Having a whale of a time in Madagascar

by Ruth.Rosselson

It’s a long way to go for a holiday, but Isle St Marie in Madagascar will not disappoint, with stunning beaches, amazing accommodation, great food - and humpback whales

The motor boat powered through the choppy waves, while I clung to my seat, desperately hoping that my seasickness tablets were going to work. I was already soaked through and though we’d not been out that long, was starting to get into a bit of a sulk. Suddenly, the cry of “Baleine!” went up from the French tourists on the boat and my misery was forgotten as I took out my binoculars and started to look ahead for the tell-tail spout.
We were out on a half-day whale-watching tour, and despite my pessimism and earlier misery, I was  rewarded with some pretty close encounters, including seeing a young calf hurl itself out of the water, playing and practising the famous breach, something he’ll need later on in life when he returns to these waters to breed.
Humpback whales migrate to Isle St Marie each year to mate and to give birth. It’s one of the easiest places in Madagascar to see these huge creatures and no stay here is complete without a day on a boat searching for them. Wild animals are difficult to guarantee, but on Isle St Marie it’s more unusual not to see one in season; there are just so many of them playing in the waters. My stay on the island came at the end of the season, but even so, not only did I get to see them on the whale-watching trips, but also from the comfort of my own breakfast table, off shore and distant, but still excitingly visible through a decent pair of binoculars.
Although Isle St Marie’s main attraction is the whales, the island has a lot more to offer. The beaches are picturesque and clean, and the waters are clear and ideal for snorkelling right off the beach. I had trouble picking which hotel to stay at and ended up at three different hotels with three gloriously beautiful beaches during my 10 days on the island. Unusually, I can’t even pick my favourite place, as they were all so great in their own ways. All offered comfortable rooms, beautiful views and amazing food. The main difference was that the more you paid, the more comfortable they became. There was the basic, but beautiful, La Crique in the north, and the conveniently situated Libertalia, with by far the best food and most accommodating hosts. But for the ultimate in decadent beach holidays, it has to be the Princesse Bora, right at the south of the island.  
I’m not one for beach holidays normally, but the atmosphere on Isle St Marie was so relaxed and easy, it wasn’t difficult to get into the mode of lazy days on the beach, decadent lunches, coco punch in time for sunset, and more wonderful food to top the day off, before walking again on the beach, taking in the amazing stars above.
Although relaxing is probably the easiest activity to indulge in on the island, it’s not the only one. As well as venturing out to see whales, I also indulged in a couple of scuba dives and a trip to Isle Aux Nattes, just south of Isle St Marie. Its beaches are even more cliché and picturesque, and the waters are clear and safe for snorkelling. Because Isle St Marie is relatively undeveloped, hiring a bicycle and cycling round it can be rewarding – though tiring if you’ve not done much exercise recently, as I hadn’t. We passed a few small villages on this lush island, giving us an idea of what life was like for the islanders before the tourists came. It’s a far cry from the expensive hotel we’d set off from, with all its mod cons and infinity swimming pool.
Despite the disparity between local accommodation and the hotels, Isle St Marie still welcomes its tourists. It’s battered in the cyclone season year after year, yet the hotels are rebuilt – always better than before – and many of the French tourists that I met were not there for the first time. The island’s unpredictable weather is probably the biggest thing preventing it from becoming overdeveloped. Yet the weather was still warm and sunny enough for me to feel that it was a lovely, unpretentious destination for a relaxing beach holiday.
As my plane back to Tana, Madagascar’s capital, took off, I looked down to the sea below me, sad to say goodbye to these azure-blue waters so full of life. Suddenly, something caught my eye: a splash so huge, it could only have come from one thing - another humpback whale, leaping skywards, as if to say a final goodbye.
Getting there
You can fly to Isle St Marie with Air Madagascar or Air France, or book a tour to Madagascar with Rainbow Tours and include Isle St Marie as part of a wider itinerary.