Overlooked and Underrated: Masoala Peninsula, Madagascar

Posted by Fodor's Editors on January 02, 2008 at 2:47:12 PM EST | Post a Comment
Where: A rainforest-covered peninsula on Madagascar's northeast coast. The peninsula separates Antongil Bay from the Indian Ocean. The region is home to Masoala National Park. Maroantsetra town is the arrival (by air) and departure (by sea) point for visits to the peninsula. Why: Accessible only by foot or sea, Masoala is home to one of the last remaining rain forests of its type. Two percent of all of planet earth's animal and plant species reside here. As if that weren't enough, the forest's primordial grandeur tumbles all the way down to the edge of the surrounding sea, where sculpted granite monoliths fringe the splendid isolation of countless golden sand beaches. This is a rainbow-graced nature-lover's paradise. Don't Miss: Hiking Alohatrozana: Located about midway down the western side of the peninsula, this mossy, quartz-embedded path plunges through some of the best of the area's stunning virgin rain forest. Red-ruffed lemurs, the world's smallest chameleon, rare birds, ancient hardwood trees, and thousands of orchid and medicinal plant species thrive in the magical hush of this unique forest wilderness. Most of the trail is inside the National Park, and official guides (required) will keep you from turning in circles while also identifying the many species you are likely to encounter. Kayaking Antongil: Viewing the grandeur of the Masoala Forest from a kayak is an unforgettable experience. Turtles, dolphins, and, at the right time of year, humpback whales frolic in the bay's crystalline waters. Navigate around sacred islands and up pristine mangrove-fringed rivers where forest birds and occasional troops of brown lemurs are your only company. The Masoala Forest Lodge (see below, Where to Stay) will set you up with kayaks and guides. Exploring the coastal trail: Tracing the peninsula's perimeter is the locally used coastal trail. Along the particularly beautiful 10-mile stretch between Alhoatrozana and Antalavia village, the path weaves in and out of golden-sand beaches, rocky coves, and lush forest. Wildlife, the perfect secluded beach, views of fishermen in dugout canoes, enormous orchid-covered boulders, or a child herding a single zebu cow are likely sights. Also Worth Seeing: Part of the national park, Nosy Mangabe is a small island in the Antongil Bay. Its well-marked trails and limited space create ideal conditions for spotting creatures such as the black-and-white ruffed lemur or leaf-tailed gecko. The island bears witness to the area's seafaring history in the form of 17th-century inscriptions carved by Dutch sailors into an enormous boulder at the Plage des Hollandais. Tasty Treat: The Antongil Bay is famous for its excellent prawns, which are best eaten grilled and accompanied by coconut rice, another local treat. Don't Leave Without: Northeast Madagascar produces some of the world's highest quality vanilla and lychees. A bottle of rum infused with either one preserves the sweet smells, tastes, and memories of this magical place. If you prefer your vanilla alcohol-free, small bundles of about 20 high-quality pods can be purchased from most of the lodges and hotels in the area, for about $5. Speak to your hotel manager if you're interested in buying in bulk! Where to Stay: The Masoala Forest Lodge is simplicity and elegance at one. This remote eco-lodge is located in a gem of a sheltered cove next to the national park. Luxurious "African Safari"-style tents, most with ensuite bathrooms, are housed on wooden platforms with spacious verandas from which to enjoy views of the forest. With a maximum capacity of 10 guests, this exclusive lodge is a haven of tranquility. Power is available for charging batteries, but otherwise you are off the grid (forget about TV and A/C). Fresh seafood and local produce dominate a richly satisfying menu of three-course meals. A stay at the lodge includes all meals, transfers, and activities, from guided forest walks in the park to kayaking in the bay. When to go: Humpback whales migrate to the bay between July and September to mate and calve. During these months, Antongil's waters froth with cetacean antics while orchids bloom in the forest. The high-season months of October-December typically bring the clearest skies and calmest seas, making it an ideal time for hiking, kayaking, or any other form of outdoor bliss. Be sure to book well in advance if you're planning to come during this time of year -- accommodation on the peninsula is still (wonderfully) limited, and nature lovers flock during these (relatively) dry months. How to Get There: Air France will fly you round-trip from New York to Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo. Flights start at $1,200. Air Madagascar also runs flights from Paris (and a few other European cities) to Antananarivo. Round-trip fares for that nine-hour flight start at $900 RT. Book your international flight on Air Madagascar and receive discounts on the internal flights from Antananarivo to Maroanstretra. A full-fare, one-way internal flight from Antananarivo to Maroantsetra runs about $125 and takes about an hour and a half. The return boat transfer from Maroanstetra to the peninsula is included in your stay at the Masoala Forest Lodge. ---Lee Middleton
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