The Complete Guide To: Madagascar

On Friday, the animated film Madagascar opens nationwide - and its depiction of the exotic Indian Ocean island is sure to inspire travellers. But how true to the island is the movie? Hilary Bradt watches a preview - and gives her assessment


HAVE THE FILM-MAKERS GOT IT RIGHT?

They haven't done badly. My inner child loved the film, but my inner expert was more critical. No one involved in the film, as the production notes cheerfully report, has actually been to Madagascar. But they have done their research pretty well. While the on-screen jungle may have been too beautiful to be true, Alex the lion takes refuge from his inner predator in the spiky limestone tsingy that is one of Madagascar's specialities and seen in national parks such as Ankarana and Bemaraha. The lemurs were all recognisable species, even though King Julien should be Queen Julienne, and the oh-so-cute mouse lemur, Mort, who we first meet as the protein in a tossed salad being prepared by the villainous "fossas", is as appealing in real life. The fossa is indeed the lemur's main predator, so this part is accurate. The film also shows a recognisable Parson's chameleon and a leaf-tailed gecko, both unique to Madagascar.

This is the world's fourth largest island, and one of its poorest countries. The first language is Malagasy - not easy to learn but at least make the effort to memorise a few greetings. The 16 million people are also called the Malagasy and it is considered a no-no to use Madagascan as an adjective. It was a French colony until 1960, so the second language is French. Most people working in tourism speak English. The dry season is from May to October, although rainfall varies considerably throughout the island, with the south and west much drier than the north or east. Cyclones strike the island regularly in February and March.

SHOULD I TAKE MY KIDS TO MADAGASCAR?

To the film, yes, but it would be cheaper and easier to go to the zoo and see all of the film's characters in one place. You could also try putting them off by pointing out that the only humans depicted in the film's Madagascar are the passengers and crew of a crashed airliner, and they're very dead. If that fails, then make sure their itinerary includes Berenty, Anjá or Vakona Lodge at Andasibe where they can get up close and personal with lemurs.

King Julienne and his subjects are easy to meet. There are plenty of ring-tailed lemurs in Berenty and Anjá, and other southern reserves. You will see Mort the mouse lemur in most reserves if you go out at night with a torch that catches the eye-shine of this nocturnal animal. King Julien's side-kick, Maurice, is an aye aye and also nocturnal. There's a place called Aye Aye Island in Mananara, but it's much easier to see it in a zoo: those at Tsimbazaza and Ivoloina near Toamasina both have aye ayes. Fossas are seldom seen; the best chance is Kirindy reserve, north of Morondava.

HOW DO I GET THERE, AND GET AROUND?

There are no cheap flights to Madagascar. Air France and Air Madagascar hold a virtual monopoly and fares are high: around £750 (via Paris) through an agency such as Trailfinders (020-7938 3366; www.trailfinders.co.uk) in the low season. The French company Corsair operates cheaper charters; book through Nouvelles Frontières in Paris (00 33 1 40 27 02 08; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr). Visas are required by British citizens. These are available at the airport on arrival for €22 (£15) or from the efficient consulate in London (020-8746 0133; www.madagascar.org.uk) for £40 plus four photos and a copy of your airline ticket or booking confirmation. If you arrive from another African country you will need evidence that you have been vaccinated against yellow fever.

Once in Madagascar, public transport is crowded and unreliable, roads are poor, and the distances are huge. For example the 700km journey by road from Tana to Morondava can take 15 hours. However, the current government has given priority to road building and the journey from Tana to Toliara, 940km, which used to take three bone-crunching days can now be done in comfort in two. Although the bush-taxis still offer cheap but uncomfortable transport on just about every road, the Routes Nationales are served by almost normal buses. For anyone with limited time, however, the only option is to fly. Air Madagascar ( www.airmadagascar.com) serves every large town on the island, and quite a few very small places. These domestic flights are not cheap but if you use Air Madagascar as an international carrier you can get a discount on internal flights. Book through an agency or direct on 01293 596665.

Even if you're used to travelling independently, Madagascar is a challenging place for unaccompanied travel. The warmth and hospitality of the Malagasy means that adventurers with plenty of time to spare are sure to have a memorable experience. But if your schedule is tight, consider a group departure or tailor-made holiday. Not only will it save you endless waits at bus stations or airports, double-booked hotels and other hassles, but you will travel with a knowledgeable guide who will smooth the way culturally as well as making sure you see what you've paid to see.

The Madagascar specialist in Britain is Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk). Other knowledgeable tour operators offering good itineraries are Reef & Rainforest Tours (01803 866965; www.reefandrainforest.co.uk) and Naturetrek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) specialising in wildlife. A typical itinerary would include the two most popular reserves, Berenty and Andasibe, and a stay at a beach resort. Many tour operators offer a northern or southern circuit, since air connections between the two halves of the island can be problematic. A 17-night holiday would cost between £2,200 and £3,000 per person, depending on the itinerary and accommodation.

THE CAPITAL: PARIS OF THE SOUTH?

Not exactly. All international flights come into Antananarivo - Tana for short - setting the scene for the rest of the country, from the friendly immigration procedure to the views from the window as you make the 12km drive to the centre of the city. On the way into Tana, Madagascar's infinite variety passes by the window like the opening sequence of a film: first a row of Crown of Thorn euphorbia plants, topped with scarlet flowers, against a red clay wall, then the wobbly-looking houses with their steeply-pitched tile roofs and wooden balconies, then the rice paddies with Muscovy ducks paddling around the edges. As you approach the city, the view is dominated by Tana's hill, with houses stacked up its sides and topped with the ruined Queen's Palace.

Tana is a great city for walking, providing you are fit enough to cope with the steep hills and flights of steps. Each turning reveals something new and surprising. It has little in the way of obvious sights - that's one of its charms. In the past two decades, Madagascar has made the transition from * *"Christian Marxism" to capitalism so the concept of extracting money from tourists is relatively new.

WHERE BEST TO SEE WILDLIFE?

Plan to visit at least one national park or reserve. You will see the lemurs that feature in the film in the following reserves: Andasibe, Ranomafana, Masoala (rainforest); Berenty, Anjá Park (southern private reserves); Kirindy (the best chance of seeing fossas) and Ampijoroa/Ankarafantsika (western dry forest); Tsingy de Bemaraha, Ankarana ("tsingy" - limestone karst); Montagne d'Ambre (northern rainforest). Of these, the top three reserves are Berenty - famous for its ringtailed lemurs, sifakas, reptiles and birds - Andasibe - the only place you will see the largest lemur, the indri, and hear its song, as well as many endemic species of wildlife - and Montagne d'Ambre - a beautiful rainforest with rare lemurs and the best place to see chameleons. All have accommodation nearby, from campsites to comfortable hotels. Before you visit any of the reserves, you have to visit the government agency, ANGAP, in Tana (tel: 00 261 20 22 415 38). The website, in French only, is www.parcs-madagascar.com/angap.

IS THE WATER LOVELY?

Madagascar's beaches do not compare with the Seychelles or Mauritius but they still have sand and the warm Indian Ocean so most people round off their holiday by spending a few days by the sea. Most visitors choose either Nosy Be, an island off the north-west coast, or Ile Sainte Marie. Most popular is Nosy Be, where there is good nightlife; Ile Sainte Marie is more laid-back and tranquil. For budget travellers, Morondava is relaxed, inexpensive and has a good beach.

Snorkelling and diving are popular, although the coral is fast disappearing. There are some very active and effective organisations working on marine conservation and some offer working holidays for in idyllic beach surroundings. Contact Frontier (020-7613 2422; www. frontierprojects.ac.uk) or Blue Ventures (020-8341 9819; www.blueventures.org). Eight weeks with Frontier costs around £2,300, and a six-week research expedition with Blue Ventures costs about £1,780. The best snorkelling areas are in the south-west near Toliara, and the north-west off the islands around Nosy Be. Ile Sainte Marie, in the east, has decent coral and whale-watching in September. The best whale-watching centre is the Princesse Bora Lodge (see box).

AND INLAND?

Madagascar is opening up for hikers, with a relatively new and outstanding national park, Andringitra, offering some of the best mountain scenery in the country. There are several well engineered trails leading to alpine meadows at 2,000m, which will introduce you to flowers and plants that are found nowhere else in the world, with a backdrop of granite peaks and cliffs. Magical. Further south, Isalo National Park is, by contrast, semi desert, with eroded sandstone outcrops and cool canyons. There are several all-day hiking possibilities here. Both parks have good campsites. Many people explore Madagascar by mountain bike, but this should not be undertaken lightly because of the long distances, poor roads and lack of supplies.

HOW ABOUT LOCAL CULTURE

Madagascar's cultural heritage is as rich as its wildlife. The Malagasy belief system is based on veneration of the ancestors, and the most conspicuous signs of this are the elaborate tombs in the south, and the practice of famadihana, exhumation, in the highlands.

IS IT SAFE?

You are unlikely to be harmed, but you need to keep your wits about you in cities and tourist areas. The further you get off the beaten track the safer you will be - but then you need to be careful not to offend. It is sensible to introduce yourself to the village chief, who will find you a place to sleep and make sure you are accepted into the community.

MORE INFORMATION?

Madagascar: The Bradt Travel Guide and Madagascar Wildlife cover all you need to know (01753 882981; www.bradtguides.com).

Ten 'Independent' readers can win the latest edition of 'Madagascar: The Bradt Travel Guide'. Make 30 words or more from the word Madagascar. Scrabble rules apply. Please e-mail your answers, plus your postal address, to travel@independent.co.uk

EAT TREATS

Madagascar nearly became a British colony in the 19th century, but we swapped it for Zanzibar - so you can thank this quirk of history for the quality of the French-inspired cooking. If history had gone the other way it would have been steak and chips instead of fruits de la mer.

Malagasy cooks use local produce in subtle combinations: coconut is often used, as are the leaves of cassava. Seafood is usually excellent, and a well-cooked zebu (beef) steak can be superb.

Often the smallest establishments have the best food: I have had duck so delicious that the memory makes me feel quite faint, cooked by a surly Chinaman in a run-down hotel that cost us less than £3 a night. Those are the sorts of places you will find for yourself, but most people spend enough time in Tana to gorge themselves at the best restaurants.

Restaurant Tranovola (00 261 20 22 334 71/22249 84) is the place to go for an end-of-the-trip treat. It serves superb - and unusual - Malagasy cooking, all beautifully presented.

Villa Vanille (00 261 20 22 205 15) is a fine old Tana house specialising in Creole food. There is live music (traditional and jazz) every evening.

Au Grille du Rova (00 261 20 22 627 24) has excellent food, eaten indoors or outside, with a view over the city. It has traditional Malagasy music every Sunday.

La Table d'Hote de Mariette in Chez Mariette (00 261 20 22 216 02) also features beautifully prepared and presented Malagasy food.

THE PICK OF THE HOTELS

Some of my favourite places don't have telephones so you just have to turn up. The following are at the top end of the market, but are independent, well-run and environmentally responsible. The average price per night in a comfortable hotel is €30 (£22).

Starting from Tana, heading east and then working round the island clockwise: Hotel Colbert, Tana: Very French, with excellent food and ambience (00 261 20 22 202 02; www.colbert-hotel.com)

Vakona Lodge: Near Andasibe reserve, top comfort in super surroundings. Has roaring log fires during the cool months and a restaurant-view of the resident kingfisher (00 261 20 22 624 80; www.hotel-vakona.com)

Princesse Bora Lodge: The best hotel in Ile Ste Marie: great architecture and super beach location, as well as a specialism in whale-watching (00 261 20 57 040 03; www.princesse-bora.com)

Relais de la Reine: Near Isalo National Park. Its architecture blends perfectly into the landscape. Great swimming-pool, superb food. Book through Madagascar Discovery in Tana (00 261 20 22 336 23; www.3dmadagascar.com/relaisdelareine)

Anjajavy and Tsarabajina: Two fly-in luxury resorts in the north-west under the same ownership. Lots of lemurs and birds, plus pristine beaches and excellent snorkelling (00 261 20 22 285 14; www.groupelhotel-madagascar.com)

Hotel L'Ylang Ylang, Nosy Be: Modestly priced and with very good food (00 261 20 86 614 01; www.hotel-lylangylang.com)

Le Domaine de Fontenay, Joffreville: Near Montagne d'Ambre National Park. Lovely garden full of chameleons (00 261 33 1134 581; www.lefontenay-madagascar.com)

HOW TO MAKE A POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION

By staying in locally run hotels and restaurants or buying street food (often safer than hotel cooking), by not giving gifts or money to child beggars but instead to the charities that care for them, by controlling your temper if things go wrong - the Malagasy are exceptionally polite and respond badly to aggression - by learning a bit of the language and making the effort to interact with local people. Question also the popular belief among experienced travellers that bargaining for every purchase or service is the sign of a "real traveller"; rather it is the sign of a selfish one.

There are several charities in Madagascar that welcome visitors and donations of medicines or local currency. My favourite is the Centre Fihavanana, run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, which helps street children and their families. They also sell top-quality embroidery made by the women. Call 00 261 22 299 81 to arrange a visit.

Akany Avoko is a children's home doing equally valuable work. Like the Centre Fihavanana, it depends on charitable contributions and income-generating projects. Call 00 261 22 44 158 to arrange a visit.

Both organisations can be contacted through Money for Madagascar, in the UK: www.moneyformadagascar.org. Another excellent British charity working with rural communities is Feedback Madagascar (020-7431 7853; www.feedbackmadagascar.org).

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