Wildlife, beaches - even shopping, this African island surpassed Andrew Spooner's already high expectations

It had been top of my list for as long as I could remember, an enigmatic isle, hovering off the coast of southwestern Africa. The fascination began when, as a child, I'd opened an atlas and sat staring at the elongated blob that appeared to be cut adrift from Africa. What was it doing there?

It had been top of my list for as long as I could remember, an enigmatic isle, hovering off the coast of southwestern Africa. The fascination began when, as a child, I'd opened an atlas and sat staring at the elongated blob that appeared to be cut adrift from Africa. What was it doing there?

Finally, after years of building an otherworldly image in my mind, I'm on a plane bound for Antananarivo, the Malagasy capital (nothing is Madagascan here, just Malagasy). Like nearly everywhere in Madagascar, Antananarivo is a mouthful. The locals, as if sensing the need of visitors, have shortened it to Tana.

Noisy and colourful are the first impressions as my minibus winds its way into town from Tana's international airport. The dusty streets are crammed with zebus (Indonesian oxen), pousse-pousse (brightly painted hand-drawn rickshaws) and the omnipresent aroma of baking bread. The French were colonial masters here from 1896 until 1960 and left behind a Gallic love of croissants and baguettes, still catered for by dozens of boulangeries.

It is when I finally sit down to a lunch of piquantly marinated zebu steak on the terrace of my hotel, Le Royal Palissandre, that Tana begins to take on a magical quality. Situated at just over 4,000ft on a high central plateau, the terrace air is cool, dry and sweet. With a gentle sun casting a soft light over the cobbled streets and red tiled rooftops below, I'm soothed and entranced.

But not for long. Just below the hotel, down some steep flagstone steps (Tana is set on a dozen hills) the Analakely market is in full flow. Enticed by the scent of fragrant spices and raucous chatter, I wander down the hill.

I stroll between stalls, struggling to take in the riot of colours and appetising odours. Mountains of sumptuous papayas, limes and pineapples vie with heaps of mammoth cucumbers, marrows and carrots. Pungent dried fish and shrimp sit next to neatly tied, still wriggling crabs. Every few feet, whole lizards are being grilled on open charcoal beds, wisps of heavy smoke lingering amid the stalls.

Then comes the vanilla (Madagascar produces the best in the world): hundreds of bundles of long, chocolatey pods. Suddenly, the meaty fumes give way to a pleasing sweetness and I'm drawn to the aroma, like a hungry child at tea-time.

The stall-holders are extremely affable and we manage to communicate via hand signals and pidgin- French. Also notable is the ethnic diversity of the people who live here. While the western coast of Madagascar is just a short 250-mile hop from the African coast, many Madagascans would look more at home in South East Asia, 4,000 miles to the east.

Madagascar's first inhabitants were Malays and Indonesians. This original ethnic group, now called the Merina, has remained largely dominant even though the island has enjoyed further waves of settlers from Africa and beyond. A distinctive ethnic blend has been created: a kind of Afro-Malay, with a distinct French influence.

After the city there's really only one place to head for – the beach. Madagascar does not disappoint. Never mind the resorts: there are hundreds of miles of untouched white sand beaches that remain unconnected by road. In the far north, on the small island of Nosy Be, lies a string of handsome beach developments. To get there from Tana you must endure a bouncy, 90-minute flight on a turbo-prop, culminating in a dramatic swooping descent over dazzlingly clear blue seas.

Steamy and tropical, the interior of Nosy Be, after the arid plains surrounding Tana, is a flood of green foliage. As I'm driven along the potholed road, the tarmac is festooned with the colourful splats of mangoes and squidged bananas fallen from overhanging trees. These vivid smells are matched by the intense pinks and reds of thousands of exotic flowers bursting forth from the undergrowth. The strange hoots and calls of native lemurs ring out across the jungle.

My bed for the night is at the Vanilla Hotel, a stylish, family-run affair on the northern coast: the rooms come complete with a bottle of "aphrodisiac" Ylang Ylang oil – another Malagasy specialty.

The following morning involves a two-hour speedboat trip across shimmering sea to the island resort of Nosy Iranja. Everything about Madagascar has been heavenly so far. Now I'm heading for another level: utter paradise.

Soft, pure white sands fringe the clearest ocean. Huge, luxury bungalows, complete with over-sized hammocks provide the accommodation. I spend the rest of my stay snorkeling in the warm seas, pottering amid tropical fish and gleaming corals. In between I gorge on the fabulous cuisine, am lulled into a nap by the sound of waves and wake up again by zipping over the waters on a mini-catamaran.

As I settle into my homeward flight I decide Madagascar definitely deserved its place at the top of my list. My only regret is that I didn't get here sooner.

Getting there

Andrew Spooner travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk), which offers an extensive programme in Madagascar. A 12-day Madagascar Overland itinerary starts from £2,425 per person, based on two sharing and includes international and domestic flights, airport transfers, accommodation on a mixture of b&b and all-inclusive, and the services of a guide. Air Madagascar (01293 596665; www.airmadagascar.info) operates three flights per week between Paris and Antananarivo from around £690 return.