The ultimate travel guide for Ile Sainte-Marie in Madagascar: 7 cool activities to do!

In this blog, you will find everything you need to know about Ile Sainte-Marie, a tropical island in Madagascar! From 7 fun things to do and activities in Ile Sainte-Marie to the tastiest restaurants and the best hotels to sleep. Welcome to Madagascar’s beach paradise!

A paradise in Madagascar: Ile Sainte-Marie

Imagine, the atmosphere of Bali but without many tourists. The water of Bora Bora but many times cheaper. And the incredibly hospitable people of Madagascar: welcome to Ile Sainte-Marie. An undiscovered paradise that we never want to leave! This is also the place to see humpback whales! More about this in this Ile Sainte-Marie travel guide!

Travel guide to Ile Sainte-Marie, Madagascar

Ile Sainte-Marie is only 50 kilometres long and 7 kilometres wide. The island was a pirate island in the 17th and 18th centuries, almost the entire population was a pirate. You can see this, among other things, in the pirate graveyard. The Portuguese gave the island the name Ile Sainte-Marie but the island is also known under the name Nosy Bohara, named after one Ibrahim.

Fun fact about Ile Sainte-Marie: during the independence of Madagascar, the island was never officially handed over to the Malagasy government. Even if it is just a formality, it is funny to think that it is “forgotten.”

Where is Ile Sainte-Marie located in Madagascar?

Ile Sainte-Marie is definitely my favourite highlight of Madagascar. This small island lies in the northeast of Madagascar. You can fly to Sainte-Marie island or catch the ferry. Read more about how to get to Ile Sainte-Marie below. First a map with Ile Sainte-Marie and other major sights of Madagascar:

Map of the sights of Madagascar

Highlights of Madagascar Travel guide Madagascar

Free travel guide to Avenue des Baobabs: the scenic trees of Madagascar!

Ile Sainte-Marie

How do you get to Ile Sainte-Marie?

There are only two options to get to Ile Sainte-Marie from Antananarivo. The first one is flying and the second is taking a boat. Both options have their pros and cons.

Option 1: Flying to Ile Saint-Marie (fast & expensive)

You can choose to fly from Antananarivo to Ile Sainte-Marie in 50 minutes with airline Tsardia (brand of Air Madagascar). The flight prices are not cheap: €170 for a single ticket!  Take into account a possible cancellation or rescheduling of your flight.

Cancellation of domestic flights is rather normal in Madagscar for domestic flights. It is also possible to fly from other major cities in Madagascar to Ile Sainte-Marie.

Tip: check the website of Airline Tsardia for promotions. Sometimes they give you a 50% discount if you book a return ticket and fly on a specific weekday!

Option 2: Taking the bus & ferry (slow and cheap)

The alternative is to go by boat. We choose this option since we had the time. It is much cheaper and better for the environment.  The easiest way is to catch the Costisse bus from Antananarivo to Tamatave. This takes around 7 hours (book in advance your ticket with Cotisse). Stay for a night in Tamatave and take the next morning the combination of bus & ferry with El Condor.

Early in the morning, the El Condor bus leaves from Tamatave to Mahambo. This bus ride takes around 3 hours. From Mahambo, you take the ferry to the port of Ile Sainte-Marie. The ferry takes around 3,5 hours. Costs: €5 for the Costisse bus and €27 for the El Condor bus + boat combi ticket. So, the total cost of €33 per person (excluding accommodation costs for one night in Tamatave).

Tip: Be aware that the sea can be quite rough. Ries got very sick on our way to Ile Sainte-Marie. So, take precautions if you get easily seasick too.

Way of transport in Ile Sainte-Marie

Transport on Ile Sainte-Marie is mainly done by tuk-tuk. We rented bicycles, a scooter and a quad a few times to explore the island. If the distance is short, walking is also possible. The roads are safe to walk on during day time.

How to get to Ile Aux Nattes from Ile Sainte-Marie?

Do you want to go to Ile Aux Nattes? Then you take the boat (pirogue) that brings you in 5 minutes to the shore of Ile Aux Nattes (for just 2000 AR pp).

Ile Sainte-Marie

Read here all about our experience of a whale safari in Ile Sainte-Marie!

The best hotels and lodges of Ile Sainte-Marie

There is more than enough accommodation on Ile Sainte-Marie. If you rent a car or scooter, it does not really matter where you sleep (just keep in mind the bad roads in the far north). If you want to stay close to shops, restaurants and bars, choose a hotel close to the main town Ambodifototra. This town is the place where you arrive by ferry. Are you looking for beautiful beaches then you have to go to the south or to the north part of Ile Sainte-Marie.

All the way in the south, you can make the crossing to the much smaller island: Ile Aux Nates. Here, you have no cars and you do everything on foot or by boat. See our favourite hotels and lodges for Ile Sainte-Marie below:

Villas de Vohilava €

Villas de Vohilava Ile Sainte-MarieVillas de Vohilava has beautiful bungalows on the beach, perfect for families or couples. The location is nice with the beach on your doorstep, a delicious breakfast and it’s the perfect location for a whale safari! From €40 per night (2 people).

Book now!

Samaria lodge €

Hotel guide Madagascar Samaria Lodge Ile Sainte MarieIf you want to sleep close to a beautiful beach in Ile Sainte Marie you have to stay at this hotel. Samaria lodge offers beautiful rooms! This quiet location is far away from the centre and other sights. You stay here from €39 per night (two people).

Book now!

Princesse Bora Lodge €€€

Hotel guide Madagascar Princesse Bora Lodge Spa Ile sainte MarieReady for luxury and more comfort? Then choose this beautiful hotel with a lovely swimming pool. You can dive, snorkel and get nice massages here. This hotel is located in the south of Ile Sainte-Marie. From €144 including breakfast (two persons).

Book now!

Read about all the hotels in Madagascar we can recommend!

Ile Sainte-MarieVillas de Vohilava

7 awesome activities and things to do in Ile Sainte-Marie

1. A must activities on Ile Sainte-Marie in Madagascar: whale watching!

The main reason for us to come to Madagascar is to spot whales. And this can be best done on the island of Ile Sainte-Marie. From the end of June to the beginning of October there are here thousands of whales for mating and giving birth.

We did a whaleboat trip twice (with Cétamada, booked at our hotel Villas de Vihalova) and saw dozens of whales. So spectacular to see the animals jump, play with each other and even hear. Read more about our whale trip here.Whales ile sainte MarieIle Sainte-Marie

Whale tour and research company Cetamada

Make sure you book a whale tour at a company affiliated with Cétamada. This is the organization that ensures that whale watching is done in a responsible manner without the whales being affected. They also do whale research, if you have the chance, join the Cétamada team to see some of their research!

Be aware: in Madagascar, it is forbidden to get too close to the whales and to go into the water when you are near the animals. So you can’t swim with whales here, this is dangerous for the animals and for you.CetaMada

2. Visit the pirate cemetery on Ile Sainte-Marie

A fun thing to do, but not super spectacular, is the pirate cemetery (also the only one in the world) that is located on an island near the capital city Ambodifotatra. You will find here about ten gravestones from old pirates, but the best thing is actually the view that the graves have: over the bay and other islands here.

Admission + guide costs 15,000 Ar per person.

3. Cool activity: Rent a motorbike/quad and visit the north of Ile Sainte-Marie.

The most beautiful beaches and bluest sea can be found in the north of the island. On the map, it doesn’t seem that far but since the roads aren’t great, it takes a while before you get here.  Believe me, time flies on the motorcycle or quad and in this way you see a lot more of this beautiful island!

Tip: leave early in the morning to enjoy your day as much as possible!Ile Sainte Marie

Visit Natural pools in the north of Ile Sainte-Marie

Drive for around two hours to the northeast where you will find the natural pools. These are two bays that are protected from the high waves by large rock formations in the water. The water here is just like an aquarium, so clear!

Waves hit the rocks hard outside the bay, they cause splash water that flies up to 10 meters into the air. The best part: you are all alone here. Hardly any tourists visit this place!

Tip:  Upon arrival, you will be ambushed by a number of guides. We went on our own (which is really great, it’s only a 10-minute walk) and opted for the southern pole. Most guides take you to the north pole, which is much less beautiful!

4. Visit the most beautiful beach of Ile Sainte-Marie

After a few hours of chilling at the natural pools, get back on your motorcycle/quad and drive to Les Tipaniers Lodge. You reach this via a long dirt road that also goes a bit over a former airport runway. Keep following the road even though it is long, it is definitely worth it!

Eventually, you will arrive at the most beautiful beach of Ile Sainte-Marie. You can find this beach at Hotel-restaurant Tipaniers Lodge, a good place for lunch. The beach here is exactly what you imagine of a tropical beach, a must go!

Tips: to break the long drive you can have a drink on the way to restaurant Natiora Green Lodge, also a hotel in a beautiful bay surrounded by green palm trees. Make a stop on the way back at Samaria Lodge (also a hotel) for a drink just before sunset.

5. Water activities on Ile Sainte-Marie: diving and kite surfing

Diving is great here in Ile Sainte-Marie. Unfortunately, we are taking the Lariam medicine against malaria and we are not allowed to dive, but boy, would we have loved it! Diving has not always a good name in Madagascar, but Padicentrum and diving school Bora Dive has good equipment and excellent diving masters.

On the east coast of the island, you have a perfect spot for kite surfing. We visited the Bora Kite centre where you can take one hour of lessons for €40.

6. Spoil yourself and your partner with a massage!

Nothing better than getting a massage after a day on a boat, a kite or a motorbike. We took the full body massage from Vanille Beaute (at our hotel Villas de Vohilava) and I wonder if I have ever felt so relaxed before! A full-body massage of 1 hour costs 50,000 Ar (€12.50).

7. Another fun thing to do: visit the beautiful island of Ile Aux Nates

South of Ile Sainte-Marie is an even smaller island: Ile Aux Nates. Take at least a day to explore this island (on foot or by boat). A better option is to sleep on this island as well! Like we did! A mini travel guide about Ile Aux Nates will follow soon.

Read here everything you need to know about Nosy Be and what you can do there!

The best restaurants of Ile Sainte-Marie

Most restaurants are close to the port where you arrive if you travel by boat to Ile Sainte-Marie. You also find all sorts of (local) restaurants and along the main street of the island. Below, a few restaurants where we had a nice bite.

The best restaurants of Ile Sainte-Marie:

La Virangue: La Virangue restaurant is located at the hotel where we sleep. Here, good food is served in a casual (with your feet in the sand) atmosphere.

For tasty pizzas, head to Chez Nath, a restaurant a few kilometres south of Ambodifotatra.

The best dinner during sunset is at Samaria Lodge, 27 kilometres north of Ambodifotatra.

Lunching in a relaxed setting and then go for a swim in the sea? That is possible at Natiora Lodge, 20 kilometres north of Ambodifotatra.

The best boulangerie/bakery of Ile Sainte-Marie:

Boulangerie Choco Pain has the best pain au chocolat I have ever eaten. So good in fact that I stepped on an old mountain bike in the burning sun to cycle eight kilometres back and forth to get some extra pain au chocolat.

Tip: there is a small supermarket in the capital Ambodifotatra, where the boulangerie is also located. Both the supermarket and the boulangerie are closed between noon and 2 pm (the boulangerie even until 3 pm). So be on time.

Wondering if a trip through Madagascar is expensive? Read more in our Madagascar budget blog!

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  1. by felipe on 19 June 2020  13:45 Reply

    Which one is more beautiful regarding beaches and nature: Nosy be or ile saint marie?

    • by Charlotte van de Sande on 19 June 2020  17:51 Reply

      Hi Felipe,
      Thanks for your question. I would say that Ile Sainte-Marie is best for its beautiful nature especially since it feels very untouched. Nosy Be has some islands within reach which have the most beautiful beaches I ever saw, but the beaches on Ile Sainte-Marie we amazing too. If you have to choose, I would recommend Ile Sainte-Marie.
      Kind regards, Charlotte

  2. by Jennie Jones on 5 November 2021  06:30 Reply

    Hi Charlotte, did you by chance hire a car and outfit to drive you around? We're coming from the states with our two sons who are 9 and 12 and we have just weeks. You've provided a wealth of information - thank you! Wondering if you have a reco on a driver or agency to arrange that? We're so excited! Leaving in a few weeks.

    Thank you,

    • by Charlotte van de Sande on 11 November 2021  08:09 Reply

      Hi Jennie,
      For the mainland of Madagascar we did indeed hire cars (check our our article on roadtripping and car rental). But for Ile Sainte-Marie we didn't use a car. Furthermore, we didn't hire a driver, we drove everything ourselves.
      Kind regards,

    • by Sam Logan on 7 February 2024  18:34 Reply

      Hey Charlotte... my name is Sam and planning a trip to Sante Marie in May of 2024. Is it best to stay near the capital city for convenience or the lodges on the outer North and south?
      -- Sam

      • by Charlotte van de Sande on 10 February 2024  08:55 Reply

        Hi Sam,
        The island is small but roads especially up North are very very bad. I would advice staying at the Capital city or south of it.
        Kind regards,

  3. by David Antoniuk on 11 June 2022  12:18 Reply

    Wow, this is a lovely blog and informative. I am a bicycle camper with a lot of experience traveling around south east Asia. Looks like Ste. Marie, would make an ideal destination for a peaceful beach camping holiday. Did you happen to notice any local cafes in the north, in the more remote areas, or markets at which locals sell fresh fish and produce?

    • by Charlotte van de Sande on 13 June 2022  09:53 Reply

      Hi David,
      I think we did see some small stands, but I am not pretty sure yet. However, the locals at Ste-Marie are so nice, they are more often very willing to help and distances are not that big on the island!
      Kind regards,

  4. by Melanie on 12 September 2022  11:46 Reply

    Hello Charolette,

    Thank you for the detailed information! I will be going to Madagascar for 10 days with my children 11 and 20 then headed to Tanzania for a three week volunteer service. I was going to bring two full size suitcases per person due to extensive stay and donated gifts to give in Africa. Will the suitcases be incumbersome while traveling in Madagascar. I also was going to fly directly to Nosy Be from US avoiding Tana, but after reading your article St. Marie maybe better; which is better for the children and/or which reduces road traveling to see more parks?

    • by Charlotte van de Sande on 13 September 2022  10:36 Reply

      Hi Melanie,
      Sounds like an amazing trip you are planning. The two suitcases will be heavy but it depends if you move around a lot.. when staying in one place and mostly traveling by plane or car vs public transportation. I don't see a problem.

      Nosy Be and St Marie are very different. However they are both islands, so no National Parks there. If you would want to see National Parks you would have to fly from there to Tana anyway en from there take a car/ public transport to the variety of National Parks which are all spread out over the country. So it really depends on your goals and what you want to see. I definitely preferred St Marie, since it is much more authentic, hardly any pollution and less tourism. It is one of these places you immediately fall in love with!

      Enjoy your trip!
      Kind regards,

  5. by Simča on 4 May 2023  10:21 Reply

    great blog.
    how is the snorkeling on the island?
    thanks Simča

    • by Charlotte van de Sande on 4 May 2023  16:03 Reply

      Hi Simca,
      We were not that much impressed with snorkeling there to be honest.
      Kind regards,

  6. by Ale on 27 September 2023  19:36 Reply

    Hi Charlotte!
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.
    Do you have a recommendation where to stay on Ile aux Nattes?
    I've read some areas have a lot of sand flies, did you experience this?
    We have 10 nights and are trying to decide where to stay on Sainte Marie / Ile aux Nattes. Would you recommend splitting the time between the north of Saint Marie and Ile aux Nattes?
    Thanks for any advice you can share!

    • by Charlotte van de Sande on 18 October 2023  15:23 Reply

      Hi Ale,
      Yes there are indeed a lot sand flies on Ile aux Nattes, which aren't there on Ile Sainte Marie. We stayed for one night on Ile aux Nattes which is nice, but it does come with sand flies ;-). That said, the beaches are incredible here. You can easily visit Ile aux Nattes from Ile Sainte Marie on a daily basis, or indeed stay there for a few days (there is less to do though, it is very small, you can walk around the island in one day). We stayed at Coco Lodge which was basic but nice.


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