As I lounge in the shade on the front deck of the luxury catamaran, the ice in my perfectly poured Gin &Tonic clinks to the gentle rhythm of the ocean swells and a warm breeze sweeps gently through my hair.
Looking out, I catch sight of the lush rocky outcrops of the many uninhabited islands that protrude from the deep blue of the ocean as we pass them by. Pausing to appreciate the moment, as well as the delicious smells coming from the kitchen where Maki CaT’s Frederique is preparing our dinner, I simply relax.
Having arrived in Nosy Be, which means big island in the Malagasy language, just two days prior, I’m set to spend a week island hopping off Madagascar’s northwestern coast, beginning with two nights on Sakatia Island. Flying into Nosy Be, I was transferred by speedboat to this unspoilt paradise just a kilometre offshore. The island is home to only 300 people and at just 6 km wide and 2 long, has three small villages, a school, impressive subsistence farming of coffee, vanilla and ylang-ylang and is home to the delightful Sakatia Lodge.
Idyllically positioned and blissful in every way, the family-run Sakatia Lodge has earned a reputation as one of the best places to do your beginner and advanced scuba diving courses. Settled into one of their gorgeous villas right on the beach for my stay, the very first thing I indulge in is to head to the warm water for a swim, something I did at regular intervals throughout my visit. The island is a destination in itself and on my full day there I enjoyed a hike up to the tallest viewing point, had lunch at the local restaurant on the beach with my feet in the sand and spent much time lounging under the palm trees watching time pass.
A highlight was an afternoon of snorkelling in a protected area that draws green turtles to feed on the grassy seabed. Just a short way out to sea, we anchored offshore and with fins and mask I hopped into the water and there they were. Numerous green turtles feeding, relaxed, wild and protected. I stayed with one male of about 60 years old which had a carapace that spanned over a meter, for about an hour, mesmerised by his presence and sensing his ancient wisdom. I could hear him eating, in-between coming up every 15 minutes or so, before diving back down again for more, tiny fish darting around him.
It was a surreal experience that left my heart bursting. As I made my way back to the boat, a giant stingray swam underneath me, a darting shadow that was there, and then gone. I couldn’t believe the rewards of the pristine waters that surround Sakatia Lodge with its 11 bungalows, expansive wooden deck and casual bar where guests gather before dinner to talk about their day.
When my stay here had drawn to an end I was collected by the Maki CaT skipper Stephané, a Frenchman who lost his heart to Madagascar and a Malagasy girl years ago and made it home – and his right-hand man Noel, who transferred me to the luxury catamaran that would be home for three nights. Saying goodbye to connectivity as we sailed south, I unpacked the books, sarong and sunhat I’d brought for the trip and was soon settled into my private and surprisingly spacious en-suite cabin.
Booked with MadagasCaT Charters & Travel who specialise in full-crew luxury charters in the area, they provide the option of either Yacht Gecko or Maki CaT. Both are floating hotels with accommodation, a dining room and excursions on offer, from scuba diving and snorkelling to deep-sea fishing. I was on MakiCaT, a 13.5m motorised catamaran with two double en-suite cabins, two twin cabins with a shared bathroom, and a large shaded outside area. Our routing offered access to parts of the area that can only be reached by boat, with visits to Nosy Antsoa, a night anchored off Russian Bay and time in the Tanikely Marine Reserve. Mine was a three-night charter, while 5 and 7 nights would be a much better choice for a group of family or friends.
Days were spent snorkelling, kayaking and walking the deserted white beaches we stopped at.
We visited a local fishing village, ate honey harvested in the wild and took guided walks in the rainforests in search of lemur, chameleons and other wondrous creatures, even coming across a Boa Constrictor on our path. At night after dinner, with permission, of course, I dived into the inky black waters and swam to a full moon that reflected silver rays on the setting.
I read two books, had relaxed conversations with fellow guests, napped between swims, slept with my cabin window open to the sky and eagerly anticipated Frederique’s next delicately prepared meal. It was an absolute escape, true spoiling and a completely replenishing get away from the world. Too soon though I had to say an emotional goodbye to the crew who dropped me at Chanty Beach for my transfer to Constance Hotel Madagascar Ile de Tsarabanjina, where I enjoyed my last two nights.
Timeless and otherworldly, Tsarabanjina means nice to see and is a magnificent island 22 nautical miles north of Nosy Be, it is surrounded by seven spectacular islets, all uninhabited, untouched nature. Here is a private world that thrives on complete serenity, one that has created its own time zone to maximise daylight and where you won’t need your shoes between arrival and departure.
Twelve palm-thatched castaway-style luxury villas all face the sea, have air-conditioning, private terraces, personal loungers and umbrellas on the beach, large bathrooms and all amenities, including Wifi. There are two beaches, North and South, and a walk around the island takes about an hour and a half unless you stop for a swim along the way or to search out birds in the thick vegetation, which I did.
The Mitsio Archipelago that is Tsaranajina’s home is renowned for its excellent scuba diving in the pristine coral reefs that surround it. With my Marine Biologist guide Elena, I spent hours snorkelling and free-diving in the warm waters, our time richly rewarded with an assortment of ocean animals that ranged from starfish to octopus hiding in rock crevices, lobster bravely sticking out their tentacles, angelfish, barracuda, clownfish, jellyfish and much more. I have been lucky enough to snorkel all over the world, and have never had the visibility or abundance of sea life, that I found here.
With that my week island-hopping off Nosy Be came to an end and having been truly immersed in the way of life and enjoying the company of the good people that are lucky enough to live here.
I reluctantly started my journey home. My trip having reaffirmed Madagascar as a naturalist’s promised land and one of my absolute favourite destinations.
Did you know
Madagascar has been a secluded island for about 70 million years, breaking away from Africa around 165 million years ago and from India nearly 100 million years later. This separation has led to the growth of unique flora and fauna, with 90 percent of the wildlife found here, only occurring in Madagascar. Among the most treasured are the many lemur species and the vibrantly coloured Panther Chameleons.
Best Time of Year to Visit
The Low Season runs from January to March with the east coast likely to have rainy weather. From April to June and September to December, the weather is idyllic, while in the high season of July and August, Madagascar’s winter, you can enjoy mild temperatures by day with cooler nights. I travelled there in May, which offered the best mix of idyllic warm days and slightly fresher evenings.
The Essential Details
Contact MadagasCaT Charters & Travel to charter Maki CaT or the equally wonderful Gecko yacht, or for help organising any trip to Madagascar. It is important to book well in advance for the charters and I suggest you look at their 7-night combo packages that offer 5 nights on Maki CaT and two nights at Sagany Lodge. Consider arriving in the capital Antananarivo and combining your coastal adventure with some time on the mainland, but bear in mind that Nosy Be can be accessed directly. All visitors to Madagascar require a visa which can be obtained on arrival, the current cost is €25. The currency is the Malagasy Ariary and it is advised that you draw some cash at one of the ATM’s before leaving Nosy Be, as once you’re island hopping, it’s cash only.
Listen to my radio interview – Madagascar with MadagasCaT .One of the highlights of 2017 was my trip to Madagascar with MadagasCaT to spend a week island hopping off Nosy Be. I wrote about it for the Namibia Airlines Flamingo Inflight Magazine, February 2018 edition. Find it here or simply have a read below.