Travel Black Book CEO Series

Travel Black Book: Nature's best-kept secret

Madagascar is the world's fourth-largest island and abounds in wildlife

WHO: Mr Troy Liu, 34, founder and chief executive officer of Mileslife, an airline miles-earning app.

Favourite destination: Madagascar, off the south-eastern coast of Africa. It is my favourite destination because it is relatively untouched and has yet to become a hot spot for tourists.

This allows me to enjoy the country's vast and beautiful landscapes without massive crowds and lets me unwind and discover new aspects about myself amid the serenity.

SEE

Madagascar is one of the best countries to visit if you are interested in nature and wildlife. The fourth-largest island in the world, it is home to an astonishing variety of unique animals and plants. In fact, 70 per cent of the island's animals are endemic and about 90 per cent of the 10,000 plants native to Madagascar cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

It is also home to an incredible diversity of landscapes. One can go from palm-fringed sunny beaches and sandstone canyons to mountains and rainforests within a few hundred kilometres.

The most famous animal is the lemur, of which there are about 100 species, all endemic to Madagascar. Parc National d'Andasibe is one of the best places to see them.

Madagascar is also renowned for its baobab trees. Drive along Avenue of the Baobabs, a dirt road between Morondava and Belon'i Tsiribihina in western Madagascar, where a group of towering baobab trees line the road. Said to be the most beautiful road in the country, it is best seen at sunrise or sunset, when the light glows on the trees.​

  • WHO: Mr Troy Liu, 34, founder and chief executive officer of Mileslife, an airline miles-earning app. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TROY LIU


  • GETTING THERE
     

    The quickest way to get to Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, is via Mauritius. Air Mauritius flies from Singapore to Mauritius four times a week. From there, Air Mauritius and Air Madagascar have direct flights to Antananarivo five days a week.

    TIPS
     

    I discovered Madagascar's beauty by taking a three-week road trip, which still was not enough time to cover the whole country. Road trips are the best way to get a real perspective of the local culture and you have the freedom to do whatever you want - stop in any town and view interesting sights.

    Offering some of the locals a ride to nearby destinations was also a unique way for me to understand their culture and favourite local hot spots. The roads can be rough and many are paved with dirt or sand, so a four-wheel-drive is recommended.

    •Although Madagascar is predominantly a French-speaking country, I knew just enough of the language to communicate effectively. Otherwise,

    I gesticulated.

    • Relax and let your guard down and you will be able to make friends with the locals. They are your best source of information when it comes to activities, restaurants and sightseeing.

    •The country is relatively safe, but one needs to take extra caution at night, as with any country one is visiting.

    •The best time to visit is between May and October - avoiding the wet cyclone season from late December to March. October to December is a great time to see lemurs, as this is when they give birth. Whales arrive from July to August.

While the eastern side of the island is known for its verdant rainforests and fields, the west has a drier desert-like landscape. Isalo National Park impressed me with its imposing sandstone mountains, deep gorges and canyons.

There are also a number of trails that lead you to some incredible natural wonders, such as the Namaza circuit, which is rich in vegetation and opens up to a pristine waterfall and a deep natural swimming pool.

For the best views, go to Isalo Rock Lodge (www.isalorocklodge.com). I recommend sitting by the lodge's infinity pool with a cocktail in hand as you watch the sun set slowly behind the rocks.

EAT

Madagascar's food is influenced by French, Indian, African and Arabic cultures and, as an island-country, it has delicious seafood.

I suggest asking the locals for recommendations on the best places to eat the freshest seafood. Shrimp, prawn, king crab, lobster and calamari are must-haves.

You should also try the national dish, romazava, a beef stew with leafy greens, and kaka pizon, a popular street food of deep-fried wonton-like strips of dough.

For breakfast, most locals eat mofo gasy, a round and fluffy fried pancake made with a batter of sweetened rice flour. I had mofo gasy with my coffee on most days. It is available at many of the restaurants around town and is hard to get wrong. The adventurous can try the insects, such as fangalabola, a bagworm pupae.

PLAY

If you are a nature lover, the Whale Festival on Ile Sainte Marie, a narrow island off the east coast of Madagascar, should be on your list. It takes place annually in the first two weeks of July, which is prime time to see the humpback whales which have arrived on the coast to calve and mate.

The festival hosts a big parade as well as games, exhibitions and concerts to celebrate and raise awareness of the whales, which can be seen breaching and blowing in the waters around the island.

A more cultural experience would be the Zegny'Zo Festival (zolobe.com), an annual celebration of street theatre and traditional music in May that takes place in Diego Suarez, a port city in northern Madagascar.

Donia (festival-donia.com) is a popular annual week-long festival featuring music and culture from the West Indian Ocean. Thousands of people watch performances by acts from Madagascar and the neighbouring islands, such as Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues as well as Francophone mainland Africa.

The village of Soatanana is a must-see for its impressive local culture. It is renowned for its silk, which local women have been weaving for centuries.

Much of the silk is harvested in the wild from an endemic silkworm, resulting in a material that is darker and less shiny than farmed silk, but is still beautiful.

All the locals wear clothing made of the unique cloth and you can buy wild silk scarves from the people who make them.

Getting to Soatanana can be tricky as it is off the beaten path and roads can become muddy after a heavy downpour. The best way to get there is to rent a four-wheel-drive car.

SHOP

There is no shortage of shopping haunts. You can find small markets in almost every town and I recommend stopping in the smaller handmade craft shops to discover original finds and support the locals.

Items you will see often are the miniature cars made from soda or tin cans and turned into vibrant-coloured vehicles. It is a great souvenir that is synonymous with the country.

STAY

Isalo Rock Lodge is a beautiful 60-room retreat in Isalo National Park in south-western Madagascar. The rooms are spacious, clean and luxurious. From here, you get breathtaking views of sunsets and the surrounding rocky landscape.

The lodge has only four hours of electricity a day, which means you can disconnect from the Internet and explore the nearby rock formations.

If you like lemurs and other cute animals, Vakona Forest Lodge, which is located in a private park (hotelvakona.com/en/home) has 28 bungalows scattered around lush tropical gardens.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'Nature's best-kept secret'. Print Edition | Subscribe