I've been volunteering and travelling in Madagascar for the past few months. It is a breathtaking place - a country of contrasts, beautiful people, incredible creatures, and sunsets the like of which I had never seen before. It's not the easiest place to get to, or get around in, but it is well worth a little extra effort.
Here's a few choice pieces of information I have gleaned from living and working here, regarding having the best experience as a tourist:
Get a guidebookThe best one I've found is the Bradt Guide to Madagascar-regularly updated and generally accurate information, with loads of helpful appendixes on culture and language both in the book and on the website. Madagascar is not a country to go completely unprepared to, so definitely read up before you go!
Make the effortJust a few words of Malagasy can make such a massive difference to your experience. In my experience here people are thrilled by even the poorest attempt at the language- you'll be treated to a huge grin, probably laughed at (this is a good thing, promise!), and will make a friend in an instant. Unlike London/the UK, people stop to chat to each other frequently, so having just the niceties of small talk down will make your trip so much more enjoyable.
Madagascar is (at time of writing) the poorest non-conflict country in the world. Even if you're staying at one of the incredible boutique hotels on Ile Ste Marie or Nosy Be, you will almost definitely be interacting with people living on less than 50 pence a day. Be sensitive, look after your stuff, and don't try to pay for a mango (200 Ariary, approximately a few pence) with a 10,000 (£2) note!
Don't flash your cash
Andasibe is the place to go to see (and hear!) Indri, the largest lemurs, and is very easy to get to from Antananarivo. There's hotels there to suit every budget and good food too! Further north is Montagne D'Ambre National Park, another incredible visit. There are, of course, loads of other incredible creatures to see - check out Mr. Chameleon just chilling out on my window the other morning...
Oh my life. An experience to say the least! If you're not afraid of going off piste-and being less than comfortable-it is the method of transport à la mode. Madagascar runs on taxi-brousse! It's the cheapest, and in some ways easiest, way of getting around - but be warned, it is by no means luxury travel! If you're looking for a slightly slicker option, there is also a "tourist bus" which offers significantly improved comfort (your own seat and everything!), which travels up the RN7 and is still very reasonable cost-wise.
Get in a Taxi-brousse
Roads are horrendous at certain times of year - usually between December and April travel is very difficult, if not impossible, to many parts of the island. Bear this in mind when booking a holiday. Also, many boutique hotels will close for low season as this time of year also coincides with the main cyclone season in Mada - avoid this, go for June - August!
Time your travel
Madagascar runs on Madagascar time. This is quite different to our usual concept of planning, and if you are, like me, cripplingly type A, you will find this takes a bit of getting used to. The taxi-brousse will leave when it is full, and not before. The food will arrive when it's ready. Make a conscious decision to embrace and enjoy the lack of time pressure and you'll be much more relaxed in all the ways!
Take your time
If you're not afraid of a bit of dust and tricky travel-you will be one of the privileged few who gets to experience the beauty of one of the most incredible places on the planet. It is a glorious country. Come and visit!