Madagascar – also known as the ‘great red island’ is reckoned by scientists to be a living laboratory of evolution. That’s because of the high number of unusual, even unique species of wildlife that can be found there.

If you’ve seen the movie ‘Madagascar’, you’ll know just how endearing lemurs can be. They’re the superstars of Madagascar, with many different species to look out for. Even if you’re not into wildlife, there are still plenty of reasons to head east from Africa and discover this incredible country for yourself.

Perhaps you’ve tried and failed to grow orchids at home? Then you’ll be blown away by Madagascar’s flora, with over 800 species of these elegant plants. Incredibly, more than 600 of them are found nowhere else on earth. Then there are the multiple species of baobabs – perhaps the most iconic of all African trees.

As well as incredibly diverse wildlife, Madagascar has an amazing wealth of scenery, ranging from mountains to rainforests. It’s the sort of place you could spend a lifetime exploring, and yet still find yourself being surprised. Ascending from the coast to the central highlands means an increase in altitude of almost a mile.

The Malagasy people are renowned for their friendliness – whether you’re in a city or a tiny village, you’ll be made to feel welcome. They have a fascinating cultural heritage, with Arabic, Indian and African influences present in the language, food, and music. Dhows ply the coast much as they have done for centuries.

Speaking of the coast, if it’s truly deserted beaches you’re looking for, then you’ve come to exactly the right place. Just offshore – especially around some of the smaller islands – you’ll find superb diving opportunities on unspoiled reefs. The best spots are probably Nosy Be, as well as Ile Sainte Marie.

Back onshore, the fact that Madagascar has no large predators means that exploring its national parks – like Mantadia and Ranomafana – is a distinct possibility. Rather than looking for big game, you’ll be spotting the many bizarre creatures that make their homes on Madagascar, from the alien-looking aye-aye to giant chameleons.

Gateway city: Antananarivo (Tana)

Best time to travel: January and April through December

Highlights: Andasibe, Ranomafana, Isalo, Berenty, Ifaty, Nosy Be, Isle Saint Marie, Morondava Avenue of the Baobabs

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