|Kiki Venencie and Kate Koziol at Satrana Lodge|
Madagascar may be known for its beaches, but visiting the spiny forest, high plateaus and cloud forests puts travelers in touch with sights not seen anywhere else in the world. Madagascar is a haven for the nature-lover, an incredible biodiversity trip for any well-seasoned traveler and well suited for couples or small groups. Activities can be adjusted to meet any fitness levels to range from city tours to strenuous hiking. The country has just expanded into the luxury market and my July trip, planned by Thecla Vis of Atlas Travel International, in conjunction with Madagascar tour specialist Cortez USA, brought me close to the flora and fauna, but still comfortably resting poolside by afternoon.
Traveling from the capital of Antananarivo in Central Madagascar on Air Madagascar to Tulear on the southwest coast of the island got me into the countryside quickly. Both airports are easy to navigate but leave plenty of time to allow for congestion clearing security and checking in. Atlas Travel International had arranged for a driver to pick me up upon landing in Tulear and escort me on my week-long drive back to the capital stopping in Isalo National Park, Ranomofana National Park and overnight the market town of Antsirabe.
My guide, 10-year Cortez veteran Ramiandrisoa Parson, was both charming and knowledgeable and has accompanied professional photographers on prior trips, so he was not only well versed in the sites, he pointed out interesting impromptu photos to take. With stops at markets and villages along the way, we explored everyday Malagasy life and local craftsmen including woodcarvers, silk weavers, paper production and horn carvers. Parson was an excellent interpreter, speaking Malagasy, French and English, and he arranged local guides at each stop.
I spent my first night in Antananarivo at Hotel La Varangue, a sweet bit of French countryside tucked along a walled cobbled street. Try the Zebu filet with Fois Gras and the flaming Chocolate Explosion at the top-rated onsite Restaurant la Varangue. The eclectic lobby bar and surroundings feature an extensive collection or musical instruments, clocks, vintage microscopes and vast assortment of other paraphernalia, plus a large rhum bar, with dozens of locally-produced spirits in flavors such as vanilla, cinnamon and pineapple.
Tucked into the rocky outcroppings at the outskirts of Isalo National Park, Satrana Lodge blends seamlessly into the hillside. This luxury tented camp opened in 2008 and is a charming oasis in this dry tropical forest. These spacious tents included sizable front decks providing wonderful sunrise and sunset views. The three course lunches and dinners will leave any traveler well satiated and the dining room sits just off the pool and patio with sweeping views of nearby mountains. Satrana Lodge is run by Thierry Venencie, a highly capable general manager and his attentive and friendly staff. My room 114, was a short stroll down a landscaped walkway and was very spacious with dark wood furniture including king sized bed, desk and armoire, and the poured cement floor bathroom had double sinks, a zero entry shower and an enclosed outdoor shower as well. The aluminum accents throughout the room added a cool touch to a well appointed room.
The nearby terrain was dotted with Baobab trees, palm trees, and make for wonderful canyon waterfall hikes and bluff top treks. The required guides for these trips can be arranged though the local park office in Ranohira and my guide Juelle, a 25 year veteran of the terrain, was well versed in botany, tribal history and geology. The hike to the Piscine Naturelle, a lovely oasis in the sandstone mountains, and the troops of lemurs in the near the entrance of Canyon Namaza were the highlights of the area. Stop in the nearby town of Ilakaka, known for its newly-discovered sapphires. The local river juxtaposes villagers panning for sapphires and those doing laundry.
The drive to Ranomafana included a stop at Ambalavao to walk the regional zebu market amongst hundreds of buyers, sellers and at least 1,000 of the surprisingly docile zebu. The Centrest Hotel in Ranomafana National Park, is a perfectly suitable hotel, although the luxury spot in the area is the Setam Lodge just up the road. The Centrest dining room had open air seating overlooking the cloud forest and indoor seating. Hikes into the park can be strenuous, covering rain-slicked steep inclines, but a few senior citizens made the trek and I think it was well worth it. My guide Tao had vast knowledge of the area and his lemur-spotting partner guided us to the best spots, including seeing the nearly extinct Golden Bamboo Lemur. I had a chance to stop by Centre ValBio, a research facility run by noted scientist Dr. Patricia Wright.
On our way to Antsirabe, we stopped in the woodcarver village of Ambositra. The hand carved work and wood inlay is incredible and ongoing demonstrations of their expertise are available. The Couleur Café in Antsirabe has five cottages set in a walled garden and was a pleasant way to wrap up a trip to Madagascar. Like many properties, there is no central heat, but the fireplace warms the room nicely. The family style dining room with one large table for guests to share makes for interesting dinner conversation. The city’s countless rickshaws, known locally as pousse-pousse, transport locals and tourists and make navigating this bustling town easier than driving. The extensive Saturday markets had food stalls and regionally made handicrafts and is worth the trip.