Tsara be Madagascar! The Intrepid honeymoon

So it’s official. We tied the knot and are now Mr and Mrs Intrepid Foodie. A post with more info about our epically foodie wedding is coming soon! (Once we’ve had our photos back!) 

When deciding on a suitable honeymoon destination, Santorini or Positano just wouldn’t do. We had to go somewhere for wildlife, food and adventure. Madagascar sure is that.

Let’s not be under any illusions, this is a very poor country. 92% of people live below the poverty line, on under $2 a day. The majority live in corrugated iron or bamboo huts with no running water or electricity.

It’s a stark contrast to the built up cities of the West and a total culture shock when you arrive. It’s all too easy to judge or pity but this, for most Malagasy people, is normality. In general, people there are proud of being unostentatious and loving the simple life; fetching water from the stream, cooking stews over a fire stove at sundown. It’s a different world from. Here progress is often eschewed, but people here are happy (a generalisation of course) but that’s how it seemed in almost every region we visited.

The wonderful people of Madagascar are one of its highlights, and learning about their lives is one of its most eye opening experiences. Not everyone wants to rely on electricity or taps to bring water, and it dawned on us whilst here that Westerners are hopelessly dependant on electricity, scared of darkness, we rely on everything coming to us. In an apocalypse, Malagasy people would be eminently better equipped to live! They are also so much more in tune with the earth and that is such a refreshing change from our western lives.

Malagasy cooking equipment

Even so, it’s hard to see so much crumbling infrastructure. Much built during French colonial times has fallen into disrepair, from train lines to houses. The government has done little to help the country and often even aid money falls into the wrong hands. This means the roads in Madagascar are almost impassable in places so travel is always a challenge. It helps to have fairly deep pockets if you plan that visit as it’s not cheap as you might imagine.

All of that said, the rewards of visiting this wonderful country are immense. The best way I can describe it is good for the soul.

The wildlife here is spectacular. It’s really everything we hoped and more. Particularly for reptile lovers like us, this is a paradise where chameleons hide in the branches of many trees (if you can spot them!), turtles live in the vibrant emerald waters, exotic and fantastic lizards like the leaf tailed gecko hide out and even the regular geckos are bright and colourful.

Of course there are also many lemurs all over the island, who are gorgeous, much more feline and lovable than monkeys and who will happily, delicately eat a piece of banana from your hand. Just wonderful.

Sadly deforestation here is a huge problem with deforestation, with 80% of Madagascar’s forests gone, much of the endemic wildlife is gone with it. Lack of education means the people burn forests to clear land for farming or chop trees for charcoal and housing. The problem is so bad the government is actually trying to help by planting large amounts of Eucalyptus trees, which you can now see everywhere in Madagascar (although not at all native to the country) they grow fast. So the time to visit is very much now.

Now let’s talk about the food.

Malagasy food is GREAT. They are people that intrinsically understand flavour. And though many cook with just the simplest tools, the food is still lovingly made and the ingredients are just great. The fruits are exotic and tasty, as are the veg. 

Madagascar is also rich with spices, from the famous vanilla, to cinnamon to the red peppercorns that go into everything.

There is also a variety of influence in the Malagasy cuisine; the original settlers of the island were Indonesians from Borneo, and you can see this influence in some of the peanut dishes. There is also Indian influence in the fritters, flatbreads and spiced vegetables. And of course, the French influence can be found everywhere, from bread to coffee and butter.

It’s super diverse and many of the fusion restaurants are excellent, but equally you don’t have to go exclusively to fancy restaurants to get a great meal.

The key Malagasy things to try are:

1. Romazava, the national dish essentially a stew with either fish or chicken or zebu meat (Madagascar’s answer to beef) flavoured with ginger and with bredes mafana leaves which make your mouth numb and tingly (much like Szechuan pepper). Everything comes with rice and often also a type of local salsa called rougaille made with diced tomatoes, onion and ginger and is delicious and fresh.

2. Ravitoto, almost as ubiquitous as Romazava, Ravitoto is more delicious, especially if you have it as it’s served in Le Saka restaurant in Tana (highly recommended) with slow cooked pork shoulder. Essentially it’s a dry stew made with shredded cassava leaves and meat, and enriched with a little coconut milk. It’s got a fantastic almost green tea-like flavour which is unusual and delicious.

3. Coconut sauce – we had this in various places across Madagascar. Sometimes with chicken, as at Chez Laurent at Ankarana which tasted like a super mild version of a Thai curry and was delicious. Or at times with fish like the fabulous grouper with coconut we had in Diego Suarez at La Bodega.

4. Seafood, seafood, seafood – Madagascar has it in abundance but the freshest and best we had was on Nosy Be, at the superb Sangany lodge (you must try this place, the food will knock your socks off). Particularly the crab salad with exotic fruit, the lobster tagliatelle and octopus a la Malagasy (in a strongly spiced sauce).

5. Vanilla – try the chicken with vanilla at Le Saka, it’s delicate and creamy.

6. Zebu in pepper sauce – zebu meat can be found in many places and forms. Carpaccio, tartare, steak, stew, all are delicious. But we particularly loved the Malagasy take on steak in pepper sauce. Zebu meat is slightly more gamey than beef and the pepper sauce tastes more exotic as there are 3 types of pepper here; red, black and sauvage (wild) all delicious.

7. Punch Coco – exactly what it says, it’s creamy and coconutty. So good we brought some back with us. 

8. Rhum arrangé – almost every restaurant will make their own, it’s strong stuff – basically rum infused with whatever they have from spices like cinnamon to fruits like pineapple or jack fruit.

9. Pako pako – flat bread made with coconut milk, flour, cumin, salt and pounded garlic. It’s delicious.

10. Chocolate – Madagascar makes fab chocolate and if you visit Ambanja (you should) you can see the huge amount of cocoa plants growing. Desserts with this stuff are great.

11. ALL the fruits – in Madagascar you can have fresh mangoes, bananas, pineapple, papaya, soursop, jackfruit, strawberries, orange, lemon etc etc mostly great quality. Splurge, it’s better than anything you’ll taste back in Blighty.

Our itinerary and travel tips:

Tips for travelling Madagascar:

1. Madagascar is HUGE, be very realistic about what you can see in the time you have. We wanted to see the Allee of baobabs and reef in the south as well as the north but realised we didn’t have the time.

2. This is not a super easy place to travel, expect everything to be more expensive than you think, particularly transport, Madagascar’s roads are in a very sorry state and the only transport, taxi brousse are extremely over crowded and uncomfortable. Even if you buy internal flights (which are super expensive) don’t expect them to be on time and try to plan in case they are cancelled.

3. Water is not drinkable so even teeth must be brushed with bottled water. Avoid ice and washed salads (as much as possible though most tourist organised trips will provide it and it’s fine). But it definitely helps to have some cheeky pepto bismol and loperamide tablets handy as well as hand sanitizer.

4. Make sure you get your hotels to book you airport pick ups and pre agree a price, unless you enjoy getting mobbed by taxi drivers. Also in the airports, avoid the guys wearing yellow jackets, they’ll try to carry your bags for you then demand cash.

5. Bring Euros as back up. The highest denomination of cash is 10,000 Ar (£3) and you can get a max of 400,000 Ar out of the ATM meaning you’ll be walking round with wedges of money.

6. Bring a torch and deet and suncream. None are easy to find, all are super necessary.

7. Try to enjoy being disconnected. Many places we stayed had no or limited WiFi, some only had generator electricity. It can be off-putting but we really enjoyed it, it’s liberating.

8. Get local guides in the national parks. In both Amber mountain and Ankarana we had local guides and they were wonderful. They’d grown up in these parks, seen every animal there and are super trained to spot animals and know their favourite haunts.

Our 3 week itinerary:

1. Eurostar to Paris. Stay for the afternoon.

2. Fly direct to Antananarivo. One day in Tana walking up to the Rova (palace). Dinner in Sakamanga restaurant, try the Ravitoto and vanilla chicken.

3. Fly to Diego Suarez, chill, stock up on snacks at the excellent supermarket, and cash from the ATM.

4. Day trip to Mar Emeraude (rough seas but beautiful pristine beach and excellent lunch including coconut rum, must try!)

5. Taxi to Joffreville to visit Montagne d’Ambre national park. 2 days exploring including night hike. The Domaine de Fontenay massively recommended for thid area.

6. Taxi back to Diego Suarez, chill for an afternoon (Hotel Allamanda great for this).

7. Private 4×4 with guide to Tsingy Rouge (expensive but worth it when you see the state of the roads). Drop off at Ankarana national park.

8. Full day at Ankarana (can be split across 2 days but we did everything in a hot but wonderful 8hr hike). Ask for English speaking guide Florin, he’s local, brilliant and such a character, he also taught us all the Malagasy phrases we learned (see below).

9. Taxi to Ankify to catch speed boat to Nosy Be. Arrive in Hell Ville, spend the afternoon chilling in Oasis cafe, stocking up at ATM.

10. Taxi to Andilana to stay at the Grand Bleu, chill in the fab infinity pool.

11. Day trip to Nosy Komba and Nosy Tanikely to see the marine reserve.

12. Day trip to Nosy Iranja.

13. Taxi to Befotaka bay to stay at Sangany lodge.

14. Whale watching and turtles at Nosy Sakatia.

15. Boat back to Ankify, private car to plantations in Ambanja for a couple of hours before the journey back to Diego Suarez.

16. One night Diego Suarez, flight back to Tana.

17. 2 days chilling and buying souvenirs in Tana.

18. Flight back to Paris and Eurostar home.

Our favourite hotels/restaurants:

1. Sangany lodge Nosy Be – secluded, romantic, fabulous food from passionate staff, gorgeous beach, unforgettable.

2. Le Domain de Fontenay – THE place to stay in Amber mountain. It has a resident 250 year old tortoise, chameleons and it’s own reserve you can do night hikes in. Paradise.

 3. Sakamanga hotel Tana – good range of accommodation, the best thing is the restaurant and little pool.

4. Le Varangue Tana – fussy and French but delicious and worth it.

Key Malagasy phrases to learn:

Malagasy don’t expect you to speak any of their language and it brings a smile to their face if you can speak even a couple of Malagasy words.

Misoutra – thank you

Azafady – please

Tsara (be) – (very) good (this can also mean delicious, if you learn one phrase learn this!)

Mbola tsara (only in the north of the country) – good day/hello

Veloma – goodbye

Mafana – hot

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