I hate questions like “What’s your favourite song?” At what time of the day, in what mood, for what reason, in what circumstances/ season etc. etc.? I listen to a lot of varied music, I visit a lot of varied places.
I hate being put on the spot too I guess but if you asked me “What’s the best place you’ve ever been?” Constance Tsarabanjina is right up there, any time of the day.
Constance Tsarabanjina is not quite the most exclusive, grandest, luxurious, most private, or most many things. But, like the porridge that Goldilocks plumped for, it’s just right- oh so right.
Make no mistake, it is exclusive and you do pay for the experience. Maybe that’s it- the experience, more than the destination? Even over the occasional WhatsApp my other half back home sensed how that experience affected me, how- after a work-worrying trip (I was frantically e-mailing two minutes before I waded into the sea to board the boat that brought me here) – I very quickly unwound and immersed myself.
A speck on the ocean, a chunk of paradise
Constance Tsarabanjina is on a small, otherwise uninhabited island, about an hour by boat north of Nosy Be. The remoteness encouraged my relaxation in quintessential tropical paradise with paradisiacal views from just about everywhere. “Nothing to do but today” came often to mind, and memories of those days come often to mind still: swaying in my hammock in dappled green light outside my villa with the sea lapping the white sands beyond and birds in my foot bath; shaded walkways amid carefully tended sand gardens where “mbalatsara” (colloquial greeting) with friendly staff easily becomes a conversation, or an invitation to peek at some turtle hatchlings.
It’s hot (I’ve had cooler baths than my sundowner swims) and everything, apart from the service, is paced accordingly. Sensible, as is the dress code. Barefoot is encouraged- so just take slops and cover your bits in something more elegant than a cozzie at mealtimes.
Constance Tsarabanjina has 25 beachfront thatched villas along south and north facing beaches, each with two shaded loungers on the powdery sand, with the bar and restaurant area on an in-between beach, a reception and boutique set further back. South beach is flatter, shorter and quieter and houses the U Spa kiosk, if further relaxation is required. It is off the long, curving north beach that boats moor, so there is some coming and going, though there are arguably better views of the sunsets and neighbouring islands. It’s a five minute walk between them, so if you want a slight change, amble across.
The only tv is in the sand- floored bar, used solely for presentations about activities and excursions and then put away. Wifi, similarly, is limited to the bar and restaurant, or reception.
Dive Right In
I forgot about tv and my music. The susurrating sea was music enough. Instead- and for the first time at an all-inclusive, hedonistic hideaway, I dropped a little weight- enervated despite the heat and walking, diving, snorkelling and swimming daily.
Not that I didn’t tuck into the food. There’s a Malagasy twist to even the most European dishes. The tabasco infused ice cream is a winner. So too the white chocolate cake, fried pork cheek with wild black pepper sauce, sweet potato puree, roasted lamb and other non-fishy dishes. Seafood is high on the food agenda and, understandably, most guests go for dishes such as lobster tail with local vanilla sauce or grilled grouper fillet with leek fondue, though I didn’t hear the vegetarians grumbling. The endemic fruits are a must at breakfast or lunch and charming Maître d’ Eric Jao Soa smiles over it all in the elevated restaurant. He has one of several roles in what is the Tsarabanjina play, with consummate, charming and confident host Henri Arnulphy the lead, ably supported by his right hand lady, Elena Zanella. She is everybody’s friend while Henri was headhunted to run Constance Tsarabanjina at the unusually young age of 26. Top choice! I’ve not met anyone else who, by age 18, aimed to run a resort- and set out to prepare himself accordingly.
The villas are superb- if and when you spend time in them- with an expresso machine and fridge which, once your preferences are known, is stocked accordingly with drinks and snacks.
Around the resort there is a beach volleyball court and shaded table tennis, though the most popular land-based activity among Europeans is working on their tans, but snorkelling and SCUBA diving in the ridiculously clear and calm sea are the main water-based activities.
Constance Tsarabanjina incorporates a partnership with Akio (shark) Diving, headed by vastly experienced Riccardo Bonvissuto, with Daniele Monti as his lieutenant. Akio offers an array of courses and even rent out GoPros for any activity or excursion. I can’t think of an easier place to get started, in the mildest currents and water touching 30 deg C.
When Riccardo arrived in 2010 he thought “Wow! This looks like the Maldives did 35 years ago- before El Nino- with coral gardens so unspoiled, so virgin.” Thankfully reserve status has kept things more or less the same. There are 10 dive spots ranging in distance from a swim away to within 18 minutes by boat, with a further four within an hour and several further off. And, with the exception of the odd yacht charter, you will never have other divers in “your” space.
Having been down among the turtles and massive, shimmering shoals of fish, with lobster, mantis shrimp, stingrays and much more, my only regret is that I could not partake in a night dive as my flight home was the following day (a health risk).
My departure also coincided with a birdwatching tour, though I had seen many, including one of the rarest raptors, the critically endangered Madagascan fish eagle, soaring overhead. So too the greater frigate birds and Indian Ocean icon, the white-tailed tropic bird. The splendidly crimson (in mating season) little fody male and fiercely territorial white-throated rail were frequently dipping in my villa’s footbath.
The Malagasy kingfishers were a delight on an island tour, flitting among the amazing rock formations. On the tour we met the only other, temporary, human residents- fisherfolk who overnight rather than paddle their wooden pirogues to neighbouring Nosy Mitsio.
Our guide declined to take us to the rocky headland’s burial ground, where bodies are not interred but lie exposed. I rounded that headland on a swim around the island, with fins and goggles, which took about an hour. Enjoying the abundant sea life alone and giving turtles their space was another highlight, among many.
Even the bittersweet departure, with staff all waving in unison on the receding beach, was a delight. Go!
Getting There, Getting About
MadagasCaT arranged my seamless itinerary. MadagasCaT are members of Nosy Be Tourism Board and are the private partner behind Airlink’s direct flight to Nosy Be. MadagasCaT are the main contributors for the Nosy Be chapter in the Bradt Guide to Madagascar for the last four editions.
Airlink connects you to your unique Indian Ocean island getaway, Nosy Be, on Sundays and also has seasonal flights from Johannesburg to Nosy Be return on Wednesdays from 28 March to 2 May, 27 June to 10 October 2018 and 19 December to 2 January 2019. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries and St Helena Island. Book your flight direct on www.flyairlink.com or call SAA Central Reservations on 011 978 1111. Spread your wings- fly Airlink.
For the better part of a decade I travelled hard, fast and continuously- chasing deadlines for weekly travel features linked to prizes. Not being quite a tourist, or on holiday, affords a different perspective, as does "speed dating" with owners and staff. Like in movies, associations and relationships are accelerated and in most cases I get a peek behind the scenes of the many wonder filled places I've been. Have a peek yourself.