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A thin strip of land off Madagascar’s northeast coast, sleepy Île Sainte-Marie (also known as Nosy Boraha) is a place of soft-sand beaches backed by palms and fishing villages where old traditions are still alive and well. You can spend the last few days of your Madagascar trip relaxing on the shores, diving in reefs clouded with kaleidoscopic fish and, between June and September, looking for migratory humpback whales offshore.

The island was a popular base for pirates who plundered the Indian Ocean in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, though, the one and only town, Ambodifotatra, is an undisturbed haven with a handful of cafés, a Catholic church and a popular market.

Ambodifotatra, Île Sainte-Marie, MadagascarAfter a busy trip taking in Madagascar’s highlights and hiking through forest in search of the country’s unique collection of wildlife, a few days of island relaxation calls. You don’t have to go far, with Île Sainte-Marie easily accessed via a short light aircraft from Antananarivo.

Here, you can take a more relaxed pace. Staying in a small beachside lodge, you can fill your days with as much activity as you like. Near-deserted beaches of creamy sand are lapped by clear water warmed by the sun, where you can spend entire days unwinding with a book.

Your lodge can usually provide you with snorkelling equipment so you can observe life beneath the waves. If you’re an experienced diver, head out on a diving session to the coral reefs, while beginners can opt to take a diving course to obtain an international PADI certificate.

If you’re visiting between June and September, you can take a boat trip in search of humpback whales, which migrate from Antarctica to Madagascar’s warm waters to breed and calve. Guides, who are often marine researchers, can help locate the whales and tell you more about them as you watch them spout water and flip their flukes above the waves.

Back on dry land, most lodges have bicycles for hire. You could spend a morning or afternoon pedalling along (poorly maintained) roads lined with mango, clove, cinnamon and breadfruit trees, pausing at fishing villages dotted with bamboo houses. As you pass beaches, you’ll notice traditional wooden pirogue boats moored in the shallows.

Ile Aux Nattes, MadagascarYou can take a guided trip to the island’s only town, Ambodifotatra, to find out more about its past role in 17th- and 18th-century piracy. Its strategic position close to the maritime routes linking ships to the East Indies, along with the island’s abundance of sheltered bays and inlets, made it a base for infamous pirates such as Olivier Levasseur, who was known as La Buse (The Buzzard) for the speed and ruthlessness of his attacks, and Henry Every, dubbed ‘The King of Pirates’ after being one of few pirate captains to have escaped with his bounty without being arrested.

It’s also worth taking time to explore the town’s market, enjoy a cold drink in one of its pavement cafés and see Madagascar’s oldest church, the red-roofed Notre Dame de l’Assomption, built by French Catholics in 1857 (unfortunately it’s closed to visitors).

At the end of each day, you can dine on fresh seafood (the island’s particularly known for its crab) washed down with Île Sainte-Marie’s signature drink — coconut milk enlivened by a large measure of pastis.

Best time to visit Île Sainte-Marie

You can visit Île Sainte-Marie from April to December, with only the cyclone-prone months of January to March worth avoiding. To time with whale watching season, visit between June and September.

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Audley Travel specialist James

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Suggested itineraries featuring Île Sainte-Marie

Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Île Sainte-Marie, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.

Map of Île Sainte-Marie

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    Places near Île Sainte-Marie

    Our expert guides to exploring Île Sainte-Marie

    Written by our specialists from their own experiences of visiting Île Sainte-Marie, these guides will help you make the most of your time there. We share both our practical recommendations and the best ways to appreciate Île Sainte-Marie at its best.

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    Accommodation choices for Île Sainte-Marie

    We've selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Île Sainte-Marie. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.

    Ideas for experiencing Île Sainte-Marie

    Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Île Sainte-Marie, and which use the best local guides.

    • Whale Watching
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      In June, humpback whales come from the waters of the South Pole to the Ste Marie Channel, not far off the coast. The channel is protected by the East coast of Madagascar and by Sainte-Marie, ideal for whales who come to breed and calve.

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