Most visitors to Madagascar come to see its population of lemurs, of which the island has about 100 species. Picture: 123RF/PAUL MAGUIRE
Most visitors to Madagascar come to see its population of lemurs, of which the island has about 100 species. Picture: 123RF/PAUL MAGUIRE

It’s said that when King Solomon wanted to build his temple he sent his best carpenters to scour the earth in search of its finest timber. They eventually made it to Madagascar, where they felled majestic trunks of sweet-smelling rosewood to bring to the Holy Land. A few of the men fell under the spell of the island’s beauty and chose to remain. To this day, some Malagasy claim distant Jewish ancestry.

Whether the tale is taken as a fable or accepted at face value, the so-called eighth continent is still likely to hold an unsuspecting traveller in its grip. Most visitors come to see its population of skyward lemurs — Madagascar has about 100 species, and they’re found nowhere else.

Others are eager to experience the Jurassic-looking jungles — where night-time wildlife tours reveal prehistoric creatures such as the spiral-tailed panther chameleon — or the Avenue of the Baobabs, a forest of skyscraper-tall trees that look as if they’ve been uprooted and flipped upside down.

Thierry Dalais, chairman of a young, ambitious consortium of eco-luxe safari lodges called Time + Tide, arrived as most people before him: wide-eyed and curious about the mythical island nation. He invested in a seaweed-farming company, but his crops failed, the victim of marine degradation. Dalais’s next idea was to tap into conservation and its potential to draw tourists to this special place in the shadow of 1,000-year-old trees, about 1,100km from his home on Mauritius.

That’s how the first five-star resort on Nosy Ankao, an island off the northeast coast of Madagascar, was born. Its name, Miavana, means "to come together" in the local dialect. It opened in May 2017 with 14 retrostyle megavillas along an arcing strip of beige sand on Nosy Ankao. It’s by far the country’s most ambitious hospitality project yet.

Getting here involves a flight to the capital, Antananarivo, a half-day transit to the north of Madagascar, and a helicopter charter across a strip of the Indian Ocean. But once tourists step off the chopper and into the hands of their private butler, who welcomes them with freshly cracked coconut, they will relax immediately. The developers have succeeded in positioning it as a viable vacation alternative to the private-island oases of the nearby Seychelles.

For one thing, Dalais used the same architects who created North Island, the extravagant Seychelles resort where Kate Middleton and Prince William famously honeymooned. The SA-based firm founded by husband-and-wife duo Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens is known for crafting tropical paradises in Kenya and Zambia.

With Dalais, they imagined the resort from the sand up.

Sleek, understated cottages are built out of hand-hewn stone etched to resemble the ropy, mosaic-like bark of the local trees. Inside are platform beds with mosquito nets hanging from the ceiling. Bathrooms open up to generous, walled-off outdoor shower areas.

Turquoise water and a palm-flanked beach are visible through a series of glass-pannelled walls that fold together like a Chinese screen.

Days at Miavana begin in an open-air, thatched-roof dining room, where breakfasts are prepared with the precision of a Japanese tea ceremony (the granola is hand-sorted) and served by kind, mostly local staff.

It would be perfectly acceptable to hide away on the resort all day long, kite surfing in the quiet lagoon or getting massages with botanically infused oils on your private deck.

It’s just as easy to spend a full week exploring the natural bounty nearby: diving excursions take place among bowmouth guitarfish and humpback whales in valleys of pristine cauliflower coral. Private helicopters can take travellers on a wide variety of untrammelled adventures. Safaris in vine-strewn jungles provide an opportunity to spot mustachioed golden crowned sifakas and other nocturnal lemurs; hikes through Ankarana Reserve pass spiky, limestone tsingy formations that resemble overgrown crocodile teeth.

Although Madagascar has dealt with outbreaks of the plague almost annually since 1980, they’ve tended to be concentrated in major cities, far from Miavana. In early February the World Health Organisation said that 2017’s especially strong contagion had been brought under control.

At Miavana, everything is inclusive with the stay, including a $100 conservation levy that goes directly to the Time + Tide Foundation. The not-for-profit arm of Dalais’s company is said to have a holistic approach to environmentalism that also considers economic effects.

He says he hopes to use those funds for job creation and wildlife conservation, which often go hand in hand. Already, he’s getting students from the town of Andasibe involved in reforestation efforts, critical to the lemurs’ survival, and shifting jobs from slash-and-burn agriculture to hospitality. All this should help ensure the last of Solomon’s trees will remain preserved for thousands of years.

Bloomberg