I’ve just returned from a magical trip to Ile Sainte Marie, a small island off the North East coast of Madagascar. Previously it was a haven for pirates and now it’s a little piece of paradise for tourists; adventurous tourists at any rate.
Sainte Marie has a deserved reputation as an exotic holiday destination. It has the unpopulated white sandy beaches, turquoise seas and coconut palms that delight the Western traveller. Added to this, real Malagasy life goes on around you so Sainte Marie gives a fascinating glimpse into real Malagasy lives and is a lovely place to just amble about.
It has seen enormous strides in development in the last ten years. The tourist hotels may look rustic, using large amounts of natural materials, but they are slowly taking over most of the beachfront land, pushing the villages a few metres inland on the other side of the road.
However, the everyday life of the local islanders and tourists won’t feel over developed to most people.
In fact, a trip to Sainte Marie, as to anywhere in Madagascar, requires being prepared to compromise on luxury, convenience and health and safety.
The main road from the airport is terrible and only improves after you’ve taken your life in your hands on a crumbly, single lane pontoon over an inlet. Water and electricity are not in continuous supply in most places. And of course there are mosquitoes and malaria, as well as other interesting bugs and tropical diseases to be prepared for.
Sainte Marie is a great place for those who prefer their tropical island paradise experience to be combined with experiencing the realities of a country and its people up close.
And if the single dirt track road going around the island is too much development for you, there’s always Ile Aux Nattes. This is a separate smaller island off the southern tip of Sainte Marie, that has no roads and no running water and is reached by a small local canoe.
See my Ile Sainte Marie photos.
Our Sainte Marie hotels
We split our 10 day trip into 3 parts, staying
- 5 nights at the Tsara Bay guest house, near La Crique bay towards the North
- 3 nights at Le Galleon guest house, just South of Ambodifotatra (the capital)
- 2 nights at Le Pandanus, Bungalows, on Ile Aux Nattes
We loved this place and were very sad to leave it. It is a guest house in its own private bay, which ended up feeling like home (in fact I now covet this as a future home)
Double room: 40000 Ar per night
Extra bed: 10000 Ar per night
Meals: 8000-12000 Ar main course, Breakfast 4000 Ar,
When you first arrive, you feel that there are no other hotels for miles around. You have found your own private island lodge.
However, a quick peek through the trees at the edge of the garden, and you see the bay of the popular La Crique hotel. The bay is so good it’s a highlight stop for island tours, due to the lovely beach, excellent swimming / snorkelling and good food (quite expensive).
So you can split your beach time in between La Crique with the other tourists (usually only between 5-15 people) and your ‘own’ bay in front of the Tsara Bay guest house, for more privacy.
The Tsara Bay house is made almost entirely out of wood. It is only one room wide, so remained cool and all rooms have a view over the bay from the bedroom and veranda. In fact, most of our time was spent on the shaded veranda which goes along the length of the house, either at tables, in comfy chairs or in the hammock.
There is also a sumptuously decorated main living room with sofas, reading material and a big TV (only switched on once at the request of a guest). The living room has a mezzanine level, also with beds.
The area has been well landscaped and planted, so you are surrounded by trees and flowers, and thus also different birds. I enjoyed watching the aggressive behaviour of the Crested Drongo, a common but nevertheless stunning bird, whose entirely black plumage oozes glamour with Audrey Hepburn like simplicity.
Behind the house are the few chickens and ducks kept by the household and a view over some rice paddy fields.
As with most beaches on Sainte Marie that I visited there are sea urchins so I appreciated having a mask with me to scout them out.
One of the things that makes this such a lovely place to stay are the staff. Aurelie, Jenine and Simone were lovely, catering to individual needs and always easy to find, without being intrusive.
Families, people looking for peace, small (sociable) groups, lone travellers (cosy atmosphere good for chatting to people)
Romantic couples who want privacy or people looking to party.
The drawbacks are:
- Only one bathroom and toilet. This ended up not being the problem we thought it would be – but could be if all the beds were taken.
- The hotel is isolated so our food and bar bill etc. ended up expensive
- Have to walk up steep grassy path to get in and out
A good value, well-run bed and breakfast near Ambodifotra which is owned by La Ballenatoro diving company. The set up encourages a friendly atmosphere with guests getting to know each other. It’s on the track that leads to the pirate’s cemetery.
20000 Ar per night per person sharing a room (we had a double and single bed). Includes excellent breakfast. Two bungalows available for 30000 Ar per night.
- Walking distance to Ambodifotra and hotels on South of island
- Helpful, friendly staff
- Quiet and peaceful but sociable
- Generous servings of great fresh natural juices at low prices
- Excellent breakfast (bread from wood fired oven, home made jam and fresh juice)
- Lack of privacy – rooms poorly soundproofed
- Running water not always running (there were always full buckets if this happened)
- Only one very nearby option for eating meals – but many choices 15 minutes walk away
Small sociable groups, lone travellers, people who want to dive.
Romantic couples who want privacy or anyone looking to bring people back at night (forbidden).
A Malagasy run collection of bungalows on the North beach of Ile Aux Nattes, run by a family working hard to compete with the other hotels that have taken over the beaches.
Bungalow: 25000 Ar (€10) per night (regardless of how many people in there – we had 2 double beds so managed 3 adults and a travel cot in ours).
Meals; 8000-12000 Ar (€3.20- €4.80) for main, Breakfast 4000Ar (€1.60)
Getting to Ile Aux Nattes involves a 5minute journey on a pirogue (traditional canoe). I did see some other boats occasionally, looking like they may belong to bigger hotels that also do sea fishing trips.
Le Pandanus was by far the cheapest option on the North beach (which we chose because it was the nearest beach and neither granny seemed keen to spend any more time than necessary in the canoe. Other hotels cost between 50000 Ar (€20) and 91000Ar (€37) per bungalow, and were more luxurious.
Overall our stay at Le Pandanus was a good one, but there were constant little things that could be improved.
All the hotels on the island are in walking distance to each other, so you can easily walk to the best swimming points (10 minute walk from La Pandanus) and eat in any of the hotels. You can swim right off the beach right in front of La Pandanus but it’s quite shallow and there are small sea urchins. I preferred to walk 10 minutes to the west corner of the North side where there’s an area of swimming pool quality, deep drop off of white sand to about 5 metres deep maximum. There can be a bit of a current coming round the corner but it takes you round the beach rather than out to sea. So you can swim about watching the pirogues coming and going, and even the odd plane.
- Excellent seafood
- Generous portions of food (so good for hungry people)
- Watching the planes take off
- Enjoying the North shore at a much cheaper rate than the other hotels
- Water runs out frequently and you have to ask for them to let it down from the water tower again.
- Low level of French spoken amongst staff (and no other languages other than Malagasy)
- Details of requests often misunderstood / forgotten
Getting around Sainte Marie
The state of the roads means that travelling around is an undertaking, either requiring considerable effort or money. And we weren’t there in the rainy season. There were roadworks going on at various places mainly putting little bridges in I think.
Although, as mentioned above, it also gave Sainte Marie some of its charm and some of our nicest experiences were walking around. And it’s easier to walk around here than some places in Madagascar because the frequent clouds and rains give some cooler days.
So, going on foot is one option – there’s only a few roads which are easy to find and all areas feel equally safe so you can explore.
Other locals and tourists were on bikes or motorbikes. As well as the roads, many vehicles for hire will be in relatively poor condition so may require tolerance and fortitude. The Bradt Guide says that most hotels rent bikes and I saw various places with both bikes and motorbikes for hire.
Taxi brousses pick people up along the road and are usually minibuses or Nissan trucks. I think people were paying 1000-5000Ar for many journeys. I’d be more comfortable recommending taxi brousses on Sainte Marie than most places in Madagascar because the roads mean that the drivers can’t pick up any speed. And many private hire vehicles double as taxi brousses or are just as unroadworthy,
Private taxis are extremely expensive compared to the rest of Madagascar, between 20000Ar and 65000Ar for most journeys (depending on the length of journey and the vehicle).
Hotel pick ups
Your hotel may well offer to pick you up at the airport or port. Find out in advance if this is a free service and, if you’re interested, whether it is their own car or a local taxi (see above section on taxis).
Remember Sainte Marie is an island and the sea is probably the fastest way to get around the island. I didn’t investigate boat options or prices but I’m sure you could make arrangements, either in boats with engines, sail boats or pirogues.