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 is a reason that tropical paradises are lush - it usually rains a lot and there is plenty of water around. And with the water come the unwelcome locals- the mosquitoes!
Malaria is endemic throughout all of tropical Madagascar. Even if you are right on the coast, chances are that there is standing water close by, which makes ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes. Conventional wisdom is that mozzies generally venture forth during the night, but the reality is that they are particularly active at dawn and dusk, and you'll also encounter them in shady vegetated areas, even during the day.
The first - and best - precaution that you can take is to ensure that you're not bitten in the first place. This means ensuring that you sleep under a mosquito net - and preferably spraying this with insect repellent before you take occupancy - so check when you book that the hotel provides these (spraying should also displace any other unwelcome residents such as cockroaches and bedbugs). Be sure that you have some sort of mosquito repellent device in your room. Many people (including myself) like these electrically powered units into which you slot pads impregnated with repellent - however, these obviously rely on electricity, and are useless in a power cut. Also bear in mind that many of the hotels and resorts do not have grid power, and instead rely on generators which only run for a few hours. Chances are that the generator gets switched off mid evening, at exactly the time you most need mozzie protection! I would therefore suggest that you either revert to conventional mosquito coils (and a packet of matches), or at least bring some with you, just as a backup.
Equally important is to cover up exposed flesh from late afternoon onwards - mozzies particularly like exposed flesh around joints such as wrists, ankles and knees where the blood vessels are close to surface. Sadly, this precaution is not elegant and won't qualify you as automatic inclusion into glossy magazines as an example of beach chic, but then, but then, there's nothing glamorous about malaria either! Also make sure that you cover the exposed parts (hands, neck, face) with mosquito repellent such as Tabard or Peaceful Sleep (but make sure not to get this in your eyes as it stings like hell!)
Despite all your precautions, the chances are that you may still get bitten, and, if so, you need to bear in mind that malaria has an incubation period of several weeks. If so, please consult a doctor as soon as you experience flu-like symptoms and mention that you've recently been in a malarial area: better safe than sorry.
If all this sounds rather extreme, please bear in mind that I have had celebral malaria, so know exactly how grim it can be. Put simply, it's a potential killer, and even if you catch it early enough, on the first day, you feel as though you are going to die, and on subsequent days, you rather wish you had!
A few days rest on this beautiful and quiet island on the north/east coast of Madagascar.
The white whales come by this beach in october and keep the inhabitants awak with their snoring at night.
Fondest memory: Just hot sun, swimming, lazing around...