Why you should care
Because Madagascar is weird. In the best way.
We’re sailing in a dugout wooden canoe, cutting across the opening of one of the largest natural bays in the world, water and wind whipping in our faces. It’s early morning, but it’s warm out, and the local Malagasy sailors, born-and-bred fishermen, are perched precariously on the edge of the watercraft. They’re equally comfortable standing over open water as they are on dry land, but I’m imagining falling overboard and being gobbled up by sharks.
It’s the perfect place for adventure travelers who are looking for something more backpacker than five-star, with all the same scenery and an even better vibe.
Thirty minutes later, we pull up to a tiny slice of white-sand beach on a small island in the middle of Madagascar’s Emerald Sea. It’s our own private hideaway for the day in the middle of turquoise-blue waters, where we’ll snorkel, relax and chow on some freshly caught fish. This isn’t a pricey trip reserved for the world’s wealthy. Instead, it’s the perfect place for adventure travelers who are looking for something more backpacker than five-star, with all the same scenery and an even better vibe. “It’s the color of the sea. When you get there, you know it’s the Emerald Sea,” says 19-year-old Erika Fabre, who sailed there in an old pirate ship she rented for around $10. “It’s a paradise,” she says, and she would know — she’s originally from Bali.
The Emerald Sea is a retro cab ride and a boat trip away from Antsiranana, also known as Diego-Suarez, a town lost in time on the northernmost tip of Madagascar. The taxis are nearly uniformly 20-year-old Renaults, and the island, once a French territory, has vestiges of the colonial: two-story buildings with wide verandas, a French-speaking population. But the feel of Diego is shaped by influences from its Indian Ocean counterparts, from East Africa to India. Aside from its blended cultural heritage, Diego is most known for its tiny fishing villages, remote beaches, killer kite surfing — thanks to Varatraza, the famous yearly winds — and intensely powerful hurricanes. The best part? You’ll probably see only a handful of other tourists, if that. And after any day trip, you can plant yourself back in one of Diego’s many karaoke bars, where people sip Malagasy rum or locally brewed Three Horses Beer and party. Island style.
As laid-back as it is, Diego does have a twisted history. It was once host to a French military base, and was the site of Operation Ironclad, a British plot to seize the town’s port from the French in 1942. The battle launched a war that lasted throughout much of that year. But such history isn’t what the local guides will tell you about. Instead, they’ll focus on what’s perhaps Madagascar’s biggest claim to fame: Upwards of 90 percent of its flora and fauna is endemic, meaning it can’t be found anywhere else in the world. And it’s as close to a time hop as one can get. Unless Jurassic Park was real.