Sainte Marie Island (Nosy Boraha)
Sainte Marie, also called Nosy Boraha, is a tropical destination off the east coast of Madagascar. This small island (49km long by 5km wide) offers you an idyllic landscape composed of small fishing villages and unspoilt beaches. Authentic and preserved, it promises you a change of scenery!
Between legend and reality, the Sainte Marie Island’s history is fascinating. Some also call it Nosy Mbavy or "the women’s island".
According to legend, a Jew named Abraham or Ibrahim was assaulted by a horde of women when he arrived on the island. Tired and hungry, he met an old lady who offered him food out of pity. Grateful, Abraham blessed his benefactress and his descendants, so that they always find water during their journey. The fable says that a spring flew out near the old lady's house. Referring to this history, some historians argue that the first foreigners to come to the island were Yemenis or Jews.
Another legend evokes Nosy Boraha, in connection with the biblical myth of Jonah. According to a villager named Boraha, Jonas, hunted by a whale, was rescued by a dolphin who deposited him on the shore of the island.
Europeans first arrived on Nosy Boraha towards the end of the 16th century. The pirate Thomas White married a princess from eastern Madagascar. Their union allowed the birth of the Zanamalata dynasty. Their son Ratsimilaho founded the Betsimisaraka ethnic group, uniting the coastal tribes. His kingdom extended to Mahavelona.
In 1685, Nosy Boraha became an important hideout for pirates. Most of the passing ships were vandalized. The buccaneers were given safe shelter in Sainte-Marie. They plundered all the spice carriers from India, having docked on the island for provisioning and repairing. Some historians estimate that 1,000 pirates have found refuge on the island. Some pirate shipwrecks are still visible near Forbans Bay. Two of them would have belonged to Captain Kidd and Captain Condent. Pirate graves are also nestled in the bay, near Ambodifotatra.
Nosy Boraha came under French rule in 1750, on July 30 more precisely, when Queen Betty signed a treaty. Betty, who is Ratsimilaho's daughter, fell in love with a former Gascon soldier named Jean Onésime Filet (nicknamed La Bigorne) who used all his charm to get the queen to sign this treaty. Betty's palace then became the Governor's palace, now a museum. The islet Madame, where this monument is located, also houses the first Malagasy Catholic church (1857), whose altar was a gift from Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife. However, the first French people to arrive here and settle here were pirates. It is also possible to visit their tombs in Ambodifotatra.
Sainte-Marie Island today
The friendly population
Nosy Boraha or Sainte Marie is like a piece of jewel on Madagascar’s east coast. There are so many sights on the island. You will always have something to do during your stay: walking, swimming and drinking a coconut punch opposite a hypnotising sunset… During your stay in Sainte Marie, do not be in a rush! Take your time to fully enjoy each escapade and landscape, calmly and serenely.
Nosy Boraha is surrounded by several kilometers of fine sand, near the Antongil and Tintingue’s bays, other presumed hideouts for pirates. The island has inherited a beautiful cultural and linguistic mix. The population speaks mainly Saint-Marien, mixing French and local dialects, in addition to some Bantu, English and Indonesian influences. The kindness and generosity of the inhabitants are also part of the assets that reinforce the destination’s charm. Let yourself be overwhelmed by the peaceful atmosphere and the population’s joie de vivre.
Islets, beaches and bays
In addition to the main island, Sainte Marie has several islets. Lush vegetation, beaches, bays and coves await you in this dreamland. The main island can be visited on foot or by bicycle. There are beautiful beaches, such as the one in the Ampanihy peninsula which is detached from the lands by the Ampanihy’s bay. These are special places as generally, there is only steep terrain on the east coast. You have to be vigilant while swimming, as the waters are deep. Canoeing is the best mean to reach the most isolated bays and coves.
A coral reef protects the bays. Scuba diving is the best way to admire the cornelian formations that make up the lagoon, the tropical fish, but also the marine turtles inhabiting the pirate ship wrecks.
Like all destinations on Madagascar's east coast, Sainte Marie Island has a rather high annual rainfall and a lush natural environment. To discover the Indian Ocean’s fauna and flora, go to Ankarena beach, which is bordered by forest vegetation and a waterfront cave. Occupying 400ha area, Ikalalao forest is home to many varieties of orchids. It is also a haven for three species of lemurs: the Microcebus, the mouse lemur and the dwarf lemur. All the chameleons are all endemic.
Ambodena Secondary Forest hosts a wide variety of birds, chameleons, geckos and tree frogs. The primates include mouse lemurs, brown lemurs with bald heads, soft grey lemurs and red and white cubs. The Ampanihy forest is dominated by a mangrove which can be explored by canoe. Marine turtles sometimes land on the beach to lay eggs.
Must-see places in Sainte Marie?
- The Catholic Church which dates from 1857, whose altar is a gift from the Empress Eugénie de France.
- The old fort that sits atop a hill, where you can see Louis XV’s badge.
- Forbans Island, a circular shaped island which shelters an arch in ruin.
- The pirates cemetery at Saint-Pierre, built on a peninsula, etc.
Nosy Boraha enjoys a tropical climate. You can expect a warm and tropical season from January to April, a temperate and humid season from May to August, and a mild and dry season from September to December. The temperature varies between 20 and 30°C, alternating rain and sun.
How to get around?
You can choose between cycling and walking. There is no taxi.