Young Thais are drawn by the big city lifestyle
Forget Hollywood fripperies, Madagascar is like no place else on earth. We cherry picked five unforgettable things to do in this truly unique place.
Trek the rainforest and take a hot tub
Parc National de Ranomafana is known for its hot springs and lemur-inhabited rainforest. Head out at dawn for a guided trek in search of the beautiful bamboo lemurs. Later, cross a spindly bridge over the village's huge gushing river to find a line of hot tubs in little rooms. Once submerged in the piping hot water, you will relax instantly. Stay at the charming Hotel Domaine Nature (75-750-25), 4km out of the village on the road to the park, for rustic bungalows on stilts and fantastic views of the forest and waterfalls.
Breakfast Malagasy-style, and haute cuisine too
The French left a lasting impression when they colonized Madagascar. There are croissants everywhere. Dine Malagasy-style at a hotely, one of the slightly dingy roadside establishments, serving up stacks of fried dough balls (mofobols) and super sweet coffee with condensed milk. Other choices include deep-fried bananas and rice cakes. It is hardly fine dining, but the people-watching and hospitality make the experience priceless. If you’re in Antananarivo, try the western end of Ave Ramanantsoa or around the market at Analakely, but get there early as many hotely stop serving by about 8 pm.
On the other end of the culinary scale, you will find La Varangue, a highly regarded restaurant in Antananarivo. Master chocolatier Lalaina Ravelomanana, who was recently voted among the world's top five chefs has created a menu to die for, including a taster menu and mains such as grenadine zebu steak with apple cannelloni, a mystery item called explosion du chef and, of course, lots of lovely chocolate. Eat out on the veranda overlooking the city or in the stylish interior decked with intriguing relics.
Simplicity and a lakeside safari
At Camp Bandro at Lac Alaotra, you can glide across the island's largest lake in a dugout canoe at dawn in search of the gentle bamboo lemur. As the sun comes up, your guide pushes through the thick reeds into what looks like planet Pandora. Papyrus shoots up around you, and the grey bamboo lemurs never fail to charm. It is not easy to get here – it takes twelve hours in a minibus taxi on bad roads – but it is worth it. The camp itself consists of two basic bungalows in stunning garden of roses and includes three delicious meals a day, a bucket shower and access to the lake every morning.
Meet Mother Nature's most curious creatures
There are four national parks in Andasibe's rich rainforest, so wherever you are, you can hear the eerie call of the island's largest remaining lemur species, the Indri. Stride through the thick rain forest and look up to find the huge monochrome creatures high above your head. Spot fat, green Parson's chameleons and the bizarre giraffe-necked weevil. Take to the quiet Mitsinjo forest for a night walk to hear the frog chorus and spot minute mouse lemurs. For a closer look, visit Vakona Lodge's lemur island, a sanctuary for rescued lemurs that once lived in captivity.
Give something back
You will be struck by the hospitality of the Malagasy and also by the poverty. Spend the day at Akany Avoko in Antananarivo – it is home to around 120 homeless kids. As well as funding their education, the charity provides the children with craft workshops, where they can make bags, clothes and screenprint t-shirts; a garden to learn how to grow vegetables; cookery classes; career lessons and training in sustainable energy. You will be greeted by the English director, Steve Wilkinson, and get to wander round the school, meet the children, visit the craft shop, and have lunch in the cafe.