Nosy Be, Madagascar: The Complete Guide

Tropical beach on Nosy Iranja, Madagascar

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Nosy Be

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Nosy Be, Madagascar

The paradise island of Nosy Be is located off the northwest coast of Madagascar. It is the country’s most popular beach destination, with luxury resorts that overlook perfect stretches of pure white sand and warm, clear waters that provide ample opportunities for scuba diving, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing. Like a true paradise, the air smells like ylang-ylang (thanks to inland plantations), and despite its many visitors, the atmosphere on Madagascar’s “Big Island” remains charmingly laid-back.

The History of Nosy Be

Nosy Be was first inhabited by migrant tribes from the Madagascan mainland, including the Antakarana and Sakalava people. Later, it was settled by traders from India, Comoros, and the Swahili Coast; before being ceded to the French in 1840. Its capital, Hell-Ville, is named after the French governor of colonial Réunion, Admiral de Hell. Nosy Be became part of Madagascar in 1896 and gained independence, alongside the rest of the country, in 1960. 

Geography

Nosy Be is surrounded by the productive waters of the Mozambique Channel, approximately five miles from mainland Madagascar. The product of volcanic activity, it has a total area of around 120 square miles and is covered by dense rainforest, interspersed with scenic crater lakes and waterfalls. Hell-Ville and the island’s other central tourist hub, Ambatoloaka, are both located on the south coast. 

Top Things to Do in Nosy Be

Beaches: Many people come to Nosy Be specifically to spend time on the beach—and there are plenty to choose from. Perhaps the most beautiful beach on the main island is Andilana, located on the northwest tip. It’s famous for its pristine white sands, clear waters, and excellent swimming—and in the evening, its impressive sunsets. Nosy Be’s surrounding islands and islets are also known for their beaches. In particular, Nosy Iranja boasts a slender spit of pearly white sand that doubles as a sea turtle hatchery, while Nosy Sakatia combines scenic beaches with rare birdlife and indigenous flora. 

Snorkeling and Scuba Diving: Scuba diving and snorkeling are favorite pastimes on Nosy Be. Some of the best reefs are located in the marine reserve that surrounds uninhabited Nosy Tanikely, where vibrant coral cover supports a wealth of tropical fish, turtles, rays, and sharks. Scuba Nosy Be offers diving courses and fun dives, while Les Baleines Rand’eau is an excellent option for whale shark snorkeling tours. Every year between September and December, these magnificent fish can easily be seen in the waters around Nosy Be. Humpback whales also visit the island on their annual migration between July and November. 

Wildlife Viewing: Nosy Be’s land animals are just as enjoyable. In the island’s southeast corner lies Lokobe National Park, where walking trails wind their way through the thick rainforest, allowing you to come face-to-face with indigenous wildlife, including the vulnerable black lemur. Gray-backed sportive lemurs and nocturnal mouse lemurs also live in Lokobe, as do more than 50 types of reptile and 35 types of amphibians. Amongst them are the world’s smallest frog and chameleon species. The national park is a haven for birds, too. Keep an eye out for endemic owls and kingfishers. 

Local Culture: Though small, Nosy Be and its surrounding islands are rich in culture. Pay a visit to the enormous, centuries-old Sacred Banyan Tree on the outskirts of Mahatsinjo village, or walk amidst crumbling French colonial architecture in Hell-Ville. Nosy Komba’s Ampangorinana craft market is filled with stalls selling traditional raffia toys and elaborate Richelieu embroidery, while the annual Donia Festival welcomes musicians from all over the western Indian Ocean in a celebration that lasts for several days. Other notable cultural events include the Libertalia Music Festival and the Nosy Be Jazz Festival

Climate and When to Go

Nosy Be has a tropical monsoon climate. Daytime temperatures remain relatively consistent throughout the year, with an average annual mean of 77 degrees F (25 degrees C). Seasons are divided into the wet season (October to early May) and the drier season (late May to September). The former is hotter, more humid, and more prone to cyclones, although Nosy Be’s location on the northwest coast means that it is more protected from extreme weather than the exposed east coast. The dry season sees the most sunshine. 

The best time to travel in terms of weather is undoubtedly during the dry season. At this time of year, there are also fewer mosquitoes, and underwater visibility is at its best. However, the wet season sees fewer crowds and lower accommodation prices. As mentioned above, September to December is also the best time to travel if you want to swim with whale sharks; December is also baby lemur season. The Donia Festival is usually held at the end of May. Malaria is a risk throughout the year on Nosy Be, and prophylactics are recommended. 

Getting There

There are two ways to get to Nosy Be. You can fly into Fascene Airport (NOS), which is located a 20-minute drive northeast of Hell-Ville on the coast. Several airlines offer flights to Nosy Be, including Air Madagascar, Air Austral, Airlink, and Ethiopian Airlines. You can also get there by boat from Ankify on the mainland. Passenger speedboats depart when full and take approximately 40 minutes. If you have a rental car, a vehicle ferry plies the same route and takes 2 hours. 

Getting Around

The easiest way to get around Nosy Be is to hire a car, scooter or quad bike. Quad bikes are particularly great for exploring the narrow dirt tracks that criss-cross the island’s interior (remember that helmets are compulsory). Tuk-tuks are a cheap way to get around in Hell-Ville, while shared taxis run between the capital and Ambatoloaka or Djamandjary. You can also hire a private taxi to take you anywhere you want to go. Local dhows and speedboats are used to explore the coast or reach the surrounding islands. 

Where to Stay

Nosy Be is known for its upscale resorts. Amongst the best are VOI Amarina Resort and Andilana Beach Resort. The former occupies the top spot on TripAdvisor and overlooks a private beach on the northwest coast. The latter is an all-inclusive option with a choice of restaurants, a long list of activities, and an on-site dive center. For a more boutique experience, choose Vanila Hotel & Spa. This west coast property boasts traditional architecture, four-tiered infinity pools, and an impressive spa. Bungalows d’Ambonara is a budget-friendly choice on the outskirts of Hell-Ville with an excellent restaurant and a swimming pool. 

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Nosy Be, Madagascar: The Complete Guide