Madagascar is an island nation with every terrain and landscape you can think of. It also has many beautiful beaches, and Ile Sainte Marie is among the best.
Stainte Marie Overview
For roughly a hundred years, the island was the off-season home and hangout spot for hundreds of pirates. The structure of the island made it the perfect place to hide ships.
Pirates from all over the world came here to set up camp, flying flags of the crews they belonged to. The pirates were kicked off the island at the turn of the 19th century when French colonists took over. It was controlled by the French until independence in 1960.
Nowadays, the island is a thriving tourist destination and one of my highlights of Madagascar. There is even a pirate cemetery that tourists can visit dedicated to that infamous time period.
Getting to Ile Sainte Marie
The island is accessible by ferry and plane. The plane, via Air Madagascar is by far the fastest option. The flight is only one hour or so, and will set you back over €200 for a one way flight.
This is why many travelers elect to go with the land and sea combo. This can be a bit of an adventure in itself but well worth it in my opinion.
From Antananarivo, you will need transportation, either by shared vans (called Taxi Brousse in Madagascar) or a private car, to the port town of Toamasina (also called Tamatave).
From Tamatave, you will then take another shuttle bus to the town of Soanierana-Ivongo where the ferry awaits you. Cap Sainte Marie is the main ferry company that does this trip.
They will pick you up from your hotel in Toamasina and drive you three hours to Soanierana-Ivongo. The ferry to Ile Sainte Marie will take another hour.
This trip is about 10% of the cost of the airplane but will take the greater part of a day. Many people choose to break up this ride by stopping in the Andasibe National Park for a few nights.
This park is well worth the visit and is along the way from Antananarivo to Toamasina. More details on this in the itinerary section!
Why Visit Ile Sainte Marie?
Ile Sainte Marie is a breathtaking island with incredible beaches and scenery. If you’re a beach person, you don’t need much convincing after looking at a few photos.
Palm trees and white sand beaches while eating delicious Malagasy curries are a way of life here. However, my favorite part of this island was just how rustic and laid back it was.
You feel like you are in a different world, almost as if you traveled back in time a bit. You won’t feel like you’re in an overdeveloped mass tourism hotspot like Bali or Zanzibar, but rather firmly in your own little slice of paradise away from all the crowds.
The Malagasy people are known for their warmth and friendliness and you’ll see no shortage of that on your visit.
Snorkeling and diving on the island
The beautiful waters around Ile Sainte Marie are perfect for snorkeling and diving. While staying in Ile Aux Nattes, I would spent part of time day snorkeling around its beautiful reefs which are just a few meters from the beach.
The Princess Bora hotel has a full PADI dive shop with boat tours around the island. The diving conditions are fantastic and you will love what the Indian Ocean has to offer!
A big warning: swimming in the beautiful turquoise the lagoon is not easy, due to the shallowness of the water. The best swimming beaches are located in the Northern and Western coasts, as well as in the islet aux Nattes.
Without a doubt, Ile Sainte Marie is known for its humpback whale migrations. In the months of July to September, humpbacks can be seen in the strait between the island and the mainland.
Humpbacks feed in the cold polar waters of the Antarctic in the summer before migrating thousands of kilometers north to the island of Ile Sainte Marie to mate and calve.
Humpback whales are incredible animals and in Madagascar, you can get quite close to them as they do not shy from swimming next to the small boats.
I sometimes felt like I could reach out and touch them but of course do not do this for their safety (and your own). They are huge animals and can grow up to 20 meters long which makes them an incredible sight to behold.
Ile Sainte Marie vs Nosy Be?
Madagascar’s two most popular islands are Ile Sainte Marie and the Nosy Be archipelago. Many people have to decide between these two areas as they are located on opposite sides of the country.
There are pros and cons to both places but in general I would say that Nosy Be is a more developed and “higher end” type of place. By high end, don’t expect the luxury resorts of Mauritius or the Maldives, but rather higher end in the general sense when comparing to the rest of Madagascar.
If you’re on a honeymoon and want something that is more upscale, then Nosy Be will have what you need. Ile Sainte Marie, as mentioned already, is more for those that are looking for laid back and slightly more rustic experiences!
The beaches, while not quite as picturesque as those that can be found in Nosy Be are largely devoid of big tourist crowds.
Visit Ile Aux Nattes
Ile Aux Nattes is a small island located at the very southern tip of Ile Sainte Marie. The beaches here are among the best on the island and is where I called home for many nights.
The water is crystal clear and devoid of any large crowds. Being such a small island, there is nothing here besides a few small resorts, local villages, and lemurs. I could not ask for it any other way!
If you choose to stay on the mainland, you can very easily take a pirogue (canoe) between the two islands. Simply take a tuk tuk to the southern tip of the island where there will be locals running transfers between the two islands on a regular basis.
Rent a scooter and explore the entire island
Ile Sainte Marie is a huge island. Most of tourist developments are near the south but as you head north, the more rustic and untouched the island becomes. Scooters are readily available for rent, usually around 35,000 Ar for 1 day (~$10).
We spent a day on a scooter and headed north. The further we got away from the main town, the more we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere (and we already felt like this in the touristy areas!)
Completely secluded beaches, local villages, and untouched viewpoints are all available for the adventurous.
Make sure to visit the Natural Pools in the northeast of the island which is a crystal clear beach protected by rock formations in the water.
Sample Itinerary for Ile Sainte Marie
This beautiful island in Madagascar can be visited as a standalone destination or more commonly, a place to end your trip around the mainland. After spending a month traveling around the mainland, I spent six blissful days relaxing on the island before going home.
It would be a travesty to visit Madagascar without visiting one of its beautiful national parks. Therefore, I’d recommend doing a combination trip of visiting one of the parks and ending it with Ile Sainte Marie.
One week itinerary
If you have a week (7-9 days), then I would recommend visiting the Andasibe National Park with Ile Sainte Marie. Andasibe is Madagascar’s most popular park.
It’s a quick drive from Antananarivo and is home to the famous howling Indri lemurs, the largest lemur in the world.
- Day 1: Arrive in Antananarivo and drive to Andasibe National Park
- Day 2: Explore and hike through Andasibe National Park
- Day 3: Additional hikes if desired. A visit to the Lemur Island at the Vakona Lodge is a must
- Day 4: Drive to Toamasina to spend the night before going to Ile Sainte Marie
- Day 5: Early morning transfer to the ferry terminal of Soanierana-Ivongo before hopping on the ferry to the island. Arrive in the early afternoon
- Day 6-9: Soak in all that paradise has to offer! Long walks on the beach, snorkeling, diving, whale watching etc.
Two week itinerary
If you have two weeks (14-16 days), then there are so many more options that you can choose from. One of my favorite parts of the island is in the west by the ocean town of Morondava.
Here you will find the world famous Avenue of the Baobabs, as well as the Tsingy Stone Forest. Pairing this with an island getaway would be amazing.
- Day 1: Arrive in Antananarivo, if possible fly to Morondava the same night otherwise overnight in the capital.
- Day 2: Drive to the Tsingy National Park with a short stop in the Avenue of the Baobabs
- Day 3: Full day hike at the Grand Tsingy Park
- Day 4: Full day hike at the Petite Tsingy side of the park
- Day 5: Drive back to Morondava while spending more time at the Avenue of the Baobabs. Sunset is the best time in my opinion!
- Day 6: Relax and recover in Morondava
- Day 7: Flight back to Antananarivo in the morning. Drive to the Andasibe National Park.
- Day 8: Explore and hike through Andasibe National Park
- Day 9: Additional hikes if desired. A visit to the Lemur Island at the Vakona Lodge is a must
- Day 10: Drive to Antananarivo airport in the morning for your flight to Ile Sainte Marie
- Day 11-15: Soak in all that paradise has to offer! Long walks on the beach, snorkeling, diving, whale watching etc.