Bewitched by Madagascar's eco luxury

Foreign money has taken it upmarket, but what about the locals, asks Meera Selva

It's sunset and the mosquitoes are beginning to bite but I am too busy concentrating to care. I am picking my way through the seashells and zebu horns laid carefully at the base of a baobab tree. It is fady, or taboo, to touch the offerings placed there by villagers anxious to invoke ancestral protection against the cyclones that whip through Madagascar, and it is fady to walk around the tree clockwise. The tree is such a solid presence that it is not surprising that the inhabitants of this fragile island hope that it can turn away a storm.

I had no intention of being bewitched; I was here for a relaxing holiday. After a year as a new mother I revelled in the idea of nights of unbroken sleep, falling asleep to the sound of nocturnal mammals that did not need to have their nappies changed.

Madagascar does not have the infrastructure or capacity to cater for mass tourism. Instead it offers luxurious getaways in remote, beautiful settings. The sheer extravagance on offer in some of Madagascar's resorts sit uneasily with the fact that more than 70 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and rely on small-scale farming to survive. But tourism is vital. Madagascar's president wants to attract foreign investment in environmentally sensitive developments to buffer the country against these cyclones.

Anjajavy, a manicured resort at the edge of a deciduous forest in the Mahajanga province in western Madagascar, represents the type of tourism the island wants to promote. The hotel is owned by French businessman Dominique Prat and is a major donor to the local charity Amis d'Anjajavy, which provides loans tonearby villages to allow people to buy fishing nets, beehives or fertilisers. It also acts as a custodian for the 450-hectare nature reserve at its gates, which is home to mouse lemurs, sifakas and fossas, the mysterious cat-like Madagascan predator. Guests stay in two-storey cabins and can spend their time snoozing on deckchairs on the beach, or taking tea with the malachite kingfishers in an oasis of papyrus reeds and tree ferns.

At Tsarabanjina, a hotel comprising cabins set on a private island of the same name, the extraordinary clear blue sea provides the ideal location in which to forget about the world. Tsarabanjina is the brainchild of South African Richard Walker, who hired 60 local builders to build the 18 bungalows and open-air restaurant and bar. Once the building work was completed, he offered to retrain all the builders and hire them to work in the resort.

Both Anjajavy and Tsarabanjina have helped the local economy. But it would be better if the Malagasy people themselves could design and run more hotels to showcase their eco-system and give them the economic protection from the cyclones they need.

HOW TO GET THERE

Meera Selva travelled with Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; rainbowtours.co.uk). An eight-day trip costs from £1,990 per person, based on two sharing, including return flightsto Antananarivo, domestic flights, all transfers, three nights' full-board at Constance Lodge Tsarabanjina and Anjajavy,activities and one night at Palissandre Hotel in Antananarivo.

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