Dominating the heart of Madagascar in every sense, Antananarivo is very likely to be your point of arrival. Charmingly adrift and unfamiliar, Tana, as it’s known, is a city that beats to a blend of traditional and modern rhythms, where shopping malls and urban transit systems have yet to make an appearance among the few spires of glass and concrete.
Antananarivo lies towards the northern end of the Central Highlands. This region of rugged ranges and plateaux is the cultural heartland of the Merina people, whose dominance over most of the island was established early in the nineteenth century. In towns like Ambatolampy, Antsirabe, Ambositra and Fianarantsoa, you’ll see traditional architecture, horse-drawn buggies and Malagasy crafts, with famadihana (reburial) ceremonies taking place through the dry season, while outside the urban centres there are hikes and natural areas to explore such as the Réserve Villageoise Anja, which protects several groups of ring-tailed lemurs, and the rainforest of the Parc National de Ranomafana, amid a landscape dominated by terraced rice fields and pastel-coloured village houses.
East of the highlands, Madagascar’s steeply sloping spine remains largely swathed in rainforest, cut by rushing streams and negotiated by just two main roads and a couple of decrepit railway lines switchbacking down to the coast. The country’s most famous national park, Andasibe-Mantadia, is located in the eastern rainforest and is home to twelve species of lemurs, including the largest – the wonderful, wailing indri. The sultry east coast features a gem of an island – beach-fringed Île Sainte Marie – and marvellously remote and rewarding rainforest areas in the shape of the tiny island reserve of Nosy Mangabe and the magnificent mountainous national parks of Masoala and Marojejy.
The island’s northern tip is crowned by the extraordinary natural harbour of Diego Suarez, with its necklace of beautiful beaches and diving spots. This town is the natural access route to the little-visited mountain rainforest park of Montagne d’Ambre and the spectacular limestone pinnacle landscape of Parc National d’Ankarana. Here, you’re within striking distance of the alluring island of Nosy Be on the northwest coast, sheltered from Madagascar’s easterly cyclones, fringed by beautiful if relatively exploited beaches, and dotted with resort hotels. To escape the high-season crowds, focus on the smaller satellite islands and remote mainland hotels.
Much of the vast region of western Madagascar – flatter and much more low-lying than the east – is barely visited backcountry, lapped by the relatively sheltered, mangrove-fringed Mozambique Channel and dotted with old fishing and trading ports such as Majunga, Morondava and Morombe. While the towns tend to be rather washed-up and the beaches aren’t the best, the snorkelling and diving can be excellent. Natural highlights such as the dry woodland of Parc National d’Ankaranfantsika, the nocturnal wildlife of the Kirindy Private Reserve, and the stunning specimens on Morondava’s Allée des Baobabs are magnetic in their own right. Above them all, though, is the utterly otherworldly limestone pinnacle landscape of the Tsingy de Bemaraha; with its almost impenetrable forest of rocky needles, it’s a paramount goal for many visitors, if never easy to reach. If you have enough time, the Bemaraha is often best accessed by one of the navigable rivers that flow through it.
In many ways southern Madagascar – drier and more temperate with its remarkable spiny forest ecosystem – is a different world. Parts of the region, especially the driest districts in the southwest, are areas of semi-desert, where impoverished pastoralist peoples like the Bara and the Mahafaly count their blessings in the number of zebu cows in their herds. The biggest attractions here are the sandstone canyons of Parc National d’Isalo, the high peaks of Parc National d’Andringitra and the habituated ring-tailed lemurs and “dancing” sifakas of the Réserve Privée Berenty. Mountains join the sea at the isolated and historic outpost of Fort Dauphin, in the far southeast, the dry spiny forest meeting the moist tropical environment of the east coast in a delightfully scenic, rewarding location, with great beaches and outstanding faunal reserves.