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AKA: Tana / Tananarive
Tana is a diverse, mountainous city built on the closest thing to a plateau that the central highlands can offer at a kilometre up. There's been a few initiatives to construct a grid system and infrastructural order but most of the area is a chaotic meander around the boundaries of hills and paddy fields, blending densely packed neighbourhoods with massive concentrations of farming land in an urban environment.
The city's a wonderful example of the various mixes of Asian and African influences on the country when you see the eating establishments, markets, rooftops and amenities flash by you when taxiing through the streets, together with many intact remnants of French colonial times.
A lot of tourists will be visiting Tana only as a stop-off for flights and I'd strongly recommend avoiding the centre altogether if not deliberately visiting the city—its traffic congestion is not worth it, no matter how short the distance appears on paper. I would also recommend never scheduling to fly out of Tana the same day you arrive there—its internal flights are notoriously unreliable for timekeeping and you will need a bit of a time buffer.
The city's vast sprawls have led some to write off the capital, together with its congestion. I won't defend the congestion—it's getting noticeably worse each year and making travel frustrating—but I don't think some detractors have spent enough time wandering the centre on foot. Its mix of influences on winding, cobblestoned streets have moulded central Tana into a curiosity shop that's a feast for the eyes if you know where to look. Perhaps my love of the Citroen 2CV and its abundance as a taxi is biasing this a little but it took me staying in the centre for a few days to finally appreciate the place for what it is. Every second or third shop, bar or restaurant looks like somewhere I need to find out more about but there's never enough time. We've had our disagreements and fights but it's always a place I'm excited to visit again.
The suburb of Ivato is the location for Tana's international airport, at nearly [16km] north of the centre. The design of the airport is obscured from most transiting through internal or international flights but the cast-concrete canopy roof sheltering the entire operation is surprisingly pleasant when viewed from the spacious restaurant upstairs. Designed by Russian architect, Vladimir Frizel, it also gives pretty generous views immediately out onto the runway—a godsend if you've hours to kill and have yet to work out how those things stay up in the air, or want to feel anxious about your flight as mother nature puts on the grandest show of all. The food isn't half bad either.
The airport has some way to go in terms of turning a blind eye to less-than-ideal actions of a few individuals passengers need to pass in order to board their flights. It does no favours for the reputation of a country if this is a tourist's first or last impression. I'll emphasise that most staff are friendly and honest. I've never been caught out myself but I've witnessed more than one travel companion have to exchange money discreetly to get themselves out of a situation that appeared to be contrived during a quiet opportunity.
The past frenzy of porters trying to assist absolutely everybody at the baggage carousel appears to have been relocated to the car park for those departing. Keep in mind that a hand laid on a bag may later be a claim to having assisted and expectation of compensation. In fairness to all of the porters, they stand back when I politely say no thanks, that I don't need help.
Taxi drivers are no longer allowed inside the lobby but must wait at the exit doors where you'll get about two footsteps in before meeting them. See the Getting Around section on this page for advice on taxi drivers at the airport.
Unlike some countries, the best exchange rates on currency can be got in the airport. You will get a better conversion than withdrawing a similar amount at an ATM and they don't have nearly as tight a limit imposed on ATMs that varies from [MGA200000 - 350000] per withdrawl. There's more than one desk but head to SOCIMAD Bureau de Change, down the very end (to the left) of the international arrivals hall where their current exchange rates are printed clearly. Most people will be unable to avoid situations where they can't pay with card so plan to obtain cash in some manner. SIM cards can also be purchased in the same arrivals hall for Telma and Orange but (for Telma, at least) must be activated there and then inside your phone. Credit can be bought at the same desk. See the Phone & Internet section for further details on using your phone in Madagascar.
You'll likely be starting your transportation odyssey at Tana's airport in Ivato. If anyone contests taxi rates outside, a rates card with false information could be presented to you and you may be shown your hotel on a list, as if the existence of it on a list legitimises the rates along with the stamps and laminate—an impossible combination to fabricate, surely?
Drivers attempting this often get the rates they ask for so playing the long wait or questioning the legitimacy can be hit and miss. Watch out for a newer scam of drivers accepting your requested rate but insisting a higher rate was agreed when exiting the car. Typically, this can be spotted when the driver only half-heartedly nods and never quite looks you in the eye at the original agreement. Before getting in the car, make sure the driver confidently agrees the price and there shouldn't be an issue. Or else just put up with their later protests and only pay the original agreed amount.
Some enjoy this sort of deal making but if it sounds hellish, organise a pickup from your hotel and look for your name on paper rather than going with the first driver who may say yes to any question. Hotels will typically charge more than the standard rates for the convenience but should be less than what the drivers waiting outside will try and get.
All taxis in the airport have paid a fee to enter its carpark. If you go out to the highway beyond the airport you can hail a taxi from the busy street if there's not already some pulled up on the same wavelength as you. There's also a shuttle bus that some hotels collectively use, dropping passengers from one to the next so just hope your hotel is one of the first.
Billed per car rather than per person (unlike most cities in the country). Traffic congestion in Tana is horrific so do not underestimate the amount of time it can take you to reach the airport from the centre (from thirty minutes to three hours from the same spot), despite only a [16km] distance. Pure luck can determine these things so consider staying at an airport hotel the night before flying and don't blindly trust promises of short journey times when a flight is at stake (I still hold my last attempt in my top five car journeys I don't want to repeat). If you're going to risk it, the wee hours of the morning are probably the only time you know you can avoid unexpected traffic.
|car||day||Airport transfer (City)||[MGA40000]||~ 2hours|
|car||night||Airport transfer (City)||[MGA50000]||~ 2hours|
|car||day||Airport transfer (near Ivato)||[MGA15000]||20mins|
Public transport in and around Antananarivo.
|Bus||day||Airport to city||[MGA1000]||~ 2hours|
Well-loved upmarket hotel in the centre offering a mix of colonial and modern archictecture with a destination restaurant
Lot IBK7bis, Rue Ratianarivo Ampasamadinika, Antananarivo 101
+261 20 22 358 09 sakamanga.com[EUR21 - 105]
Originally started as a left-of-centre boutique hotel but routinely acquiring and building new rooms, Sakamanga now offers 46 of them but retains most of its famous character in the heart of Tana near Lake Anosy.
Where the courtyard pool once enjoyed frequent use, most are now happier to snack around it as the focal point has been repurposed into a restaurant and bar. This is Sakamanga's third simultaneous restaurant on the site, which is indicative of its ambition and popularity and perhaps its decision to prioritise looking into the emerald green pool while eating rather than sinking below it.
It's not an easy hotel to find your way around and doesn't pretend otherwise. Rather than signpost everything clinically it crams its maze of tight corridors with a collection of Malagasy artefacts worthy of any museum. On top of trying to find your way through winding paths you also have to pardon yourself around everyone studying these walls. It would almost be a nuisance but you'll find yourself doing the same.
Rooms vary a lot, from the original boutique rooms with hand-painted, domed ceilings, to contemporary apartment-like spaces with sliding doors out onto the pool. There's also a New York-style duplex loft room and some charming rooms in the original section with an older warmth complimenting thoroughly modern facilities, such as stone washbasins with hidden sinkholes and ceiling shower heads.
Crowning above the pool-side lunch dining, and the takeaway three doors down, Sakamanga's eponymous primary restaurant is busier than ever and, as always, is designed to be a destination in its own right.
The hotel is often booked out and certain rooms can only be acquired months in advance. While the service can be friendly and tries to take on a level of hospitality that matches international expectations, it can be a little haphazard at times. My last enquiry as to room availability met with a response from two different staff offering two different sets of availability, which didn't exactly instil me with confidence. During the stay we returned to the hotel after several days away to find the room we'd been told was available to rebook was now a different room and there was one less bed for the three of us. No solution was offered and one of us slept on the floor as we fortunately had some camping equipment stored in the hotel from an earlier excursion.
It's either a sign of how much I love this hotel—or that I should know better—that I'm still looking forward to my next return there. I'm forever optimistic that the dents in the reception service will be fixed as everything else is so memorable.
Resort-style hotel in the suburbs that's convenient for airport stopovers
FJKM Ambohibao Antehiroka, Antananarivo 102
+261 20 22 358 09 www.lesflotsbleus-tana.com[MGA60000 - 85000]
A mashup of styles, Les Flots Bleus is aiming for comfort and convenience over form. While it was decided that some guests don't like windows, most rooms provide at least one. Others also include a small, sheltered balcony to sit out on or a front area out onto a decorated courtyard if at ground level. They disappointingly require a surcharge to use air-conditioning in your room (hand over money, get the remote) though all mod-cons are provided and function well, and beds are comfortable. There's a good variety of well-priced food on offer at the pool-side restaurant and bar.
Bonus points have to be given for providing their own airport shuttle van at a rate you would find hard to get as a tourist, rather than inflating high above the actual cost like most hotels.
And therein lies Les Flots Bleus greatest strength: it's a good location to use when staying in Tana as a stopover from the airport. It's not that it's right next to it, it just happens to be able to bypass the traffic congestion that haunts Tana and will always get you to the airport within twenty minutes, 24 hours a day. Air Madagascar agree and have often used the hotel for passengers who are delayed overnight (which may explain some of the harsher negativity elsewhere as it's hard to keep a delayed and anxious air passenger content).
Madagascar's cultural review magazine creates some culture of its own
Arabe Jeneraly Ramanantsoa Gabriel, Isoraka, Antananarivo
+261 34 203 4347nocomment.mg[MGA5000][MGA5000][?]
No Comment is a booklet-style culture magazine that, as well as interviewing Malagasy musicians and artists, has always dedicated a large section to photo galleries of events and people in various venues. The revenue from the advertising generated has failed to keep similar magazines buoyant but it's worked enough for No Comment to see it involved deeper in the nightlife of the country as an authority on enjoying yourself.
Its latest venture is its own bar at the top of the road from its offices, in the centre of Tana. It should encapsulate everything it learned from years of experiencing others' efforts. Interestingly, it's gone for a subdued decor and atmosphere familiar to many small bars in any European city. Coming from a European city, this is not going to excite me greatly as I'm biased towards something different than the familiar, but it may hit the right note for Tana residents if they're similarly biased. Not that it doesn't have its own character, such as the small, nondescript windows along the wall looking out onto a sea of city lights below rather than the back-lane that you imagine is there.
Continuing the trend of European familiarity, the bar shows the larger European league football matches and rugby live. It also hosts various bands and musicians and has a visible kitchen for serving a variety of food to accompany drinks.
Cosy, wedge-shaped contemporary bar aiming for the all-nighters rather than the early birds
Arabe Jeneraly Ramanantsoa Gabriel, Isoraka, Antananarivo
+261 34 209 3319none[MGA6500][MGA10000]none
It may be cosy but it certainly is pricey. This is another bar on the strip of Tana that hopes its clientele is ok to pay a premium on drinks if it contributes to a better venue and night. The jury's out on that one but it's certainly a comfortable place to sit back and enjoy the music and company. If you prefer your nights out to be house parties rather than nightclubs, this might be your place.
When it's not so late they occasionally show some of the larger European football league matches. Oh, and they really love Jack Daniels.