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krisek Hell-Ville - A travel report by Krys
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Hell-Ville,  Madagascar - flag Madagascar -  Antsiraðana
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krisek's travel reports

Nosy Be, Madagascar's flagship holiday resort.

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Nosy Be (the \'Big Island\' in Malagasy) is a small island just off the north-western coast of Madagascar. It is the country\'s first mega tourist spot dotted with upscale resorts and quality deep sea fishing lodges.

Ambaro Beach in the middle of the west coast of Nosy Be
Ambaro Beach in the middle of the west coast of Nosy Be
When I first went to Madagascar back in 2001, I almost cringed hearing the idea of going to Nosy Be, full of tourists and rid of the local Malagasy life. Well, on my second visit to the country in September 2013, the reality was not as bas as I feared.

The airport had no cash machine. There were a couple of bureaux de change just across the terminal building and a couple of people approached me to change money. In Madagascar only licensed bureaux de change were authorised to exchange Malagasy ariary for foreign currency. People were strongly discouraged to deal with individuals when changing money, as both them and the locals were breaking the law.

The taxis outside the terminal building had a price list of rides to destinations around the island, and the list featured all of the hotels. So, it was not something you could negotiate on. My hotel was about 20 kilometres away, and my price was MGA45,000 (€16). This is how much the hotel charged as well, I later found out.

The driver named Momo, a native from Nosy Be with funny dimples on his cheeks, did not speak much English, so we had to chat in French. He was not fat, but it was clear he managed to fed himself well and had a little beer belly. He, like most Malagasy, smiled a lot. The car, an ancient peugeot 306, had no safety belts. I therefore demanded that he drove slowly. The tarmac on the road had seen better days, so Momo had not much choice anyway. He almost immediately started to make a sale for some side trips on the island that he could arrange for me. He was very disappointed that I was staying on the island for one day only. Still, I decided to use some of his services.

The island was small. The roads were in fair condition, so it did not take too long to go places. It took about an hour to circumnavigate the entire island. The western coast had nice beaches, the east coast had a few mangroves and the interior had lush vegetation amongst hills of ancient volcanoes and crater lakes.

Favourite spots:
The Fishing Harbour in Hell-Ville
The Fishing Harbour in Hell-Ville
Hmm... picking up a favourite spot on Nosy Be was not too easy. The west coast lined with idyllic sandy beaches was lush and offered romantic sunsets. But the island's capital, Hell-Ville, named after a person called Hell rather than the place feared by a number of religions, offered the full load of Malagasy daily life, including a curious sight of Indian yuk-tuks imported directly from the land of Ganesha. They have only been around a few years.

Place C Vert in the centre of Hell-Ville was one of my favourite spots. I was not quite sure if it was safe to take pictures there, as the square was lined with a number of government offices, houses in great colonial buildings.

The Fishing Harbour was my other favourite place in town. It was very animated and one could observe the fishermen at work on their ancient design dhows. These dhows were not a very common sight in Madagascar, as most vessels were smaller lakanas, narrow pirogues. Also of ancient design.

What's really great:
Malagasy boxing match in Djamandjary
Malagasy boxing match in Djamandjary
One of the best activities on Nosy Be was the Malagasy boxing. It was taking place in Djamandjary, about in the middle of the west coast. A ticket to the boxing event was MGA3,000. First, it started with the presentation of the athletes and none of them had boxer physique. Most of the guys were short and slim, but some were lean and athletic. I therefore expected something else was going to happen there. When it started, it was more of a kind of kick-boxing. The rounds were very quick, just under a minute, and winner of each round was announced immediately. After the round, the opponents lifted one another in turn. I thought that was a great sport-like gesture! The guys had no gloves, so although the rounds were quick, there were injuries. They were quickly dealt with by a medics team right by the ring. The champion that week won his round by a knock-out. The sun set when the event ended.

Local women embroidering table cloths.
Local women embroidering table cloths.
Hell-Ville had a handful of interesting colonial buildings and the interior of the island had a collection of crater lakes sitting on top of extinct volcanoes. Some of the grand buildings standing in the centre made a great impression, and somewhat unexpectedly as well. One of them, standing near the harbour was particularly grand. There was a bunch of them, now mostly government offices, including police headquarters and local courts, created a square complete with trees and places to rest. Some buildings hosted banks. At least two of them had working ATMs.

The collection of crater lakes in the northern part of the island made a rather great excuse for some hiking and panorama picture taking, as well as socialising with the locals attending their gift shops. The best spot for that was a telecommunication hill.

Nosy Be being a small island did not offer too much more. Just sheer space and beaches for relaxation, and occasional disco bar for hopping and chatting to people.

Circular pools at Vanila Hotel & Spa
Circular pools at Vanila Hotel & Spa
I stayed at the Vanila Hotel & Spa ('vanila' with a single 'l'), which I booked before arrival online using for £125 per night for an oceanfront room. It was located about in the middle of the west coast. It had fabulous Malagasy-inspired architecture. It was set in own botanic garden, right at the beach and was tastefully decorated. It had a large airy lobby with a high ceiling. The lobby was opening into a bar, at the end of which there was an infinity pool with a view of the beach. The venue had three other, smaller circular pools in the other part of the property. The walkways by the buildings were built from lacquered dark wooden planks, which made a great impression. This must have been one of the loveliest hotel exteriors that I have seen. There was also a fantastic spa on the premises, complete with a jacuzzi and a range of treatments available, which I did not use however.

Boom Beach Club at Madiro Kely Beach
Boom Beach Club at Madiro Kely Beach
Madiro kely beach - boom beach club. Animated, but most of all it started at 6pm! Right at sunset and continued until about 1am. Minding that it was Sunday. But, as I heard, all Sundays were like this. People were hopping in the club, sipping drinks at the tables, standing or swaying on the beach listening to the music and watching others, and peeing into the ocean - lads and gals included! They must have started at sunset or about 6pm. It was a great place. The small bar was located at one of the corners of the venue, next to the main street entrance. The other entrance, from the beach, was located diagonally. About half of the club, as if split diagonally, was filled with simple tables and benches. Almost all seats were taken when I arrived. A group of local villagers opened a number of grill stands preparing fresh caught fish. The special that night was a whole fish (looked like snapper) grilled with passionfruit sauce.

The Galleon Ankoay Bar in Hell-Ville
The Galleon Ankoay Bar in Hell-Ville
The Galleon Ankoay Bar in the centre of Hell-Ville was a great bar. Its entire bar was modelled on a boat, and they sold drinks at normal prices: MGA1,500 for softs and MGA3,000 for lagers. The bar was located next to a duty free shop and pizzeria, neither of which I visited. The town had a handful of other, more rustic bars spread around. Almost all of them had tables in the pavement, so it was great to sit there and watch the world go by.

I went to the ‘little Italy’ - the Andilana Beach, a sandy stretch of the west coast lined with upscale resorts frequented by the tourists from Italy. The locals even learnt Italian to better negotiate the sale of t-shirts, batiks, table cloths, figurines, spices, paintings and... massages. It was in fact a very nice beach, and there were a few more affordable spots like bars and eateries. This was the first, and the last, beach on Nosy Be where I saw other vazahas (white people) taking a dip in the ocean.

Grilled king prawns at Vanila Restaurant
Grilled king prawns at Vanila Restaurant
The restaurant at Vanila Hotel was fantastic. I had Mozambican fish soup and, of course, grilled king prawns. The soup came with grated cheese, croutons, garlic butter and cloves of garlic. It was superb. The king prawns were excellent. They were large and fresh. The spicy sauce they came with was a great complement. As twelve years before, I decided to stick to seafood on Madagascar and ditch the yams, rice and noodles. Nosy Be was a good entry to the country and the Vanila Hotel & Spa and its al fresco restaurant with a great view of the beach was definitely a great choice. I finished my dinner with two large glasses of lush papaya juice.

Other recommendations:
Malagasy style sun screen
Malagasy style sun screen
Nosy Be was served by a small international airport called Fascene Airport (NOS). It was located on the north-eastern coast and was connected with direct flights to Mayotte (Dzaoudzi), Reunion, Italy (Rome, Milan), South Africa (Johannesburg), and two airports on Madagascar's main island - Antananarivo and Antsiranana. There was no bank or ATMs at the airport despite a number of false reports that there were. Yet, conveniently, there was a good bureau de change just across the terminal building that offered very reasonable rates. Taxis were the only form of transportation liking the airport and the rest of the island. The prices were fixed and it was very unlikely that the tourist were going to be overcharged. The taxi drivers carried price lists with them. I later checked at my hotel and the prices were consistent.

Published on Thursday October 31th, 2013

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