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I’m fixated on the unblinking eyes of a crowned lemur, who’s folded in half on a tree branch, resting his orange, white and black head on his own furry thigh. It’s the pose of a contortionist, yet he seems on the verge of slumber. His lids grow heavy little by little until the cicadas crescendo into a deafening din and, just like that, he’s once again staring back through expressive eyes as wide as half dollars. The youngster is out like a light, but dad dozes with one eye open, tail acting as a fluffy pillow around his neck—watching, protecting. Never taking his gaze off me.
This silent tête-à-tête happened on the almost 900-acre Malagasy island of Nosy Ankao (pronounced noose-y), which sits about two miles off the “mainland.” It’s the home of a small local village of playful children, mellow adults and large ducks; a decommissioned lighthouse (repurposed as a perch for 360-degree sunsets and Champagne), and Time + Tide Miavana, the intimate resort for billionaires and those who get their kicks from up-close-and-personal encounters with rare wildlife and other hyper-personalized adventures revealing wonders of Mother Nature.
We’d followed the beep…beep…beep of an ATS antenna to track the tiger-striped animals, but despite the adults wearing collars, they weren’t so easily found, playing a coy hide-and-go-seek before relenting to a portrait session. The six individuals here represent one of 110 lemur species, a primate that first turned up some 50 to 60 million years ago, likely arriving on floating wood from Africa, 250 miles away. And they’re on this island off that island’s coast thanks to a conservation effort by Time + Tide Foundation and local NGOs to translocate threatened lemurs from the mainland. (More will arrive this year.)
My helicopter ride to Nosy Ankao was scene-stealing, a barrage of heavenly spreads so pristine, empty and electric they seemed unreal—every shade of blue on the spectrum, not to mention texture. There was water that appeared pixelated over coral reef, choppy swell churning with bull sharks on the hunt for surely frightened tuna, and silky seas so smooth they were like mirrors for the puffy clouds. In the winter I may have seen whales. On arrival, I was greeted by a small collection of local staff and a bulging-eye Oustalet’s chameleon that terrifies the front-of-house manager not because it’s poisonous (in fact, nothing on this island is) but because it’s so ugly.
My butler drives us in my buggy to villa 8—one of 14—though later on I’d pedal to Qi Gong and wakeboarding sessions on the aqua beach cruiser in my garage built of dry Bismarckia palm. It’s a delight to this design lover, filled with thoughtfully crafted elements fitting a midcentury-tropical theme. I long to have the kitchen’s turquoise Smeg appliances and hand-thrown ceramics, Danish-style dining chairs, tower-like stone shower and overstuffed linen chairs in my own place. The oval-shaped zero-edge pool, too, where after dark I admired four planets in the sky sans telescope.
Only scuttling crabs were around to witness my first swim beyond the wide deck—stocked with plush beach towels and Turkish towels plus many places to use them, including chaises, a giant bean bag, pool float and layered Princess and the Pea–style daybed by the sunken ocean-view bathtub. The velvety sand dropped off into a soft ledge where I floated in the warm jet lag–healing warm, tiny flying fish leaping by. I later learned the large distant plateau giving texture to the seascape is so wild and unexplored it’s not actually been named yet. I might as well have been on the edge of the Earth.
Nosy Ankao is one island in an archipelago of five off the northeast coast of Madagascar, all of it once part of the Gondwana supercontinent, my guide, Johnson Ratsimanadino, explained as I dove into the most decadent, fluffy potato-studded focaccia bread (in almost a week I was never served the same baked creation twice), gazpacho and perfectly cooked line-caught mackerel. (Indeed, my gracious dinner waiter, Stanley, said on night one in his refined South African accent, “I’m going to spoil you with choices.” Cue divine lobster preparations that are still inhabiting my daydreams.) Johnson’s history lesson would, happily, extend the entirety of my visit, covering everything from the festive Malagasy ceremony known as “turning of the bones” to witch doctors, wars and the climate change–related extinction of the elephant bird and pygmy hippo skeletons displayed in the resort’s fascinating Cabinet of Curiosities.
Much of Madagascar’s original rainforests have been destroyed and exploited to the point only three percent is currently untouched, meaning essentially every species of flora and fauna here is in danger, if not endangered. It’s a troubling thought, one not easily forgotten by the environmentally sensitive who will appreciate this remote hot spot’s very high Galapagos-like endemicity. It was more recently connected to India than the African continent, and was a French colony, too, blessing it with a smorgasbord of influences, traditions, religions and skin colors. This doesn’t really feel like Africa, but it also doesn’t feel like Southeast Asia. Madagascar, I come to realize, is simply exotic. Unique, remote, faraway, mysterious.
The offerings at Miavana are designed to celebrate that abundance of intrigue—they’ll tell you nothing is impossible, whether it’s a movie night on the beach, ocean marathon, or Tai Chi on a mountaintop at sunrise. Blue safaris (snorkeling or diving) turn up cerulean damselfish, psychedelic wrasse, hawksbill turtles and maybe even whale sharks, while fishing (some catch-and-release) introduces another perspective. A boho beach picnic of tapas and walk to a tern nesting site on an uninhabited island is a luxurious reminder that our claim on this environment is temporary. Kitesurfing (best from May to October) makes you appreciate the forces of nature at work.
Seemingly insurmountable distances to other remote points of interest are negated by Miavana’s candy-striped helicopter. On one occasion we flew to the middle of nowhere, the community-run but closed-for-the-season Camp Tattersalli, where an older non-English-speaking local led us into the forest in search of lemurs. I’d never have spotted what he found us with eyes attuned to the smallest disruption of bark. (Johnson had previously shown me a gecko sleeping on a tree that gave new meaning to the word “camouflage.”) A fluffy ball of fur known as a spotted lemur and her infant were wedged into a wishbone-shaped crook, her head round, little ears perked like an owl, eyes bugged out. Heading back to the helicopter, we walked straight into white sifakas dancing in the trees above our heads. They seemed to oblige our unspoken craned-neck desire for a closer look and obliged, long limbs climbing nimbly down the sprawling branches, sunshine filtering through pale pink blooms and brilliant blue sky to highlight their silky polar bear–like fuzz. As they leapt from tree to tree, even the Malagasy among us looked wowed.
We flew a bit further and landed a short drive from one entrance of Ankarana National Park, where we hiked—drenched towel draped around my neck to keep from overheating in the severe humidity—to and inside a cave of massive proportions and many bats, and atop the razor-sharp fossilized shell limestone formations called tsingy, which means “walking on tiptoes.” (There are basic structures where adventurers can pitch tents and camp in this park.) Other options include Amber Mountain, where the world’s smallest vertebrate lives, and Fanamby’s Black Lemur Camp in Anjahakely, with the goal of spotting the world’s most endangered primate, Perrier’s sifakas, and swimming in a waterfall’s natural pool.
Miavana singlehandedly makes up for what Madagascar as a whole lacks in luxury accommodations. The central highland capital of Antananarivo (nicknamed Tana since, like almost all the extraordinarily long names of places, it carries several extra syllables) is dirty, polluted and trafficky, but worth a day or two of acclimatization and learning about the royal family on a private tour before setting off. January to March are the only months to avoid, as torrential rains cause closures. Since it’s roughly the size of Texas with far less infrastructure, one cannot expect to see all four corners of the country quickly. Madagascar’s outsized beauty—and the fact architecture, customs and landscapes are dramatically different throughout—certainly warrants taking some time. If you ask a local guide, he’s likely to recommend a bit of a road trip (with a hired driver, since Malagasy and French are the prevailing languages).
A beloved route is following Route Nationale 7 some 600 miles from Tana southwest to Tulear, through chilly high plateau, rainforest, plains, spiny forests and semi-desert, segments blessed with baobab and Jurassic sandstone formations, with cultural stops to see the Zafimaniry community’s famed woodcarvings and Antemoro people’s flower-embedded paper-making process. A concentration of the iconic ring-tailed lemur (about 300 in 74 acres) are the prize in the community-run Anja Reserve. This trip can easily stretch into 10 days alone, sleeping in basic accommodations along the way.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, three hours east of Tana, is advisable for hikers and lemur lovers as the UNESCO-protected home of some 10 species, including the very largest, the black and white Indri, the only one with a stumpy vestigial tail. In the southeast, Mandrare River Camp is travel operator Ker & Downey’s choice for those seeking monumental baobabs, while sister property Manafiafy Beach and Rainforest Lodge delivers privacy in a sparkling Indian Ocean landscape studded with only fishermen in dugout canoes. Between the two are seven separate ecosystems, almost a dozen species of lemur, plus forest walks, cultural excursions and, from the beach, whale watching (July through November). Nosy Be, where an airport is located, is a resort island popular with Europeans, but lacking high-end experiences.
Ultimately, Miavana should be the grand—and very luxe—finale. One of its boats has this printed on the side: “Fall in love with nature.” While I was certain I already had, long ago, Madagascar heightened my love affair with Mother Earth enormously. And from the treats she gave me, it seemed mutual.