Ile St. Marie and Ile aux Nattes

The first time I went to Madagascar, I only visited the mainland, and only a small part of the south at that. This time around, I wanted islands, and paradise can easily be found in the Malagasy Islands.

the mainland was great for National Parks, like this one, Ankarana

Antananrivo, the capital, is basically in the middle of Madagascar. The road that goes to the east coast is okay until Tamatave, or Toamasina, Madagascars second biggest city. But from there north, the kilometres pass by a lot slower, and the road slowly ends just after the port for Ile St. Marie where the first unbridged river crossing makes travel further north a bit more complicated. You can take a ferry only once or twice a day out to Ile St Marie, if the weather allows, from Soanierana-Ivongo. They say it takes 1 hr and 15 mins, but by the time the ferry is loaded and departs an hour late, the trip takes 2-3 hours.

leaving behind the filth of Tana’s city

Setting foot on Ile St Marie is like arriving to a new world. The filth and clutter or Tamatave seem countries away, and the roads on the island are paved and sealed (for the most part). Tamatave’s rickety cycle carriages are replaced by brand spanking new rickshaws, and tourists wander between the hotels, restaurants and bars. You can travel to the south extreme of the island and take a pirogue taxi to Ile aux Nattes, a place that made even Ile St Marie seem crowded.

freshly caught, grilled fish for lunch with a three horse beer on the Ile aux Nattes pirogue beach

There are no roads or cars on Ile aux Nattes, but the occasional scooter gets shipped over on a very narrow, unstable canoe once in a while. The trail through the island can be done in under an hour, and at the end of the road is the very charming Hotel Les Lemuriens, which actually has 2 resident black-and-white ruffed lemurs.

The best place to stay was Chez Sica, a beachside heaven where you can rent a private bungalow for less than €10 a night. The bar is always missing its bartender, and one cook shows up for breakfast, and another can be ordered for lunch or dinner. But surviving on avocados and Three Horse Beer usually worked fine throughout the heat of the day, and we always found a kitchen open for fresh grilled fish and sautéed vegetables in the evening.

Chez Sica

If you ever go there, try to spend all your time on Ile aux Nattes, since you can hotel hop for a whole week. If you do want to stay on Ile St. Marie, try the Libertalia, which has an infinity pool and a dock out to a little island where the snorkeling is excellent. Watch the sunset form L’Idylle beach restaurant with a cocktail, and eat steak at Chez Nath’s, who also has a dock out to the seat that’s excellent for sundowners. But don’t rent a scooter; within the first 5 minutes of arriving I witnessed another fatal accident where our rickshaw drove around a mangled scooter and bloody corpse. This is still Africa.

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Mauritius, country #200

I came up with the goal to try and visit 200 countries before I turned 30. I arrived in Mauritius, country #200, 3 days before my birthday, and 9 other friends from around the world. Without sharing too much incriminating evidence, here are a few pictures and stories from the best birthday week I’ve ever had.

one of those lazy beach days

Most of my friends are from Europe or North America, so I had originally chosen Laos as a more ‘central’ meeting point. But my best friend Ursula from Washington D.C. said there had to be a beach, and booked her flight to Mauritius even before I did. She knew it was a new country for me, and thought it would increase the number of people coming, despite it being much further away in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

La Cambuse beach

There were supposed to be twelve of us, but one friend from Australia who is a pilot for Qantas couldn’t use his standby tickets because of some schedule changes. My best friend from Canada, who recently married an American, got scheduled an immigration interview for a date exactly in the middle of her already booked vacation, so since Green cards don’t last forever and Donald Trump exists, she had to cancel.

But, there was the Lebanese entertainer from Paris, the German horse-back rider from Munich, the Belarussian couple from Minsk, my study abroad roommate from Washington DC, a couchsurfer I met in Italy from Pennsylvania, an emergency doctor from New York, a professional dancer from LA, and Iceland’s best chef. We were 4 girls, 6 guys, half of us couchsurfers, and nearly no one had met eachother before.

the 4 ladies of the group

The week went flawlessly. I could never imagine putting a group of 10 strangers together, traveling and staying together in a foreign country without any hiccups, but it was perfect. Everyone got along, the rum was never-ending, and the beaches and sunsets stayed beautiful no matter where we were on the island.

sunset at Flic en Flac

We spent our first 4 days in Blue Bay, 3 days in Flic en Flac, and 2 days in Trou aux Biches, near Grande Baie. Our only errands every day were to refill the ice bags and fill them with wine, then walk to the beach and work on our tans, or burns, in some cases. In Le Morne we swam with wild dolphins in the open sea, and our personal taxi-van carried us from A to B and showed us some of the touristic sites on the island. We passed towns with the names of Suriname and Yemen, and saw endless fields of sugar cane backdropped by Jurrasic park-like mountains.

Tea party at the Bois Cherie tea plantation

We visited a rum distillery, a tea plantation, a Hindu temple, and some waterfalls and park areas, but the beaches were by far the most memorable. The water was always warm, and even under dark and stormy skies stayed bright and crystal blue. We had a few rain showers, but went to the beach anyway, and missed the cyclone that hit after we left. We danced at some live music bars, drank with some locals who were friends of friends of friends, ate brunches with bottomless mamosas and cooked dinners together at the various airbnb’s we stayed at. It’s a miracle no one got hurt or lost or left out or too claustrophobic, but this group of people made my 30th birthday a most unforgettable party. I’ve also never traveled in such a big group, but after visiting 200 countries and experiencing Mauritius the way I did, I kind of wish some of those people would carry on traveling with me.

Ile de la Reunion, a colourful French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean

Its weird to fly 12 hours south from Paris, over half of Africa, into a hot and humid island  in the middle of the Indian ocean and still be in France. Ile de la Reunion is a department of France, full of way too many Renault and Peugot cars, where Metropoles shop at supermarkets, stocked with foie gras and champagne, and pay in euros. But it felt somehow familiar – Reunion is to France what Hawaii is for the USA, a slice of home out in the tropics.

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

Like Hawaii, its also a lush, green island, stretching from coasts of crystal blue waters up to black volcanic peaks. The middle of Reunion is split into 3 large craters or ‘cirques’, all inhabited somewhere remotely. Mafate is a car-less village, only visitable by hiking in and out from the top of the crater. Another cirque is still a very active volcano. The Piton de Fournaise started erupting the day after I arrived, so I didn’t miss the opportunity for a midnight hike up to see the red-hot, glowing, spewing lava eruption. I was surprised how many other people were walking the 3-4 hour return hike in the middle of the night, dressed like we were back in France, because at 2200m above sea-level, even this tropical island was freezing cold.

the road to Cilaos

the road to Cilaos

There were other natural forces in Reunion that made the island seem wild and dangerous. A recent rise in shark attacks has made half the coast unswimmable. The road to Cilaos, at the bottom of the third cirque, is a narrow, windy, cliff-hanging road full of blind turns and two tunnels only wide enough to fit a bus – there were literally only centimeters between the side mirrors and the walls. When the road turns into single-lane width, just before another u-turn bend, cars simply lay on their horns to warn any oncoming traffic of a potential head-on crash. The day I left Reunion, a cyclone warning had been announced, and I’m not sure when or how hard Cyclone Carlos was, but people had already started locking down their homes.

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

The people of Reunion are a mix of metropoles and creoles, with very friendly, civilized demeanors. People I passed in the street said Bonjour just to say hello, and after the first few hellos, I started greeting everyone that made eye contact with me with a smiley Bonjour, and didn’t feel weird about it. I traveled mostly by public bus, which is superbly organized, and the regional bus drivers were even greeted with handshakes and cheek kisses by the passengers. I didn’t try that, since I assume the probably knew eachother.

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

I always say Iceland would be the best country in the world if we had better weather, but maybe we just need to colonize a tropical island and export our people and culture out there. I guess I’ll have to keep my eye open for an eligible island for the rest of my Indian Ocean trip.

Pampered in Tenerife

the harbour in Las Galletas

the harbour in Las Galletas

It’s sometimes nice to balance out a ski vacation with a sun vacation, and its always nice to sit on a beach in warm weather, so Tenerife became an obvious next stop. It was also so cheap and easy to coordinate Andorra and Tenerife from Barcelona, where we spent 3 nights between our trip visiting old friends and some Icelandic acquaintances. I’ve visited other Icelandic people abroad, but its extremely rare to run into a stranger speaking Icelandic anywhere in the world. However, last time I was in Barcelona, I ran into a very good friend from Reykjavik at an empty nightclub on a Tuesday night, totally by chance.

beach of the Americas

beach of the Americas

Tenerife is the only place where this is likely to happen. In high season, there are 3 direct flights a week between Tenerife and Iceland, and statistics say around 180,000 Icelanders (which is half the population) visit the Canary Islands each year. We would be strolling along the seaside and hear Icelandic, sitting in a restaurant at a table beside some Icelanders, and get haggled by West Africans selling cheap watches with phrases in Icelandic! For some reason this totally blew my mind.

whale and dolphin scouting on our catamaran booze cruise

whale and dolphin scouting on our catamaran booze cruise

We hit Tenerife on the hottest January in years, which was actually the perfect temperature around the clock. We had shirtless days, dry and warm, and long pants but flip-flop kinda nights, with clear skies and little wind. We got around by foot in our little area, Playa de la Americas, taxi or bus to tourist sights and the airport, and rented a car one day to drive around the whole island. We could always find chilled rose wine and delectable tapas, though we stayed in a hotel with our meals included. Unlimited cava was served with breakfast, and at dinner we got too full on steaks and ribs to worry about lunch.

It was a wonderful ski vacation decompression, and an even better pre-trip therapy for my upcoming Middle East backpacking trip. So after swapping out my ski clothes for my skimpy beach clothes, I’m now carrying a backpack full of big, black clothes that I’ll need to handle the gulf sun a little more modestly.

 

Photo Highlight: Polar Swim

I always love going to Nautholsvik whenever I'm in Reykjavik, no matter what time of year or no matter how cold it gets. This time it was -10°c.

I always love going to Nautholsvik whenever I’m in Reykjavik, no matter what time of year or no matter how cold it gets. This time it was -10°c.

A little dip in January in the freezing North Atlantic seemed like a good idea, until it came time to get in the water after walking barefoot and half naked across an icy beach

A little dip in January in the freezing North Atlantic seemed like a good idea, until it came time to get in the water after walking barefoot and half naked across an icy beach

Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

I went to Grenada in 2006, and could literally see the Grenadines, but somehow didn’t make it until this year. I went with my Guyanese mother, who traveled on her Canadian passport, and kept introducing me as her daughter from Iceland, yet I was traveling on my Guyanese passport… so everyone was a little confused, even us. Mom spoke with a West Indian accent, I spoke with a Canadian accent, but we knew everything about the roties and curries and pepper sauces so at least we were warmly accepted.

Sparrows beach on Union Island

Sparrows beach on Union Island

They have their own version of Africa’s TIA, and they call it ‘island time.’ You’d think it just refers to when things are late, but its also an excuse for things that never happen. As the ignorant westerner expecting things to run as they should, you hear alot of ‘don’t worry,’ ‘don’t stress youself’ or ‘everytings gonna be arite man.’ I wouldnt say I was ever in a rush, and I kind of embraced the island time livin,’ but it was a bit weird when we went to a Wine and Tapas restaurant that didn’t have wine or tapas… but they had rum punch, so everyting really was arite.

the only difficult decision is picking which palm tree to lay under.

the only difficult decision is picking which palm tree to lay under.

We were there a week, and island hopped from Barbados to St. Vincent in a plane, then ferried to Bequia and Union Island in the Grenadines. My so-called ‘uncle’ (its a term of respect for family friends but we’re not related) that I stayed with in Carriacou ten years ago had 27 children, and I though he was special, but I met a few other productive fathers. One guy, who I met on a rum-shop pub crawl, had nearly 20 brothers and sisters, and said he recently walked in on his father 95 years of age having sex. His mother had her last child at the age of 65, which isn’t impossible but still hard to believe.

At the northernmost part of Barbados

At the northernmost part of Barbados

St. Vincent makes an 85% rum called Sunset which could also be sold as lighter fluid or gasoline, which I discovered when our car ran out of gas on our rum shop tour. I ate conch curry for the first time, lots of amazing, fresh, sea food, and Guyanese rum and Cuban cigars were sold in nearly every corner store. Beaches and more beaches were the focus of our days, and fans and air-con the focus of our nights. I’ve always thought to be too cold is worse than being too hot, but there were definitely moments when I dreamed about being back in Whistler or Reykjavik in some fresh, frosty air, but now that I’ve left, I know those were just temporary brain lapses. Take me back to the sun please, even my skin is protesting from the lack of humidity.

Snaefellsnes Beach Ride

Ishestar offers a  riding tour on Snaefellsnes peninsula, where over 100km of the 4 or 6 day ride is on the beach at low tide. Its usually around 20 riders with over 100 horses, and the sight of a free-running herd over the never-ending sand is one you’d never forget.

Snaefellsnes beach ride

Snaefellsnes beach ride

The ride starts at Stóri-Kálfalækur farm, with the Icelandic cowboy Siggi and his staff. There are dogs running around and children playing everywhere you look, and it´s hard to keep track of who is who is Siggi´s family or friend circle. But noone ever forgets his wife Ólöf, who manages to cook up the most delicious food and stuff us to the brim with every home-cooked meal.

happy riders

happy riders

We ride into the mountains and valleys on the first couple of days, where its normal to be eaten alive by midgle flies, but a fly-net can solve most of your problems, except when you want to eat and youre not sure if you should lift the net over your mouth to take a bite (which may include a midge or two) or just shove the sandwich inside the net too.

low tide

low tide

It rained alot on our week-long ride, but we didn´t mind since we got wet anyway with the splash of seawater from the horse hooves running around us. There were a few deep rivers we had to cross, and we didn´t bother to lift our feet since our boots were filled with water already.

nearly swimming

nearly swimming

The rain was also a relief from the flies, and dry weather would have caused alot of dust, so the grey skies and calm winds really made the trip perfect for me. I made alot of new friends, both horses and people, and sometimes had to pinch myself to remember this wasn´t a dream… just my dream job.