Long before humans roamed the earth, Madagascar was one of the first pieces of terra firma to tear itself away from the super-continent of Gondwanaland. And, ever since, the isolated island has been a veritable cauldron of curiosities and; an explorer’s delight, bubbling over with countless ecological anomalies. Commonly called the “Eighth Continent” due to its sheer mass (around the same size as Texas) and distinct environment, Madagascar still even today manages to surprise scientists with a parade of new species regularly emerging from the primordial forests.
The majority of international flights arrive in the nation’s capital, Antananarivo—a Malagasy word meaning “the place of a thousand,” as it was here, several centuries ago, that a king gathered all of his soldiers in an attempt to unify the island’s disparate tribes. Today, the metropolis tumbles across a series of pronounced hills, sprawling all the way to the rice fields along the horizon. It’s well worth spending a day in town to discover the haute ville (high town) with its royal palace, gabled churches, and aristocratic trano gasy– style homes based on British colonial architecture. Stay at the Pavillon de l’Emyrne, an Addams Family–-esque mansion built during the apex of French colonialism.
Book your driver and guide with Mango African Safaris, and hit the “road” (and we use that term lightly) as you venture beyond the gridiron deep into the island’s interior. The Andasibe region, around a four-hour drive from the capital, is the perfect introduction to Madagascar’s trademark wildlife: Aaround a dozen species of lemur (of which there are over more than 100 on the entire island) glide and leap above your head, and a delightful assortment of fluorescent chameleons snooze on branches as you negotiate tangled thickets of vines and trees.
Hop on a prop plane to the coastal city of Morondava for Madagascar’s ultimate experience: the overland trek to the ancient Tsingys; jagged stone mounds shaped like alien toothbrush bristles. Never has Emerson’s journey-not-the-destination quote rung so true: the daylong drive from the sea up into the interior involves fording two throbbing river veins by placing your vehicle on catamarann-ed canoes, and cruising through rural villages like Belo Tsiribihina, which—oddly—has one of the best restaurants in the entire country, The Le Mad- Zéebu. While the Tsingys are the end game, most travelers count the drive through the plains of thousand-year-old baobab trees as the highlight of their trip. There’s something rather emotional about hugging a living being that has been standing tall since the time of the Vikings.
For those who can, it’s well worth tacking on a beach coda at Miavana, the newest addition to the short list of private island escapes in the Indian Ocean (pictured above). Built by Time + Tide, a recently branded co-op of sustainable safari initiatives, the property sits on the islet of Nosy Ankao, just off the Madagascar’s northeast corner, and features 14 oversized villas that hug its mustard-tinged sand.
And while hoteliers continue to compete for top dog in the Seychelles and Maldives, Madagascar’s first true luxury- hotel endeavor has a slightly different point of view: accessing the beauty of the greater region through helicopter safaris to enhance the experience beyond the usual sea-and-sand respite. A short hop connects guests to several distinct ecosystems, including patches of pristine jungle, and stark desert where more Tsingys—this time tinged in blood-red hues—pop straight out of the scorched earth. A stunning house reef rings itself around Nosy Ankao as well, and, further farther out in the deep, guests can scuba through a seemingly unending network of never-before-explored coral cliffs and gardens, proving that there’s still plenty of Madagascar that has yet to be charted and explored.