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Tulear

AKA: Toliara / Toliary

There's no two cities alike in Madagascar but Tulear distinguishes itself that little bit further. Eating out on the wide avenues and terraces around Boulevard Lyautey, you could be forgiven for questioning what country you're in. Nearby, somebody thought it wise to build an entire concrete hotel in the shape of a four storey steam barge. This desire to construct with a little eccentricity has seeped around the city and produced gems like Le Jardin, a restaurant where every wall and ceiling surrounding is comprised of suspended oil paintings.

Perhaps the possible fate of becoming an isolated, desert city—negated by having a direct, maintained link to the capital on the [RN7]—has nourished the modern Tulear we have today. The view can look somewhat worn if the visit is brief or passing (particularly to those who avail of Air Madagascar's gracious surprise visit to Tulear airport when flying between Tana and Fort Dauphin). A stay in the city or its surrounds soon reveals its charms.

Excursions

Arboretum d'Antsokay

A living museum of flora (and inquisitive fauna), the Aboretum d'Antsokay was created by Swiss botanist Hermann Petignat in 1980 to help preserve many of the incredible species from Madagascar's celebrated Spiny Forest. While of obvious interest to researchers, tours have been structured in such a way to be of genuine interest to those who would consider themselves oblivious to, or wary at the idea of, anything interesting about a tree. Spiny forest plants have the advantage of attracting interest due to their unusual looks but the tour goes deeper into showing the surprising practical applications that come from the leaves and branches of such strange growths.

The arboretum shows most of the parks I've visited in Europe how to do things by laying out a really well presented and maintained reserve of hundreds of exotic spiny forest flora. We were pleasantly surprised with the restaurant which can be considered a great dining establishment in its own right. We didn't stay in the on-site accommodation but, on being given a tour, were equally impressed. Both are recommended and those who are dining are encouraged to order before starting their walk.

There's some wonderful information signs illustrated by Louise Jasper throughout which are refreshing after the more typical sun-bleached and tearing posters seen in lots of other parks. The park excels at putting time, thought and care into a very minimal, no-fuss set up.

Ifaty / Mangily

Two separate villages that have almost merged into one, Ifaty and Mangily originally attracted tourists for its coral reefs and long beaches adjacent to them, while being close to Tulear.

I'm unaware of what the area formerly looked like but visitors now arrive to a strip of small tourist lodges spanning the beach and road that feel encased against the surrounding village. Most have their own gardens with pools looking out onto the long strand that dominates the area. In fairness to them, it can be a battle to swim in the ocean as the beach inclines so gently that you'll be hungry by the time you're waist deep. We did venture out onto it and were approached the entire time by people hawking us various jewellery, juices and milk until we left and felt little incentive to return.

Like a lot of reefs in the world, much of the coral here is now suffering from bleaching due to acidification but there are pockets of reefs intact that are stunning to snorkel through. We loved the nimble ride out to the Massif des Roses reef on a traditional pirogue with sail and pontoon, and happily swam through its maze for the morning. There's life jackets provided for the less buoyancy-confident out in deep waters and all equipment is provided.

A ballade out into the back scrubs of the Ifaty Spiny Forest on a zebu-pulled cart is also on offer. The not insignificant attraction along the route are the mature baobabs on view which put the ones in Baobab Alley to shame. As well as dwarfing anything under (or beside) they provide wonderful examples of man's relationship with theses behemoths when you see trees with carved foot ladders to gather honey and attempts at carving out doorways to create shelter inside.

Adansonia rubrostipa baobab in Ifaty Spiny Forest, Tulear.
Adansonia Rubrostipa baobabs in the Ifaty Spiny Forest. This specimen, some 38 feet in circumference at its base, has grown bark around foot rests used to collect honey from hives at the top.

Getting Around

The road to Ifaty and Mangily (with some beautiful coastal mangroves) is claimed to be fine for regular taxi drivers to reach but our experience suggest that it's another ambitious attempt for a job that could destroy the suspension on older cars if the engine stays in place. We went out this way in a regular taxi only after the 4x4 was a no-show on the day and the driver (who organised the 4x4) wanted to ensure we got out there. Well, if he felt guilty that his organised transport didn't materialise, we felt even worse about his anxiety as his car absorbed every jackhammer of a bump along the road and lost a hubcap at one point; as well as the makeshift petrol jerrycan in the back losing its vital connection to the engine. The 4x4 back was, comparatively, a breeze.

Food & Drink

Le Jardin / Chez Giancarlo

Impressive and unusual decor in a well-known establishment serving all things Italian and Malagasy.

Rue Raseta, Ankilifaly, Tulear

+261 32 406 0482none[?][?]

I've yet to fully appreciate what the reason for the heavier Italian influence in Tulear is. I say Italian influence but I mean gelato ice-cream signs everywhere, which are not so apparent in other Malagasy cities—just small carts selling a makeshift form of ice-cream in cones. Putting its best foot forward, Le Jardin hits you with its gelato selection on entry to lure in any curious passers by wondering why Tulear has so many gelato signs.

I've visited twice in the evening, when the naming of the venue as The garden wasn't as obvious. You are indeed sitting outdoors in a large dining area lit by ornamental lamps and strings of coloured bulbs coiled around trees. The tree bit should have given it away but the owner, Giancarlo, has amassed such a collection of Malagasy-themed paintings that he began to use them to fence off dining areas around the garden. Stuck for more space, the collection grew above diners, forging ceilings out of connected canvases.

The food, as with the proprietor, is very Italian and I was delighted to find home-rolled pasta and ravioli is served alongside their mozzarella pizzas. Dishes were excellent and came with very generous servings. Staff were very present around the winding paths between tables and impressively managed to be attentive to requests while collectively screaming at the world cup match happening over near the bar. The owner himself was doing the rounds at times, ensuring that everything was satisfactory and that Brazil were going to win.

Accommodation

Hotel Hyppocampo

Straightforward, upmarket hotel with stylish, spacious foyer

Avenue de France, Mahavatse II, Tulear

+261 20 944 1021www.hyppocampo.net[EUR65 - 95]

The journey to Hotel Hyppocampo leads you through some of the most appealing sights in central Tulear before diverting down a slightly industrial ramble to its front door. An ambitious facade such as this feels a little out of place on the homestretch but it's so close to popular amenities that it just about makes sense.

Rooms are comfortable, containing all mod-cons and floor to ceiling windows in most. You'll find little flourishes in some such as curved bathroom walls with stained glass to illuminate the interior in diffused light. The suites at the top are decadently spacious and even come with sit-in shower jacuzzis (unfortunately only the regular shower was working during our stay) and large bathtubs. At odds with all of these details are the tinted windows and thick pvc frames opening out onto the grounds, which feel a little like functionality took too much priority over form. Tulear's Mozambique Channel provides the view though—being a tidal mudflat, rather than a sandy beach—the view is predominantly focused on the leafy back garden of the hotel and pool.

Hyppocampo's best side is its foyer which impresses on entry. Triangular, latticed wooden frames dominate the ceiling and support its roof out into the back as an extended canopy. It should belong on a hangar or stadium but works in this smaller hotel thanks to its triple-height ceiling and grand space accommodating a small dining area if not sitting outside. A wandering eye is also well catered for with the sheer number of Malagasy artworks and historical posters on view.

Staff were figuratively and literally a little far away at the desks across the room but were very helpful with any request and even paired us up with a driver who we would happily use for the rest of our time here. On a later return we received an exceptionally nice welcome.

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