Indian Ocean - Île St. Marie

We had a four-hour drive up the coast, then had to report to the police before taking the one-hour ferry trip over to the island, which I fell in love with instantly. Île St. Marie is a really magic place - every thing an island should be. I love islands - they are always more laid-back, easy on the spirit, with something special in the air.

The place we chose to stay (Libertalia Bungalows) was excellent. We had a large villa on the beach, with a jetty giving access into the coral lagoon for swimming and snorkelling. The people were very friendly and the food was good. On our first night there was live music provided by a local band who played Malagasy music on old instruments - really great stuff.

On our first day we spent the morning going into the nearby town - a two kilometre walk across two causeways. We had to sort out banking and buy a return ticket to Tamatave - all the administrative things that still have to be done, even in a relaxed place like this. We dodged into a restaurant to avoid a shower of rain and met one of the musicians who had been performing at the Libertalia the night before, along with his wife and baby. They had just opened a restaurant of their own, so we promised to eat there on our last night.

After lunch we booked a taxi to go down to the southern tip of the island to take a pirogue to Île aux Nattes, a tiny island just off the coast. We walked around part of the island, getting lost with the rather poor mud map and indistinct tracks we were trying to follow, but we did manage to walk to Les Lemuriens, a rather up-market resort where we had a cold drink and met an alcoholic lemur. We walked back to the beach in the rain and with the weather very unsettled were happy to eat at Libertalia, rather then brave the rain to find an alternative restaurant.

We wanted to see more of the island, so after breakfast we arranged to do an 8-hour jeep trip with Augustino, an Italian man who now lives in Madagascar. We were to go to the east coast, then north and back down the west coast. The roads on the island are in very poor condition, and definitely need a 4x4 and a good driver. We also had a local guide who was very good at identifying the plants and excellent at spotting chameleons.

Over on the east coast we took a pirogue out to the beach to swim, then came back for an excellent lunch of fish - margarita in coconut sauce - before heading out to an isolated inlet further up the coast. The roads were atrocious - it is difficult to see how the hotels could possibly get people to come and stay, since it took hours just to drive out there, and each place was located in deliberately isolated surroundings. We were the only people at the restaurant, and that had been pre-arranged by Augustino.

We stopped to look at local plants along the way, but also to see how grevillias (from Australia) were taking over hundreds of hectares of land in Madagascar; it is an environmental disaster.

We then headed back to the west coast of the island, calling in to the up-market resort of La Crique for a drink and a look at their beautiful beach. Mind you, all the other beaches are just as good. The full day's trip finished with a fabulous sunset back over the mainland.

That night we ate dinner at the musician's restaurant (Belle Vue), walking down the pitch black road with fireflies glimmering all along the way. The food (lobster) was excellent, and the restaurant promotes local musicians, so there was live music, enhanced by one of the performers playing his home-made violin in the old Malagasy style.

We were up early, on the ferry, then took the taxi-brousse back to Tamatave. Like most roads in Madagascar it has its problems, but at one more fragile bridge there were trucks parked both sides while people ferried cargoes to and fro, so that the trucks wouldn't have to drive over the structure. We had a lazy afternoon in town, and in the morning took a taxi-brousse to Tana. We had one last duck dinner at the Sakamanga, then packed to leave for Réunion.

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