prices we paid for packaged supermarket goods (everything from cereal to couscous) was the cheapest yet in the Indian Ocean; gorgeous produce and herbs waited in the market. Imported cheeses that didn’t cost crazy prices, and local cheeses- parmesan even- that were delicious. And then not merely access to bacon, but jambon cru or jamón serrano or any of a number of variations on lovely cured pork products. But, BACON. Do I need to say more?
9. Yummy drinks. OK, it’s the rum
Yes, we’re sailors. We haven’t had rum this good since Mexico, and we had a lot of rum that was better than Mexico! Madagascar rum is sold so cheaply you question the quality until you’ve tried it. Then there’s rhum arrange, the magical elixir created from steeping flavorful additions to a bottle of rum- like ginger, or citrus, or spices. Many restaurants had their own custom creations; it made the best even better. Our favorite was the rhum arrange with vanilla – another local specialty that we’ve never had so good.
10. What’s not to love?
Madagascar had a few quirks; most of them were fun. Yes, there’s some bribery. But you choose to engage in that, or not (it seems like people who expect to pay bribes… often do!). I got a kick out of the fact that a trip to the ATM to get just enough cash for a diesel top-up – a few hundred dollars – required three transactions (low limits on money disbursed) and left me with a massive wad of cash (see pic below) because the largest bill from that ATM was worth less than $2. But there will be no follow-up to this post with all the things we didn’t like about Madagascar (as I’ve shared for other destinations, like Thailand) because they don’t amount to a hill of beans.
We’ll go back.
It might take some years, but we can’t wait to go back to Madagascar. Friends of ours are already planning a return in 2017, and part of me wishes we were doing the same. But we’ve got other plans in the works, and meanwhile, will remember this place through some of the quirks as well.
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