Ile Sainte Marie

Ile Sainte Marie

Things to do - general

Ile Sainte Marie, or Nosy Boraha, is a narrow granitic island 57 km long 8 km off the east coast of Madagascar. Ile Sainte Marie is composed of a main island and several small islets. Its lush vegetation interspersed with many small villages, the kilometrical sandy beaches shaded by coconut palms, its bays and coves protected by coral reefs have turned this tropical dream island in is one of the most popular beach spots Madagascar has to offer. An atmosphere of peace, tranquility and pure natural beauty prevails on Ile Sainte Marie, a feeling definitely emphasized by the joie de vivre of the Malagasy. Cycling is the most popular means of transport of getting around. Another way to move further is on board of a traditional pirogue. It can take you to beautiful deserted little bays overgrown with tropical vegetation.

Beautiful Beaches

Ile Sainte Marie boasts numerous stunningly beautiful beaches and secluded coves, fringed with coconut palms. Most hotels are along the coast south of Ambodifotatra, where the beach is narrow but pleasant. The north-western part of the island is quieter, but more difficult to access. The east coast is relatively rugged and – until recently – undeveloped. It offers some of the better beaches, particularly on the Ampanihy Peninsula, which is separated from main island by the long Baie d’Ampanihy. A big warning: swimming in the beautiful turquoise the lagoon is not easy, due to the shallowness of the water. The best swimming beaches are located in the Northern and Western coasts, as well as in the islet aux Nattes.

Ile Sainte Marie has a good developed touristy infrastructure with a large number of hotels and service providers. Despite this, visitors’ flow is here rather restrained in comparison with Nosy Be. The higher numbers of tourists come here between July and August to contemplate the ballet of the humpback whales (see below). This is when humpback whales migrate to the area annually for mating and giving birth.

Ile Sainte Marie History

The history of Ile Sainte Marie is a mixture of legend and reality. The second local name of Nosy Bohara, Nosy Mbavy (which means “the women’s island”), refers to a legendary myth that reconstructs the origins of the island. According to the story, which any inhabitant of the eastern coast will be able to tell you, once upon time, a certain Ibrahim or Abraham, who must have been a Jew, landed on the island. He was immediately attacked by groups of women from whom he eventually managed to escape. He met an old woman on a small island. She took pity on that exhausted, shipwrecked man, hid him and provided him with food and water. Full of gratitude, the man blessed the old-woman: She and her descendants would never go without water. Suddenly, a spring gushed forth near the old woman’s house.

That’s why some historians have suggested that the first settlers of the island were Jews or Yemenites. Another legend about Nosy Boraha, which recalls Christians of the biblical myth of Jonas, tells that a villager, named Boroha, was driven off the coast by a whale but was rescued by a dolphin that brought him back to shore.

What to see in Ile Sainte Marie

Whale watching

In winter that is from June to the end of September, the sea around Ile Sainte Marie offers one of the most natural fascinating spectacles in the world. Large groups of humpback whales (Megaptera) make their annual migration from the Antarctic to the sheltered waters around Ile Sainte Marie where they calve, nurse their young and engage in their spectacular courtship rituals between the end of June and September.

For months, humpback whales can be seen wondering in the ocean as they move and jump out of the sea in the narrow canal that separates the island from the mainland. You can see them everywhere from the island but the best way to see is going aboard a fast motor launch with a whale watching specialist. The reputable hotels as well as some operators on Ile Sainte Marie arrange whale watching tours that adhere to the regulations to avoiding stressing the whales. Sometimes you are invited to collect data about the behavior, whale songs, diving length, location, etc. for the world data base. Serious operators are members of the associations Cetamada and Megaptera.

Diving & snorkeling

Together with whale watching, diving is the most popular activity in Ile Sainte Marie. You find a list of specialized tour operators on our section Diving & Snorkeling


Ambodifotatra  is 12km from the airport and is the largest and most developed settlement of Ile Sainte Marie and  offers banking and shopping facilities, a hospital for emergency medical treatment, water sport, some nightlife and a market where you can buy anything ranging from a bunch of fresh bananas to a hand-woven scarf or local artwork. It really just consists of one long, dusty main street extending from the harbor. Thursdays and Tuesdays are market days in Ambodifotatra, although some stalls are open all week long. On market days, you can shop for anything from delicious fresh fruit to some amazing handcraft.

The Catholic church

Sites of interest include Madagascar’s oldest Catholic church, which dates from 1857 and was a gift to the island from Empress Eugéne of France, and a granite fort (1753), which is now closed to the public. Access to this somewhat mysterious place is, albeit, difficult and absolutely impossible on foot whilst high tide. Even during dry season, though short enough, the stones over the passage are very slippery as the ocean covers them on high tide.

The old fort

Built on top of the hill, it is now occupied by the Malagasy army. Its main gate still shows the insignia of Louis XV, the King of France and Head of the West Indies Company. The fort served once as a prison at the time when the island was the destination for convicts. The East India Company built the first building in 1753. The other constructions were added in 1870. Near the fort gate Sylvain Roux is buried.

Isle aux Forbans

This tiny, circular shaped island was once the celebration place for meetings held by pirates and also the place where buccaneers divided their loot. One can still recognize the ruins of a arc-shaped on Ile Sainte Marie. Maybe the mark that indicates the presence of hidden treasure? The mystery remains unsolved.

The pirates’ cemetery of Saint-Pierre

Located on a peninsula south of the bay, this is the primary touristy site for visitors searching for the tombs of the many pirates, smugglers and slave traders who ended their days on this island.   There are mostly graves from 1800s but only one with the classic skull and crossed bones. The cemetery is also nicely located, overgrown by some mysterious kinds of plants and with the view to the pirate island where you can find many tombs in ruins, some of which date back to the early eighteenth century. To get there (use better a bicycle) take the road to the South and turn left after the dam. Young children will be waiting for the traveller to offer themselves as guides. They will show you the most curious epitaphs. Tip is as always at your discretion.

Ilot Madame

At the entry of the “Baie des Forbans”, astride the dike joining the south of Ile Sainte Marie to its main city Ambodifotatra, is located an islet of which the charming buildings and monuments bear a part of the island’s history. This place was the home of the King Ratsimilaho’s girl; Princess Betia. Formerly named” île aux cailles “, the French Sylvain Roux, renamed it “”Ilot Madame” in 1820 in honor for the King of France’s girl. This small islet hosted throughout the centuries many vessels. We still see some remains of a pier more or less abandoned. History enthusiasts will take a look at the former Governors’ residence of, which dates from 1871.

Country Madagascar
Languages spokenMalagasy, French
Currency usedMalagasy Ariary
Area (km2)222
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Unfortunately there are no car rental offers at this location at the moment.