Madagascar 2014 Part 6/6: Ile Sainte Marie

Ile Sainte Marie (also known as Nosy Boraha), a tropical island off Madagascar’s east coast, is one of Madagascar’s premier beaches and a backpacker’s paradise. With countless coconut trees, white sand beaches, and intensely turquoise water, it’s not hard to see why this place was once a big pirate hangout. While this island receives some tourism, comparatively to other island paradises of the world, this place is so secluded and hasn’t experienced the effects of mass tourism…yet.

Getting to Ile Sainte Marie


Most people elect to fly to ISM from Antananarivo via Air Madagascar. Prices are expensive (~$240 one way), so we elected to continue eastward in our 4×4 from Andasibe National Park, through Tamatave (Toamasina), to the ferry terminal at Soanierana-Ivongo.

That's one way to transport bananas...

That’s one way to transport bananas…

Ravenala trees everywhere

Ravenala trees everywhere

The drive east towards Tamatave again shows the geo-diversity of this island. It’s so incredibly green on this drive reminding me of Uganda, and the landscape is filled with banana trees, palm oil trees, and many species of trees unique to Madagascar, the most noticeable one being the Ravenala. The Ranivala is a palm tree but its branches and leaves fan out in a perfect semi-circle. This and the giant baobabs around Morondava are the iconic Madagascar trees in my mind.

Palm oil plantations

Palm oil plantations

The drive from Andasibe to Tamatave, Madagascar’s second largest city and its main port, takes us about four hours through extremely windy and untrustworthy roads. Tamatave is a nice port town that is every much a shitshow as Antananarivo with the exception of its Independence row, a wide road (first time I’ve seen this), organized with coconut trees and gardens, home to the parliament building. We stop here for a quick lunch before heading north to our accommodations for the night.

Driving through Tamatave (Toamasina). Probably the nicest road in Madagascar.

Driving through Tamatave (Toamasina). Probably the nicest road in Madagascar.

It’s refreshing to finally see the ocean again after traveling through the mainland of Madagascar for a month, and the drive north of Tamatave is again filled with lush vegetation. Coconuts can be purchased pretty much anywhere along this road, and depending on the season, different fruits will be available. Raspberry’s were the fruit of choice during our visit (September) but lychees, one of Madagascar’s biggest exports, are readily available for next to nothing in the month of December.

Mahambo beach

Mahambo beach

Staying in Mahambo
We stayed the night in the beach town of Mahambo, about 1.5 hours from the Ferry terminal where we’d go catch the ferry the next morning. We ended up staying at Le Pirogue, a nice hotel right on the beach. Finally, this was the tail end of our trip, and starting off a tropical island getaway with another nice beach is always a good idea.

La Pirogue beachside hotel

La Pirogue beachside hotel

Our little cabin

Our little cabin

The best thing about this place was the resident ring tailed lemur that followed us around the entire time. It even came into our room when we were getting ready for bed. We were no match for its agility as we tried to get it out of our room that we just gave up and this lemur spent the night in our room! Who needs the lemur island excursion at Vakona Lodge when we can have this for free!

The resident ring tailed lemur stealing our beer

The resident ring tailed lemur stealing our beer

And Jesse's toothpaste

And Jesse’s toothpaste

But in the end, what a badass lemur. Wish I could take him with me

But in the end, what a badass lemur. Wish I could take him with me

Our ferry to Ile Sainte Marie

Our ferry to Ile Sainte Marie

Ferry Terminal
The next morning, we left at 7am to the Ferry terminals, where they leave between 10-11am. The port town of Soanierana-Ivongo is about 3 hours north of Tamatave and a 1.5 hour ferry ride to Ile Sainte Marie. The town is a complete shithole, and it’s no surprise to see that most of the ferry goers are locals.

Trying to survive the trip

Trying to survive the trip

There are a few ferry companies here and we went with Cap. Sainte Marie, the only company we could find online. The fare was about 75,000 Ar (~$30) for a one way ferry ride and 100,000 Ar (40$) if we needed transport from Tamatave. Since we had our 4×4, we went with the first option but there are daily buses that will run from Tamatave to Soanierana-Ivongo in the early morning.

Turns out, this ferry company had the oldest boat, and wow what a shitty experience this was! We were crammed into this little boat with 40 other people and maybe 5 foreigners. The seats were small, and we had no back support so the 1.5 hour ride to the island was miserable. My advice would be to go with one of the other companies. Not only are their boats cheaper, but bigger and more comfortable. No matter though, we were going to paradise!

 

Ile Sainte Marie


On our pirogue, heading towards Ile Aux Nattes in the distance

On our pirogue, heading towards Ile Aux Nattes in the distance

Ile Sainte Marie is a sleepy, backpacker friendly tropical island. It’s more developed and touristy cousin is Nosy Be, a  tropical island in Madagascar’s north west. When planning my trip, I was choosing between these two islands to end my Madagascar trip. While both islands had amazing looking beaches (Nosy Be maybe even more so), I ultimately decided on Ile Sainte Marie for its chilled vibe. I am not disappointed with my decision.

Ile Aux Nattes
The island of Ile Aux Nattes is located off the southern tip of Ile Sainte Marie. To get here, we had to hire a tuktuk and/or taxi to drive us to the southern tip of the island, and take a pirogue (canoe) about 10 minutes to the island. Why visit Ile Aux Nattes? Because the beaches on this place are likely some of the nicest I’ve ever seen. Ile Sainte Marie is filled with nice beach especially on the southern side of the island, but Ile Aux Nattes is the cream of the crop. There are a few places to stay on this island and it is all so chilled and incredibly beautiful. We were one of maybe a dozen people on the entire island during my stay.

A little tour of the beautiful Ile Aux Nattes

A little tour of the beautiful Ile Aux Nattes

 

Where we stayed – La Petite Traversee
There are many hotels on Ile Sainte Marie of all price ranges, but the majority are geared towards the backpacker crowd, under 100,000 Ar a night ($40). Where did we stay? On Ile Aux Nattes of course! I highly recommend staying on this little island. There isn’t much to do on Ile Aux Nattes, or Ile Sainte Marie, so why not be where the most beautiful beaches are?

La Petite Traversee

La Petite Traversee

Outside of our bungalow

Outside of our bungalow

The main hangout area

The main hangout area

The beds

The beds

Our dining room and bar

Our dining room and bar

The view from our guesthouse, La Petite Traversee

The view from our guesthouse, La Petite Traversee

Feeding some resident ruffed lemurs that hang out near our lodge

Feeding some resident ruffed lemurs that hang out near our lodge

We ended up staying at La Petite Traversee, an awesome little hotel owned by a South African who moved to Madagascar in the early 2000s. This place also received the highest ratings on TripAdvisor (which is how I found it) which never hurts. We stayed here a total of six nights and what a great end to our Madagascar trip. The rooms were well maintained, the bar was always stocked, and there was even a resident bamboo lemur, Mikey, that provided us entertainment every day.

The food at this place was delicious, and we felt no need to venture out, which is good because there aren’t many other places to venture to. Our breakfasts were always a complete meal with eggs and bacon, lunch was either pizzas or these incredible fish cakes, and dinner was always something tasty and freshly made.

Chowing down on not one but TWO lobsters for dinner, because I can.

Chowing down on not one but TWO lobsters for dinner, because I can.

The resident bamboo lemur, Mikey. He provided us with endless amounts of entertainment. Lemurs make the best pets, hands down.

The resident bamboo lemur, Mikey. He provided us with endless amounts of entertainment. Lemurs make the best pets, hands down.

 

What to do?


What does one do on a deserted tropical island? Not much if you don’t want to! Having gone on so many hikes, and driven for so long in the last 3 weeks, I was okay just to relax.

For a day.

Then I felt the antsy again and needed to do something. This island is perhaps not the best place for that as it is still relatively undeveloped. Nevertheless, there is still enough on this island to keep us company for a few days.

For the best snorkeling around, just walk into the water at this beach and start swimming. Tough life...

For the best snorkeling around, just walk into the water at this beach and start swimming. Tough life…

Snorkeling around Ile Aux Nattes

One of the islands perks is it’s surrounded by reefs. The best part? No need for any boats to get there, a shore entry from its white sandy beaches is all that is needed. We grabbed some snorkeling equipment, walked about 50m into the ocean, put on our masks and fins, and then fish galore! This was some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done. There were so may fish everywhere, and we were even lucky enough to see some cuttlefish.

Sunset at the Maningory

One of the other hotels on Ile Aux Nattes, the Maningory faced west and allowed for some amazing Madagascan sunsets. Time passes by slowly in this place but with the beautiful beach to yourself, there could be worse things in life. Walking back to La Petite Traversee at night, we saw so many fireflies which was a nice touch every night.

Some sundowner drinks on the beach

Some sundowner drinks on the beach

Diving at the Princess Bora Lodge

Diving was high on the list of things to do in Madagascar. Ile Sainte Marie has a few dive shops, the main one being the shop at the Princess Bora hotel, likely the most expensive place to stay on the entire island. The price was 220,000 for 2 dives (~90) which is on the more expensive end (credit cards accepted though!). Seeing how undeveloped Madagascar was during my time, I was nervous to see what kind of dive shops could possibly exist in Madagascar. Surprisingly, the shop on Ile Sainte Marie was very good! The shop is well maintained, up to date equipment, and a proper dive boat.

Getting picked up in our tuktuk to go diving

Getting picked up in our tuktuk to go diving

The dive shop, packed all our gear up before we even arrived.

The dive shop, packed all our gear up before we even arrived.

The boat

The boat

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The diving itself did not blow me away. There were plenty of fish and corals that made for a nice day but it isn’t going to top anyone’s lists anytime soon. Talking to other tourists, the consensus was Nosy Be had superior diving to Ile Sainte Marie.

Whale Watching

This is likely Ile Sainte Marie’s top attraction. During the months of Jun-Sep, humpback whales frequent the shoes of this island. There are numerous companies that take tourists out to see them for prices far cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen in the world. Sadly, we came here at the end of September, and the whales had all but left.

Scooters!

Scooters!

Rent a scooter and check out the North

Ile Sainte Marie is a huge island. Most of tourist developments are near the south but as you head north, the more rustic and untouched the island becomes. Scooters are readily available for rent, usually around 25,000 Ar for 1 day (~$10). We spent a day on a scooter and headed north. The further we got away from the main town, the more we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere (and we already felt like this in the touristy areas!) Completely secluded beaches, local villages, and untouched viewpoints are all available for the adventurous. Sadly, the weather is on average wetter in the north and we ran into rain on our ride up so we had to turn around.

Deserted beach up in the north of Ile Sainte Marie

Deserted beach up in the north of Ile Sainte Marie

Returning to Tana


The (upscale) taxi brousse from the ferry terminal back to Tamatave

The (upscale) taxi brousse from the ferry terminal back to Tamatave

Alas, all good things have to come to an end. After six relaxing nights on a tropical paradise island, it was time to return to society. We ended up taking the ferry back to Soinerango-Ivango with the bus service provided back to Tamatave.

We had someone that was supposed to take us from Tamatave to Tana but he never showed! We had to get back to Tana that night as our flight left the next day. Thankfully, my French had improved during my 4 weeks in Madagascar and we chartered a Taxi-Brousse (Madagascar local bus service) to ourselves. We paid 240,000 Ar for our own private van from Tamatave to Antananarivo! Split between two people, this isn’t a bad price, and certainly beat waiting for the overnight public taxi brousse service!

Showing 8 comments
  • Jeroen
    Reply

    Hi Johnny

    Question about transport. Is it possible to take a minivan with you on the ferries to Île Sainte Marie? As we are traveling in a group of 8 persons it might be more practical to have our own transport then to always have to fall back on renting taxis.

    Kind regards
    Jeroen

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Jeroen, from what I remember, there’s now way that these passenger boats can take a car. They’re pretty small and only fit about 50-70 people. As the island is quite far (almost 2 hours), I didn’t remember seeing if they had boats big enough to take a car. I feel like they must have something, as there are cars all over ISM and they had to get there by boat. Perhaps it would be better to ask the agency you’re renting the minivan from!
      Johnny recently posted…Hiking The Rainbow Mountain Of VinicuncaMy Profile

  • Caroline
    Reply

    Love this !! Thanks so much. I hope to get to Madagascar one day soon.

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Thanks Caroline! You’ll love it once you do! It’s unlike anything else out there

  • Fab
    Reply

    Hi Johnny,

    inspired by your report, grirlfirend + me think about visiting Ile aux Nattes as well. Can youn provide us with an indication of the prices for breakfast / lunch when staying on the island? Any places recommendable for getting (reasonably priced) food? Would you recommend going full/half board or going for accommodation only + buying food?

    Thanks, any info is much appreciated!

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hey Fab, Ile Aux Nattes really isn’t your usual beachside destination. There isn’t a whole lot there except for a few guesthouses and there may be only a handful of places you can actually get food. We mostly ate at where we were staying, at the Petite Traversee. Lunch was no more than 10000 Ar, and dinner I think was around 20000 Ar. We had a few beers at the Princess Bora hotel on the main island and that place seemed to have a lot of different food for slightly more expensive (as it’s a nice resort) but it’s also not on Ile Aux Nattes. Regardless, the food I had at the petite traversee was absolutely delicious!

  • Chris
    Reply

    Well done Johnny, I really enjoyed reading your posts about Madagascar. Especially like it when you comment on your own choices for activities (worth it or not). I’m going for a month next week and this provided with nice and detailed info to get excited.

    Question, could you have taken a normal car in stead of a 4×4 for the destinations you went?

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Chris, you will love Madagascar for sure! As for renting a 4×4, you absolutely need to have one if you’re going to the Tsingy. There are no roads to speak of on the way from Morondava to the Tsingy so a 4×4 is essential. If i did not visi the Tsingy, then a regular sedan would have sufficed. Hope that helps!

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