Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

Madagascar’s Hidden Eastern Jewel – the Sainte-Marie Island

We have an image of Madagascar: sky-high baobab trees in the setting sun, ring-tailed lemurs everywhere and of course the tropics and the ocean... All of this is true, but Madagascar is a huge island nation and each corner of the island is famous for something different and beautiful in its own way. Beyond the stereotypes, I now had the opportunity to visit one of these micro-Paradises. It's worth introducing because it is famous for things that are far from being part of everyday life here and this beautiful corner of the world is not yet known by many in our small country, I think.

Antananarivo – the capital

Antananarivo is the capital and largest city of Madagascar. The city’s name in Malagasy is ‘city of a thousand people’ – who knows why and it is often abbreviated as ‘Tana’, which I only realised after a while; understandable, as it is difficult to say the long city name many times in a row in a conversation.  Antananarivo, the political, economic, cultural and tourist centre of the country, is located in the central highlands of Madagascar, almost in the middle of the country. Its size is indicated by the fact that it stretches for some thirty kilometres, including the suburbs, and has a population of nearly two million.  Antananarivo is renowned for its vibrant cultural life, with numerous museums, galleries and theatres showcasing the country’s art, history and performing arts. The city also offers a variety of dining options, from traditional Malagasy cuisine to international dishes. The city’s rich history is evidenced by the blend of traditional Malagasy architecture and modern buildings everywhere.  Some of Antananarivo’s highlights include the Rova of Antananarivo, the Queen’s Palace from the 1600s, which is a historic royal palace complex, the Andafiavaratra Palace, the official residence of Madagascar’s President or the Analakely Market, a bustling market where locals and tourists can buy a variety of goods and traditional handicrafts.

Nosy Boraha

The other aim of my trip is to explore and get to know one of Madagascar’s unique and beautiful tropical islands, Sainte-Marie, also known as Nosy Boraha, and the small islands around it. I reflect, as we take the local flight over the main island on our way to Saint-Marie, that it is not easy to get from one side of the country to the other. Mountain after mountain, nowhere is the terrain flat. When I asked my guide how to get to the famous baobab trees, he told me that they were in the west and south-west of the island. I told him we could drive there, how long would it take? – “Just two days”, he said… Well, I think I’d take the plane and that’s the case here, as it would take days to get to the town of Ambodifotatra by car and boat – there are tours specifically designed for this purpose, by the way – which serves as the entry point to the island for visitors arriving by boat or plane. But with the excellent domestic flights, it’s less than an hour and a half to land at the little modern airport on the unadulterated tropical island of Sainte-Marie. On arrival, we are greeted by curious onlookers and soon ushered into a super VIP lounge, so we don’t have to bother with our bags in the sweltering humidity.

The island of Sainte-Marie, nowadays more of a holiday paradise for those seeking tranquillity, is famous for many things – its natural beauty, its white sandy beaches, its crystal clear waters, its abundant marine life. It also has a very rich history, partly because it was once a pirate paradise; I’ve been to many places, but this is the first time I’ve seen the historical relics of it. The island offers a peaceful and picturesque setting for those looking for a tropical paradise in Madagascar. One of its most famous attractions, however, is that it is a popular spot for watching humpback whales during the migratory season. From July to September, the giants of the ocean arrive in the waters around the island to give birth and mate, giving visitors a unique opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures up close, even from boats, with a simple dive in. I myself have seen two of them from the shore, even though the whale season has only just begun.


Sainte-Marie, the tropical paradise

Sainte-Marie Island, or Nosy Boraha, lies some 7-8 kilometres off the north-east coast of Madagascar, the closest point. It is only 222 square kilometres in size, 60 kilometres long and only 10 kilometres wide. The green landscapes that cover the island are a true tropical paradise, with 5 endemic palm trees in the jungle, which are found only here. Exploring the forest ecosystem of Mangrove promises to be a unique experience. Birds, amphibians, reptiles, orchids everywhere. Many spices are grown on the island, coffee, cloves; we ourselves visited several places with home-grown vanilla plantations. Fishing is also important, with the local fishermen’s colourful boats lying on the beach or in the water trying to catch their daily catch.

The island is surrounded by coral reefs in several places, forming natural pools. Its soil is made up of coral sands and its fauna is unique; like the main island, it is home to several species of lemurs. Its inhabitants are the same as those on the east coast of the main island, numbering only a few tens of thousands. Ambodifotatra, the capital, with its colourful buildings, small local restaurants and shops, is a magnet for visitors, but most of the island’s population lives in the tropical vegetation between the roads to the east, north and south and the ocean, almost permanently inhabiting it, and it is hard to say that they are concentrated in one settlement, in true paradise conditions.

You can also get here by boat, the entry point is Ambodifotatra, but if you’re coming from the capital Antananarivo, it’s easier to take a local flight, which will take you there in an hour and a half. Allow for the possibility of later flights due to the weather – this may not be a problem on arrival, but if you’re heading home, be sure to leave some extra time and choose your flight.

One of the island’s most famous attractions is the fact that humpback whales gather here every year from July to the end of September to mate and give birth to their young. They do this because this sea corridor between the main island of Madagascar and Sainte-Marie is very calm, protected from the big ocean storms and waves, and optimal for the birth of their babies. The numbers are so great, in the thousands, that you can participate in this experience by simply taking a boat ride, and you can even see them from the shore.

As well as whale watching, Sainte-Marie Island offers a range of activities for visitors, including diving, fishing and boat trips to nearby smaller islands. The island has many beautiful beaches, such as Ambodifotatra Beach and Piment Beach, where you can relax, swim and sunbathe.

It is also home to Madagascar’s first church, built by the French. Well yes, the French also gave the island the name Sainte-Marie, which used to be the same, but in Portuguese: Santa Maria. The conquerors took turns here, as on so many islands in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar and the surrounding smaller islands were the main shipping routes. So it was that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the maritime conquistadors got their hands on it and exploited its resources, plundering its treasures. At the same time, small and large offshore islands such as Sainte-Marie were a good hideout for pirates.

Pirate’s Paradise

Incredible as it may seem to us, the pirate world existed. We tend to think that the pirate tales we only know from history books and later films are just works of fantasy or exaggerated fables, but they are not. Sainte-Marie Island has a rich pirate past – something I don’t think the locals were too happy about at the time – as the island was once a pirate’s paradise.

The island was close to the main shipping lanes on which richly laden ships returned to Europe from the East Indies; the island’s bays offered protection from storms; and finally, the island provided plentiful food for pirates. The island’s secluded and hidden bays provided an ideal hiding place for pirates to ambush passing ships and stash their loot.

Pirates of various nationalities, including English, French and Dutch, used Sainte Marie as a base for raiding merchant ships. They plundered, seized ships and attacked local settlements.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever see the mementos of their everyday lives. But I did. In style, a pirate was sent to pick us up – if not by boat, then by a typical local boat, which was not easy to get into from the pier without being thrown out. We sailed over to a tiny pirate island, where the many relics of the pirates’ past are evidence that they had settled here. They had a very clever fish trap, for example, which was constantly supplied with fresh water by the ocean. We have also found where they lived and the hidden mousetrails where they could escape to the other side of the island if they suddenly needed to. It was an amazing experience to see them in person. To see how much they lived and died here, we had to take another boat trip to the opposite shore, where, after a short hike, the graves of the pirates who died here – mostly French – rise on top of the hill. These tombs presumably belong to pirates who died during piracy or from illness and were buried on the island. It is an amazing experience; a significant, if not glorious, piece of history.

Famous pirates such as Olivier Levasseur, Henry Every, William Kidd, also known as Captain Kidd, was one of the most famous pirates associated with Sainte Marie. He used the island as a hideout and is said to have buried some of his treasure there. Other famous pirates known to have frequented the area include Thomas Tew and Robert Culliford. Many also started families here.

To commemorate the history of piracy, Sainte Marie is home to the Pirate Museum (Le Musée de la Pirate), which displays artefacts, documents and information about the island’s pirate heritage. Here you can learn about the pirate era and discover the island’s links with piracy. Although the pirate era is long gone, the history of the island still captures the imagination of visitors interested in the adventurous stories of the pirates who once roamed the waters of the Indian Ocean.


“Madagascar is adventure” – or “Mura-mura”..

When we didn’t arrive on the second day, at the place where we had planned to go in the morning, our guide reassured us: “Madagascar is adventure”. It’s not about doing exactly what we had planned. It’s not about worrying about when you’ll get there, because that’s totally unpredictable and it’s not guaranteed to happen – as in our case. It’s about enjoying the journey itself, the experience and relaxing. Mura-mura – as our other guide wisely put it, that is: slow-slow and take it easy. It’s better to adopt this mentality, because the usual European norms don’t always apply here and it’s better to let them go.


Ile aux Nattes

Our last day on the island of Sainte-Marie was spent visiting the island of Ile aux Nattes, which is almost identical to it. To reach the island, we had to get back in the canoe again, I was getting used to it. It’s good to prepare for these trips with waterproof footwear, because you never know when you might get in a boat somewhere and get soaked by the ocean as soon as you get near the boat. Urban chic is not useful here.

You can swim across to the drop island of Ile aux Nattes, also known as Nosy Nato, for the better swimmers. The island is known for its beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters and unspoilt natural environment. Ile aux Nattes is a recommended destination for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and immerse themselves in a tranquil tropical paradise. The island is untouched by mass tourism, offering visitors a peaceful and secluded getaway. The picturesque beaches of Ile aux Nattes are famous for their white sand. The calm waters surrounding the island are ideal for swimming and diving, allowing visitors to explore a vibrant underwater world of colourful coral reefs and marine life.

In addition to its natural beauty, Ile aux Nattes also has a rich cultural heritage. The local population is mainly made up of fishermen and farmers, and their traditional way of life contributes to the charm of the island.  You can experience the local Madagascan culture, interact with the friendly inhabitants and enjoy authentic cuisine. If you want to do this, get there early, because there are not many places to stay, but the ones that are there are perfect, rather small hotels, guesthouses and eco-houses.

The island can also be reached by boat from Sainte Marie, with regular ferry services between the two islands.

All in all, Ile aux Nattes offers a tranquil and idyllic retreat for travellers in search of a tropical paradise, stunning natural beauty, secluded beaches and the local Madagascan way of life.


  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

  • Photo: Szilvia Szeszler

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