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Tsarabanjina, Madagascar: Pressing pause on 2016

Have you seen that sped-up video that shows a girl lying on a beach and as the camera zooms out, you see that she is alone on a tiny island and when it pans out further, it shows the island is in the middle of a vast ocean which is far away from any major continent? The ultimate effect is that she is marooned on a pinprick, floating in space. That’s just how it feels on the tiny island of Tsarabanjina 🌴. It’s a feeling that you are a million miles away from everything the world deems important. Days are warm and lazy, nights are romantic and peaceful.

After a three-and-a-half hour plane trip, an hour in a humid taxi through dense vegetation and a 90 minute fast boat directly into the blue, arriving in Tsarabanjina is literally ‘getting away from it all’.

Our choice was the little island of Tsarabanjina which lies 60km off the north-west coast of Madagascar in the Mitsio Archipelago. We flew with SA Airlink directly to Nosy Be from Johannesburg.

Somewhat overwhelmed by corporate stress and exhausted from a busy year, we were really in need of some vitamin sea. Also, every now and then you have to spoil yourself completely. It’s a reminder of why you work so hard and such long hours. 

As the speedboat slows down to approach the island, the sense of relaxation is instant. The beaming and waving staff welcome you like old friends as you step into deliciously warm water and are ushered into the beach bar for a cocktail. Tsarabanjina operates on a different time zone to the rest of Madagascar. This is to make full use of the daylight on the island. The first instruction is to put your watch forward one hour. And then you take it off for the rest of the week…

Watches are not the only superfluous items on the island. You immediately understand why the Constance Hotel group have coined the phrase “barefoot luxury”. Flip-flops somehow feel overdressed even at dinner. Yet the balance between casual and relaxed, and upmarket and elegant is perfectly harmonious.

It took no encouragement to embrace everything on offer. One of our few requirements in selecting a resort, was that we could snorkel right off the beach. Tsarabanjina over-delivered on this. We could walk less than 50 metres from our chalet into the warm aquamarine water and in another 20 meters of swimming already start seeing coral outcrops and colourful fish 🐠. That’s how you know you are in paradise.

Meals were a delightful adventure. The freshly caught seafood was abundant as was the tropical fruit. The creativity of the chefs was impressive as they rustled up Masterchef worthy creations at every meal. I kept waiting to get used to everything so that I could slow down on the eating, but it was impossible to hold back. Desserts were instagrammable, decadent works of art. The attentive waiters remember your drinks order and have them ready almost as you sit down.

Some evenings have a themed cocktail hour, for example, one night we all dressed in pareos and climbed the hill behind the main building for spectacular sundowners. On another evening we were entertained by the talented staff band. Gideon also shared a slideshow of Madagascar and the lemurs. One of my favourites treats was the sundowner cruise which took us close to some of the bird life.

The ocean shimmers with the reflection of moonlight as we stroll off to bed after dinner. The sandy pathway across the rocks is gently illuminated by lights concealed in the rock face. There is nothing but a blanket of twinkling stars in the warm sky. I can hear the slap of a gentle wave and the foamy hiss as it subsides. Frenzied hermit crabs scurry across the gleaming wet beach. The sand is icing-sugar soft under our feet as we pad towards our ‘castaway chic’ rosewood cottage nestled under palm, casuarina and badamier trees.

In the morning we try not to disturb our resident water chicken that is bathing in the foot bath outside our deck. The foot bath is freshly cleaned and replenished each day so that we don’t track sand into our house.

Geoff thought he’d died and gone to heaven when he discovered a Hobie 14 catamaran in the watersports area. The conditions for sailing were perfect. Light steady winds, unlimited horizons and his very own island to circumnavigate.

All that eating meant we needed to try and do some exercise. It takes an hour or two to walk around the island. And what a walk! First a long stretch of pearly beach, then some rocky parts that lead you to a tiny fishing village, obscured by the lush vegetation. We loved seeing the odd little fishing vessel bobbing in the bay.The northern part of the island reveals a different exposure to the weather and we admired glorious clouds and explored majestic caves inhabited by crabs. Frigate birds soared overhead and a dhow could be seen racing home before sunset. We passed the other 13 cottages and noted the different conditions on their coastline – a few more steps to the water, but elevated views. Ultimately there is a place to go on Tsarabanjina, no matter what the weather does.

Gideon, in charge of excursions, picked us up one day while we were snorkeling off the main beach. We clambered onto the boat and he took us to a beautiful place where we could swim right inside a cave. The plankton was so dense that it felt like you were swimming in pea soup and I was relieved to get into the more ‘open’ water, where Gideon pointed out starfish and jellyfish. When I got back onto the boat I immediately realized I’d been stung on my arms and legs by something that caused a violent rash. Another Italian guest was similarly afflicted but everyone else was fine. Wow, the itch was terrifying. I was out of sorts for two days while I recovered from the worst of the allergic reaction and thereafter was a bit cautious about where and when I swam. Africa is not for sissies.

One our last night on the island we were sitting on the terraced deck below the beach bar, enjoying a cocktail before dinner when a turtle came wandering up, possibly looking for a place to lay her eggs. She had really picked the busiest part of the island and didn’t hang around too long.

I often feel that the borderline between leisure and work has become blurred. If I answer an email while I’m lying in bed, then “I’m not really working”…the problem is one ends up not having time to read a book, paint a picture, bake a cake either. After a day or two on this remote island, reclining in your hammock or snoozing on the day bed, you really start to escape from everyday demands. Having limited access to WiFi is a blessing. You begin to feel more carefree, to dream and reconnect with yourself. To inhale. To exhale.

“Paradise was always over there, a day’s sail away.” J. Maarten Troost

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