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AKA: Diego / Antsiranana
Diego Suarez has found itself positioned alongside the second largest bay in the world. The local fady (taboo) is such that some of the most central parts of the bay, right by the city, are off limits to boats. Nobody—absolutely nobody—is allowed to come ashore on the small city-side island that would have, in any other city, eroded into a luxury hotel resort with superyachts circling.
Instead, we have a bulbous, delicate island that looks straight out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel and perhaps it's no coincidence that this location is central to much of piracy folklore. A developer's nightmare, Diego's fady has enriched the area by creating a unique and pristine vista so close to a city and for all the wildlife who roam the small sugarloaf without any disturbance.
The city centre is focused around the main strip of Rue Colbert. When you're new to town and finding your way around it will appear as though every single amenity is on this one road. Though prices are inflated to match the demand and clientele, there's some noteworthy spots to eat and drink here and it's quite easy to remain in the area for the evening.
It's a lot more fun scooting around town in a tuk-tuk than a regular taxi and Diego Suarez certainly has a lot of them vying for your attention. Billed for trip per person rather than sharing the cost between all passengers. Your driver may pick up additional passengers and, likewise, you can hail a taxi that already has passengers. While many taxis will drive to Montagne d'Ambre, the ability to this is diminishing as the path leading there resembles a road less and less each year. Parts haven't been repaired since the start of the noughties and the temptation to suffer the extra cost of a 4x4 becomes more appealing when the feat of actually arriving at the destination comes into question.
|car||day||Montagne d'Ambre return||[MGA80000]||1.5hrs|
It can be a little harder to get a local rate for 4x4s in Diego due to the amount of tourists passing through who end up paying a little more. There's no other reason for the inflated price so if you know who to ask you may find a good deal. These prices are average, suggested prices and the final amount if whatever is agreed by you and the car owner. As the bulk of the price is renting the 4x4 for the day it would be unwise not to combine a visit to the Tsingy Rouge with Ankarana. Diego has distinct rainy and dry seasons so the journey times listed will vary both ways depending on time of year.
|4x4||day||Tsingy Rouge / Ankarana||[MGA280000]||6hrs|
There's a regular service to and from Tana. That's where the good news stops as it's a three day journey when the bus is functioning well. I haven't tried it myself but reports suggest the landscape can get a little repetitive, feeling very much like, well, three days on a bus. The route to Ankify passes right by the eastern entrance (Mahamasina) to Ankarana National Park and its surrounding accommodation. Note that the bus to Nosy Be requires an additional boat across to the island at the cost of approximately [MGA10000].
|Taxi-Brousse||day||Ankify / Nosy Be||[?]||10hrs|
Montagne d'Ambre National Park is situated about [30km] south of Diego and is home to a variety of wildlife, spectacular vantage points, lakes, and two sacred waterfalls. The park has its own section here: Montagne d'Ambre
Ankarana, about [100km] south of Diego to its main entrance, is most famous for being host to a large area of tsingy limestone formations, similar to that of Bemaraha in the west. It also has an enormous sink-hole cave home to thousands of bats as detailed in its own section: Ankarana
If travelling to Ankarana from Diego, it's worth making a slight detour to the Tsingy Rouge, a relatively recent formation of rock revealed after some rapid erosion of the surface clay. See its own section here: Tsingy Rouge
As the name suggests, Sakalava Bay, the Bay of Piegeons, and the Bay of Dunes are three small bays of note about [15km] to the east of Diego city. They're often visited for windsurfing, swimming, quad-biking, long walks and lazy days.
Sakalava Bay's easy to reach by regular taxi until the sandy track down to it, which may be better to do on foot if not in a suitable off-road vehicle. It's also the popular wind and kitesurfing beach of the three with facilities and small lodges present beside the bay if arranged in advance in the city (one option is through Le Petit Paradis).
Ramena's better known as the small, sleepy harbour village where you can board a boat to cross to the Emerald Sea. I'm going to suggest it's worth a visit in its own right should you be a landlubber or be a bit shorter on time after visiting les trois baies.
We found ourselves arriving by the harbour late in the day, a little cynical about the promise of visiting a beautiful sunset for an hour but willing to try the suggestion. Fast forward forty-five minutes and I never want to leave my warm perch on the harbour wall, toes dangling over the balmy sea with beer in hand. Our entertainment was one of prettiest light shows I've seen in a long time and half the village out enjoying it too, doing cannonballs off the harbour and tending to the fishing boats hugging the bay as they were secured for the night. Everything was an ideal version of itself—idyllic, I guess you'd say. It was peak rainy season so there was an absence of tourists (and rain, funnily enough)—just a few fishermen retreating for the day and everybody else watching the sun do the same.
The Emerald Sea is an area of ocean that gets its name from the distinct colour created by resident algae. It stays about two metres deep throughout and allows the water to retain a nice warmth. Glimmering like a saturated holiday brochure, it's become popular with tourists who can also glimpse some underwater wildlife thanks to a few coral reefs. The reefs keep the area protected from waves so the surface remains pretty calm throughout the year. The boat ride over from Ramena takes about an hour and docks on one of the islands framing the region. If not travelling from Ramena, it's possible to leave via Port Jasmine, closer to Diego city, for a slightly longer boat ride.
The northern half of Madagascar takes a slightly larger slice of the relatively few tourists Madagascar welcomes each year. Diego is no exception with regular cruise ships arriving and bussing new arrivals to Montagne d'Ambre National Park to see a lemur. Couple this with a visible, older European expat population and a significant amount of visitor traffic between here and the epicentre of Malgasy tourism, Nosy Be, and you may just find the oldest of all professions dominating some of the nightlife.
Prostitution is sadly rife throughout the entire country and is hard not to encounter in any large bar or nightclub. Its practise here has a far finer line between everyday life than some in the west may be familiar with. I don't see much joy when looking around at those working the night shift so can't agree with the sentiment of a few who feel it can be a positive thing for some in the country, or just a part of the culture I've yet to accept.
During peak rainy season, with no other tourists around, it felt like sex workers outnumbered tourists by 30:2 in one of the larger bars. The band on stage may as well have not been there for the amount of attention they were getting. After an endless queue of proposals and suggestions it became apparent that it's something unavoidable in larger venues at this time of year and we cut our time short. Moving away from the two or three bigger venues solved the issue and we had no hassle.
I also had the impression that most of the city's tourist accommodation are familiar with the guest count per room dynamically changing throughout a stay and it's seen as part of city life. Sure, it's a reality of much of the hospitality industry but I'd never seen it entertained as openly as this. Or maybe I'm just in denial of the allure of 60-something year old foreign men to 20-something year old local women.
Basic accommodation with all the mod-cons a room in a hot city centre could need. Friendly and efficient staff.
Rue de la Prison, Consulate District, Diego Suarez
+261 32 47 891 13 hotel-diegosuarez.com[MGA54000 - 64000]
Situated in the consulate/prison district depending on whether you're reading a brochure or talking to a taxi driver, le Petit Paradis is still conveniently located at only a ten minute stroll into the centre. At night a tuk-tuk takes minutes to reach wherever you need.
Formerly a single-storey house, the hotel does a lot with little and turns otherwise bare concrete rooms with no view into very clean and relaxing spots to rest, with all mod-cons such as a/c and en-suite hot showers included. While the rooms won't win awards for atmosphere I enjoyed the back garden where ravenala roofs shade a stone garden with couches and dining tables. If you ignore the occasional large mosquito swarm it's certainly cosy. Though simple, the fact that the hotel can offer all these conveniences at a very fair price is enough for me to strongly consider a return stay. I won't dwell on the fact there's a crowned lemur kept in the garden in the hope that it's not a permanent location.
The hotel doesn't offer meals but can provide a full breakfast each morning as well as stocking a small bar. Staff were excellent and memorable and seemed to be always enjoying themselves without forgetting about the guests—a trait I always appreciate in any hotel or restaurant. I was impressed with the speed of the laundry service after they received short notice and found this quality reflected throughout the stay—such as noticing our mosquito guests and providing coils to fix the issue without us asking. The owner, Philippe, was also quite charming and very accommodating.
The hotel advertises that it can organise a lot of excursions and water sports in the area and has its own car on site for shorter trips. There is indeed a prison across from the hotel but they don't escape, don't worry, though watch out for the occasional late night diplomat.
Two-storey, airy Italian overlooking the Rue Colbert plaza.
Rue Colbert, Diego Suarez
+261 32 274 2793none[MGA16000][MGA4000]
This predominantly pizza-based restaurant gives plenty of elbow-room for groups to chat about the time the armed gendarme told them to move on only because their lack of French frustrated him too much to waste more time penalising them for not having identification and trying to explain the consequences any further.
As well as an abundance of floor space (so much of it that a corner has been given over to a mini-playground) the tall ceilings and lack of a road-side wall air the room out fantastically on warm evenings. To compliment its firetruck-red ceilings and white walls, the decor has gone full 90s with primary-coloured hand prints painted large on open surfaces. I think there were subtle tinges of green elsewhere, completing the Italian tricolour.
We sampled two varieties of pizza, laden with mozzarella and fresh tomatoes, and both were enjoyable. Seemingly, this is a common consensus as the walls and pillars throughout are scrawled with memories of good nights in marker and chalk. Patrons are encouraged to add to the collection should they be feeling gastronomically inspired.
The absence of much artificial light in the distance meant the view from above didn't pierce through too much of the dark night but I loved the lack of a side-wall giving the space the presence of a terrace and the ambience of the busy Rue Colbert below. There is a light guard-rail to reassure anyone fearful of an abrupt end to their night. Service was friendly and attentive on the evening we visited. Oh and don't forget your ID.
Compact, road-side eatery with sheltered patio area offering a fusion of Malagasy and Western dishes.
Rue Colbert, Diego Suarez
l'Amiral felt like the essence of a Malagasy hotely merged with a restaurant more familiar to European tastes. I've no idea if this was a deliberate seed in its creation but the results were pleasant and a nice way to spend an early afternoon.
Our seating outside in the tight, squared-off patio was more suited to drinks than the meals we balanced on the table but this was our location choice and there was plenty of room inside. I can't turn down a potential spot for people watching so it was never going to be a tough decision when I saw tables free out the front.
Maybe we're just difficult patrons but more than one of our choices from the menu wasn't available that day. There was enough variety that this wasn't a significant hassle. What we ended up receiving continued the hotely familiarity, with added fuss on the side. It was something different and I enjoyed it.
The name stems from Diego's maritime history and you'll find appropriate memorabilia inside, as well as attempts by passers by to sell you various nautical vessels from the side of the road. One lady didn't keep in the spirit of the theme and attempted to sell us fruit, which we politely declined.
Cheery, bustling hotely in the market district.
Tanambao, Diego Suarez
From a few too many lessons learned the hard way, I've grown sceptical of entertaining recommendations for places to eat or stay from those working in the travel or service industries that I've only just met. But on occasion, being brought to a a restaurant owned by a relation of the fixer you're travelling with is exactly what you need.
Gargote Samiah is a bustling and spacious hotely serving enough varieties of traditional Malagasy food along with a few European dishes to keep all tastes happy. The spicy pepper beef dish I had (made hotter with some added sakay) was definitely a cut above similar dishes in other hotelys and enough to note as a nice place to drop in for a quick and cheap lunch. If I'd forgotten the food, the eye-widening deep royal blue and neon orange walls would definitely have left some form of lasting impression—perhaps on my retinas.
My time here was a little hazy as I spent the morning up in Montagne d'Ambre and rushed back to pick up my travelling companion before speeding off to Les Trois Baies in the east of the city. It was peak Summer in Diego, which I loved, but for some reason it really felt so during this meal (maybe too much sakay?) which meant strategic positioning beside the wall-mounted fans was a priority to get that slow, strobing five seconds of rotating calm.
As our fixer knew the owner, he rang ahead and made our time dilemma known, confirming we could eat a full meal and be out the door in the time needed. Who needs the frustration of searching for the absolute best place to eat when you have this kind of peace-of-mind, convenience and good food to enjoy?
Standard Malagasy bar in Diego's backroads elevated to greatness thanks to a generous porch for watching the world go by.
Rue d'Imhaus, Dieo Suarez
Maybe my favourite bar in Diego, situated at the wide, sloping junction of Rue d'Imhaus and Rue Georges de Villebois-Mareuil. It's not the busiest part of the city but there's plenty to take in at a meeting point such as this and it's a great spot for people watching when someone occasionally wanders in from the periphery.
Besides providing a reliable outdoor refuge from the sun, beers are chilled and priced at a rate you couldn't hope to get on Rue Colbert. For the curious who seek out every small pocket of a new location, you can wander downhill around the JIRAMA complex (Madagascar's utilities provider) to a quiet section of Diego's bay. It's a little industrial around this part but there's still nice views to be had. At the far end is the small harbour of Port Jasmine which provides an alternative departure point for the Emerald Sea.
Botika is the name of an average Malagasy shop, which is why I'm a little dubious that this is the definitive name for this spot. Still, it's what the owners gave when asked so it's the name until I know better.