The ideal way to experience the glory of the beaches and reefs which surround Ile aux Nattes is to take a pirogue ride - as this is the only way to access the island anyway, by the time you get there, you should be well aware of what you're letting yourself in for!
The pirogue operators don't venture outside the fringing reef, which ensures that in all but the windiest weather, the journey should be fairly smooth. If you are there during the season (June - October), you may also be lucky enough to be able to spot humpback whales. The people watching is also pretty interesting: during our trip, we watched women wading in waist-high water with fishing nets, as well as a man fishing for octopus with a spear.
There are a number of pirogues available for hire along the shore by La Petite Traversee (the point of arrival from Ile St Marie). The going rate when we visited (July 2010) was 10,000 ariary per adult and R5,000 per child for the entire trip (including an excellent guided walk up to the lighthouse from Les Lemuriens). It should also be possible to negotiate a deal whereby you get delivered to excellent snorkelling or picnicking spots.
True to its name, Les Lemuriens' most endearing residents are its black and white ruffed lemurs! The lemurs are free ranging, but habituated to human beings, and - as our daughter discovered - most partial to bananas!
We had a look around Les Lemuriens on our way up to the lighthouse. It is set in a gorgeous location on the southern extremity of the island, looking out onto the reef which fans out from the tip of the island. The accommodation is in charming A frame huts furnished in a minimalist style: my only slight reservation is that there appear to be no en suite bathroom facilities (which have sadly become a non-negotiable for me in my middle age!).
Sadly we didn't get time to eat in the restaurant, which gets excellent write ups. A decadent thing to do might be to hire a pirogue to take you to Les Lemuriens, drop you off for a lazy, leisurely lunch and pick you up thereafter!
It would be difficult to dispute that the most exciting wildlife experience on Ile St Marie is witnessing the annual migration of humpback whales, who frequent these waters to mate and calf between June and September each year.
It is perfectly possible to watch whales from the land - we watched a mother and calf frolicking from Maningory beach on Ile aux Nattes, and La Crique is renowned as possibly the best land-based spot for whale watching on Ile St Marie. However, the sheer adrenalin rush of observing whales in their own environment from a small boat is indescribable!
We ventured forth with Ockie from La Petite Traversee on a breezy day - in hindsight, not the most sensible of decisions, but we had little choice given that the weather had been unsettled and we were leaving the next day. The waves beyond the reef were choppy, and our children (aged 6 and 3) were unused to rough sea conditions. 15 minutes into the trip, trying to hold on to the boat as two terrified, whimpering kids clung to me, I began to wonder whether this wasn't one of the worst parenting decisions of my life.
And then the whale appeared out of nowhere. It was only a juvenile, but from where we sat, it seemed vast, and dwarfed our boat. Our collective jaws dropped open with awe, and the kids morphed instantly from terror to fascination as this enormous animal dipped and surfaced through the waves, approaching to within 10m of the boat. I don't think that any of us will ever forget the excitement when it breached over and over again only 50m from the boat, allowing us to admire this extraordinary animal in all its magnificence, from its tiny eyes and fretted front flippers to the pleated whiteness of its tummy.
By the time that we returned home, we were salt encrusted, soaked through and physically exhausted by the effort of holding on tight to the boat as it bounced from wave to wave. But oh, the wild, rollercoaster exhilaration of the experience! And to listen to the kids now, it was the absolute highlight of their entire holiday, and, no, of course they weren't in the least bit scared!
A few tips based on our own experience. Firstly, for the sake of your personal equilibrium, try and go out on as calm a day as possible. Secondly, make sure that you have covered up with a long sleeved shirt and trousers - covering your head is also advisable, but beware that hats easily blow off if there's a breeze. Also ensure that you have covered the exposed bits with sunscreen as it would be easy to get badly burned in sunny weather. Thirdly, this is an experience that you will surely want to photograph for posterity, so make sure that your camera strap is securely around your neck so that you don't lose it overboard when and if things get choppy!
Rates vary, but we paid 20 Euros per person, which seemed pretty reasonable given the amount of fuel the outboard motors consumed!
Postscript: literally days after I wrote this tip, a Southern right whale breached off the coast near Cape Town and landed slap bang on a yacht. This nightmare scanario was the manifestation of the nagging fear that I experienced during our whalewatching escapade, and brought the concept of 'adrenalin rush' to a whole new level!
There are at least three glass bottomed boats moored close to the pirogue drop off point from Ile St Marie to Ile aux Nattes, which is a marvellous way to explore the reef without getting wet!
The glass bottomed boats have no keels, so can only venture out in sheltered water during calm weather. It really isn't worth going out when it's windy, as choppy conditions stir up the sand and render visibility poor.
For scuba divers and snorkellers, glass-bottomed boats may seem to be a bit of a cop out. However, for kids, the elderly and those with limited mobility, it is a wonderful opportunity to experience an underwater world that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. For kids that are able to swim, being given a glimpse of the wonderland beneath the water may provide them with sufficient incentive to encourage them to attempt snorkelling for the first time.
The coral in the channel between Ile St Marie and Ile aux Nattes is in surprisingly good condition, and there is apparently excellent snorkelling at many other points around the island. Highly recommended!
The lighthouse on Ile aux Nattes is best described as 'dinky', and must be all of 8m from base to top! Nonetheless, it is perched on one of the highest points on the island, and is vital to guide shipping around the potentially treacherous reef that encircles the island.
The lighthouse is dilapidated (and the associated buildings are decrepid), but still functions, powered by a couple of robust car batteries. For a small fee, you can climb up to the top, from where there is a lovely view over the island. There is a small shop/cafe by the lighthouse which is a pleasant spot to stop for a snack or a drink.
You can either walk to the lighthouse from the main path around the island, or, if you take a pirogue ride around the island, ask your guide to drop you off at Les Lemuriens on the southern end of the island, from where it is a short but interesting walk up through a small village to the lighthouse.
When weighing up whether Madagascar was a wise and appropriate location for our first family beach holiday, I must confess that what swung it for me was discovering that Ile St Marie apparently boasts the only pirate cemetery in the world!
I was surprised to discover that piracy came surprisingly late to Madagascar - only once the rogues had been kicked out of the Caribbean in the 17th century did they start to exploit the rich picking opportunities presented by the merchant British and Dutch fleets in the Indian Ocean. Most of the graves in the graveyard date from the first half of the 18th century.
Ile St Marie provided the ideal pirate hang out - a lush tropical island offering sheltered anchorage and precious little colonial presence to regulate their nefarious activities. It doesn't take too much imagination to conjur up images of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow marauding around the place, but maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part ...
But of course, in time, even pirates die - and in this environment, probably more from unglamorous conditions such as malaria and dystentery rather than in armed combat. The pirate cemetery is located on the next door island to their main base - a decision no doubt partly informed by justificable concerns about disease, and more likely, worries about being haunted by the villanous ghosts of their erstwhile colleagues!
In the cemetery, most of the gravestones are no longer upright, and the inscriptions are in most cases virtually illegible as the lithified coral that was used for gravestones is heavily weathered and overgrown with lichen. Lush, tropical vegetation encroaches on the tombstones, and has the feel of a place clinging to the edge of the world.
The main picture of this tip is of probably the most famous gravestone, which sports the pirate skull and crossbones. Elsewhere, my daughter was delighted to discover the grave of what appeared to be a lady pirate, and the largest structure in the cemetery is not a grave at all, but rather a monument to Captain William Kidd. The jury is out on Kidd - he was certainly a privateer during his time in the Caribbean (who was paid a bounty to bring pirates to justice), but evidence seems to suggest that the gamekeeper turned poacher once he arrived in the Indian Ocean, and that he became a pirate himself. This was certainly the view of His Majesty's Government, who subsequently hanged Kidd and six of his crew as pirates at Execution Dock in London and left their rotting corpses in place as a deterrent to other would-be pirates.
Reaching the pirate cemetery is an adventure in itself. You are advised to pick up a local guide at the parking spot off the main road, who will guide you through the mangrove swamps to the cemetery. One section has to be crossed by balancing on a metal beam (with the obvious association of walking the plank!) and would not be accessible at high tide. It somehow seems fitting that the route to a pirate cemetery should involve effort and inconvenience, especially if it's blowing a gale, as it was when we visited.
Even if you do nothing else on Ile St Marie, then be sure that you visit this unique site and pay your respects to the colourful villains of Madagascar's swashbuckling past!