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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Returning to Tana
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!