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Beautiful and diverse with a kaleidoscope of weird and wonderful wildlife - nowhere on earth is quite like Madagascar

Isolated off the east coast of Africa, Madagascar is the perfect example of what happens when Mother Nature is left to her own devices. More than 80% of this remote island’s plant and animal life is utterly unique, and its Indian Ocean coast (all 5,000 kilometres of it!) is ringed with pristine tropical beaches and some of the best diving and snorkelling you’re likely to find.

Miraculously unspoilt, Madagascar has dozens of national parks and nature reserves to explore, all bearing tongue-twister names such as Tsingy de Bemaraha, Andasibe-Mantadia and Analamazaotra. Its cities are exciting and cosmopolitan places – from the capital Antananarivo to Toamasina in the east.

They are influenced by the melting pot of cultures that have arrived in Madagascar over the years – not least the French – and yes, this does mean that the cuisine is top-notch too.

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Culture and history

The origins of the Malagasy may be lost to time but experts agree their roots are borrowed from AsiaIndiaAfrica and the Middle East. Taboos (fady) and core beliefs, such as razana (ancestral life force) are central to daily life and ingrained on the national consciousness.

The Malagasy are known for their hospitality and frankness, which may be mistaken for rudeness. It’s worth noting that an invitation to lunch means to quite literally share someone's rice; appreciation for a small act of kindness should be shown with a small gift as opposed to money; and military-style attire is best left at home as wearing it here could result in arrest! Although the island remains unspoilt by tourism, its worldwide profile has risen in recent years following the Madagascar franchise of computer-animated feature films.

Evidence suggests that Madagascar remained uninhabited until around 1,500 years ago. This allowed the island’s wildlife to flourish uninterrupted over the centuries, and is why it is home to so many wholly unique plants and animals. The first settlers arrived from Malaysia and Indonesia by boat and introduced the roots of Madagascar's language (one of them), as well as certain crops and the technique of growing rice in terraces.

Migration picked up pace throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, and when the Europeans began to roam, and trade in the region began to take off, Madagascar’s ruling kingdoms benefited greatly from these channels of wealth. One Malagasy kingdom in particular rose to power - the Merina of the central highlands.

In 1817 the British entered diplomatic relations with the Merinas, and then in 1890 the British exchanged Madagascar for Zanzibar with the French. It officially became a French colony in 1897.

The Malagasy resented French colonial rule and opposition grew steadily, culminating in a full-blown revolt in 1947. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the French, but in 1958 Madagascar became an autonomous republic.

Things to do

Stand in the shadow of an ancient baobab tree in the spiny forest; explore Ifaty’s beautiful coastal scenery on horseback and spot chameleons and tree frogs in the canyons of Isalo National Park. Our all-inclusive escorted Madagascar tours are packed with incredible experiences.

Tour the vivid green tea plantations of Sahambavy and the traditional artisan workshops of Antsirabe, visit the lemurs of Ranomafana National Park and be spellbound by sacred Ambohimanga, the UNESCO-protected final resting place of the Merina dynasty. Wherever you travel on your Madagascar holiday you’re sure to be wowed by spectacular scenery, and most definitely charmed by the beguiling lemurs that the island is so famous for.

You can even team it with neighbouring Reunion and Mauritius for a fabulous three-island tour!

Flight time

From London to Antananarivo via Nairobi is from 14 hours – plenty of time for a couple of films and a good sleep.

Currency

Ariary -

In 2005, the pre-colonial ariary (MGA) was reintroduced, replacing the Malagasy franc (MGF). There are no restrictions on the import and export of the local currency, so it’s always a good idea to take some with you since you may find places that accept debit or credit cards are limited and ATMs few and far between, especially outside the capital.

However, the ariary is non-transferable so only change amounts as and when you need them – it can only be bought at banks, official bureaux de change in hotels and at the airport in Antananarivo. If you’re worried about running low on spending money, take some low denomination euro notes with you, as they are easier to change up around the island than sterling or dollars. Your tour manager will be able to offer further advice.

Passports and visas

A visa, which is issued on arrival, and a full British passport with at least six months validity from the date of return are required for British citizens.

Visit GOV.UK for more advice on passports and visas.

Phrases

Here’s a few words of Malagasy to get you started…

Hello – Manao ahoana e

How are you? – Fahasalamana?

I'm fine, thank you – Tsara fa misaotra

Yes – Eny

No – Tsia

Please – Azafady

Thank you – Misaotra betsaka

You're welcome – Tsy misy fisaorana

Good bye – Veloma

Have a good trip – Soava dia

 

And a few words of French…

How are you? – Ça va?

I’m fine – Très bien

Yes – Oui

No – Non

Please –S’il vous plait

Thank you – Merci

You’re welcome – Bienvenue

Good bye – Au revoir

Timezone

Madagascar is only three hours ahead of GMT. This means that the country is two hours ahead of the UK from March to October and three hours ahead from October to March.

Electricity

If you want to take your own electrical appliances with you, such as a travel hairdryer or charger, you’ll also need to bring along an adaptor since they’re not widely available in Madagascar. Mains voltage is normally 220 volts AC, 50 Hz and sockets take plugs of the small, round two-pin variety.

Language

Malagasy -

The official languages are Malagasy, which is related to Indonesian, and French. Very little English is spoken in Madagascar, so perhaps practise a few handy phrases (see below).

Interestingly, the French for you – tu – does not exist in Malagasy French so it’s best avoided unless you’re making a close connection!

Tipping

A tip for good service is expected in restaurants – 10% is considered normal although this should always be at your discretion.

Climate

Madagascar’s weather is as varied as its terrain. The lowlands are hot and humid, especially during the rainy season, which falls between November and March, while the highlands are noticeably cooler throughout the year.

Lightweight cotton clothes will help keep you cool in the south and warmer clothes are necessary for the north and more mountainous regions – save space by packing garments that can be worn in layers. A waterproof jacket will also ward off any wet weather (monsoons can kick up a storm to the north and east between December and March).

Health

Mosquitoes and other flying pests are part of daily life in warmer climes. Thwart them by covering up and using insect repellent. Also be prepared by bringing sunscreen and any patent medicines you may need, such as for indigestion or headaches, as you may have difficulty buying them in Madagascar.

As health information can change at any time, we’d advise you to consult your GP at least 12 weeks before departure.

Country-specific information and advice on possible health risks is also published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre and The British Foreign and Commonwealth Travel Advice Unit provides important health and safety information for British nationals travelling abroad.

Population and size

As of 2012, approximately 22.3 million people live in Madagascar: similar numbers to Australia although the island’s population density is higher and more akin to that of the United States! The island is roughly divided by the central highlands where you’ll find the capital of Antananarivo.

Most people live in the growing towns of the rainforest-clad lowlands on the eastern side while the western grasslands are saved for kebu grazing. The populace and terrain becomes sparser the closer you get to the Equator.

As the fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is only a little smaller than France at 587,000 square kilometres (compared to 632,760 square kilometres). It’s also the oldest – that’s to say it has been separated from its continental landmass for longer than any other island. No wonder it has such staggering biodiversity.


Smoking

Smoking is banned in all public areas.


Places in Madagascar

Réunion

The Indian Ocean’s hidden gem