Ile Sainte Marie: my overview

Ile Aux NattesI’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

Tsara Bay

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)

Prices:
Double room: 40000 Ar per night
Extra bed: 10000 Ar per night
Meals: 8000-12000 Ar main course, Breakfast 4000 Ar,

La CriqueWhen 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.

Tsara Bay, Sainte MarieThe 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.

Best for:
Families, people looking for peace, small (sociable) groups, lone travellers (cosy atmosphere good for chatting to people)

Worst for:
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

Le Galleon

Pirate’s cemeteryA 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.

Price:
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.

Highlights are:

  • 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)

Drawbacks are:

  • 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

Best for:
Small sociable groups, lone travellers, people who want to dive.

Worst for:
Romantic couples who want privacy or anyone looking to bring people back at night (forbidden).

Le Pandanus

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.

Prices:
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 PandanusLe 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.

Highlights are:

  • 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

Drawbacks:

  • 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.

On foot

AnivoranoAlthough, 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.

Two wheels

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.

Taxis

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).

By boat

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.

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A tale of two grannies

Two grannies in DiegoToday’s tale is a travelogue of an unusual trip from Diego to Sainte Marie, with my baby son Fred, my Mum (white Granny), Jean’s Mum (black Granny)

So, 3 women set out on the same journey with a collection of objectives.

  • To visit your birthplace and family
  • To meet new family
  • To indulge in relaxation
  • To see another part of Madagascar
  • To scout Sainte Marie out as potential future home (this is a vague notion of mine and a more serious consideration for Jean’s Mum)

What a privilege to be travelling with my son and his two Grandmothers – especially on such an exotic trip. Fred doesn’t realise how lucky he is now but I’m happy that he is loved already so much by the people close to me.

We piled into our car and another taxi to get to Antsiranana airport – which has been improved during my stay in England. There’s two check in desks, an information desk (a rare thing indeed in Madagascar) and sliding doors.

Air Madagascar customer service

Nil points – when in doubt, lie

I had one experience with Malagasy customer service that would have once tried my patience much more than it does now.

Air travellers with small children now normally have the right to keep a pushchair / buggy with them right up to the plane door. It is stowed and then returned to them when they arrive at the next airport. I have done this before with Air Madagascar.

I had pre-packed my buggy this time to save time. The check in desk insisted on checking it in and putting it straight in the hold. They claimed it would magically appear at Tana if I spoke to ‘someone’. My experience on any international travel indicates this is not likely – and in Madagascar even less so.

As a response to my insistence, a man said he’d phone Tana and disappeared. I told the lady I’d return in 10 minutes to find out who they’d spoken to and what I needed to do at Tana. When, to her dismay, I did return, she told me I should go and speak to her boss, the man who had disappeared ‘to phone Tana’. He then told me there was no need to phone Tana and then went on to explain that people getting their pushchairs depends on the amount of flight traffic.

So, the bald fact is he’d lied about phoning Tana and was now making up Air Madagascar policy. I don’t know for a fact that he was wrong but it was already clear he was not an expert on the Air Madagascar pushchair policy.

Anyway, instead of the seething rage this might once have produced, I only suffered mild, amused disapproval. I realise that he may be breaking my code of customer service but I was also making many Malagasy cultural faux pas (I still make them all the time but I’m more aware of when I’m making some of them).

Firstly I was expecting to receive full customer satisfaction. Secondly, I kept driving at a point when it had become obvious somebody didn’t know what to do – to Malagasys, my insistence at this point is justification enough for the man lying, it was the acceptable thing to do to save everybody’s face. Thirdly, Malagasys don’t have pushchairs so my insistence that it was a necessity for a 5 hour stopover at Tana, is incomprehensible.

Thankfully, I avoided the major faux pas of losing my rag and criticising, as this is not the Malagasy way. So, I left the situation ensuring that the man’s professional status had been respected and by making a joke so we could all laugh together and know there are no hard feelings.

Mille points – gold star to him

The male air steward on the plane needs special commendation for his enthusiasm for his job and determination to love each and every customer. I have never seen an air steward who doesn’t at least look a little jaded – not this chap – job satisfaction all the way. He assured me my buggy would be no problem (he didn’t actually appear to help me at Tana but at least this gave me confidence to keep trying).

A chill at Antananarivo airport

The staff at Tana airport were very helpful although I did have to continue to be the insistent traveller. I got the buggy. Sat in the shade outside the airport, there was a surpisingly chilly wind which saw black granny reaching for her huge cardigan and white granny smiling, though still having to put a scarf round her shoulders.

Madagascar developing in small and big ways

I hate to trivialise the march for development, but I couldn’t help noticing that the toilets were clean and had toilet paper and soap. Small things like this give outsiders an impression of development, which is a plus in itself. I haven’t yet worked out any more complex analysis of Malagasy economics but little things add up.

As if to remind us just how far development can take you, the TV in the departure lounge was showing a non-stop infomercial for some flab wobbling, muscle toner. I suspect the majority of the Malagasy population is a long way from being customers.

Sainte Marie – plane lands, moods lift

I’d talked all week about Ile Sainte Marie as a tropical island paradise but what we’d find in reality was far from certain. Anyone who’s heard of Madagascar usually oos and ahs about the exotic, lush, mysteriousness of it. The reality of much of what I have seen is very different, and not that amazing.

So, as we came into land with our wheels skimming turquoise water and our wing tip floating between a white sandy beach and lush tropical vegetation, things were looking promising.

By the time we walked out of the terminal with our bags my Mum and I were already declaring that Sainte Marie is lovely. ‘Wait until you see the roads’, Jean’s Mum said.

What’s worse – the car or the road?

Any emotional buoyancy soon withered when we saw our transport, a battered minibus without seat belts that brought back horrible memories of previous dances with deaths in a taxi brousse with my Mum.

It was the first time I was taking Fred in a car without a car seat – I told the driver I was very nervous so to go slow – although this was also for my Mum’s benefit, who is a nervous passenger, to say the least.

Then it wouldn’t start and required a push start. Mum’s mood was blackening – I would be more zen if she wasn’t there but I know how car transport can worry her.

Poor Jean’s Mum had been terrified of the flight. We were more scared of the car journey (more faith in science and statistics?)..

Mum had had to close her eyes during the ‘bridge’ crossing of the bays south of Ambodifotatra. I had kept my eyes open, mainly to plan how I would evacuate myself with my son, before going back to rescue my Mum and Jean’s Mum, if we ended up under water.

All’s well that ends well

As nearly always, we arrived safely at our destination. Things were definitely looking up. Our hotel is a gorgeous little place nestled in a secluded bay, and it is a gorgeous tropical little bay.

Looks like we’ve found our tropical island paradise after all.