(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 31, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
As stated above, the name Nosy Be is translated by ‘island' for Nosy and ‘big' for Be but it only makes 320 square km, with a rounded shape measuring 26 km from North to South and 20 km from East to West, quite modest to say the least. Now, where does this small big island hide itself? It lays at the North of Madagascar (the real big island off South-Eastern Africa) close to the Mozambique canal. Higher elevations are Mount Lokobe at 455m high and Mount Passot at 329m. The climate here is entirely tropical with average air and water temperatures around 25°C all year. There are basically two seasons; summer or rain season from November to April with cyclones between January and March, winter or dry season from April to October. Overall population is around 30,000 and--as in many third world countries--sixty percent are under twenty years old.
Now a little history; the island was first inhabited by people from Madagascar (it is just a few km away) mainly of the Sakalava group. During the sixteenth century the Portuguese, who had an active fleet, settled on the island that became with the vicinity of Zanzibar a turntable for slave trade. In the seventeenth century, Great Britain sent commander Hunt to get hold of the area and secure sailing roads as Nosy Be had by then become a main centre for pirates. This period was followed by wars between the different local groups (Sakalava, Antakarana, Merino). In 1841 the Queen Tsiomieko asked France to give Nosy Be the status of protectorate, which remained so until 1957 when it was finally reattached to mainland Madagascar.
The economy has traditionally been based on agricultural products both from the land and the sea. Peasants grow sugar cane (the most important crop, we will come back to this topic), vanilla, coffee, ylang-ylang, rice, coconuts and fruit trees on a small scale. The sea is quite rich and provides local fishermen with fishes, shrimps and crayfishes. And of course, like all over in Madagascar, people raise buffalos which provide power to plough fields, pull carts and provide tasty (though often tough) meat. The sugarcane has been a number one crop providing seasonal work for many people, but the large sugar cane plant set in Dzamanzary looks more like a ghost town than an active place. One of the technicians met there explained that the central government simply stopped paying the workers as there is a great demand from foreign investors to buy land; therefore sugar cane fields are getting sold for big money but nobody on the island sees the colour of this money. Amazingly enough people do not get angry, and manage to get by growing more vegetables and trying to benefit from the growing tourist industry.
This booming tourism has of course two sides; on the bright one, it brings money and work for local people, strengthens services and international image and brings some necessary environmental consciousness to local authorities that usually deeply lack of it. On the other, it brings excess pressure on land, brings speculation, increases pollution, leads to problems on the limited supplies of water and electricity. As in many other parts of Madagascar sexual tourism has also started to plague the island especially in Ambatoloaka which was reputed as the local Malibu and has turned in a quite sad place attracting many lone male tourists.
But let us stay on the bright side, there are many more nice things than bad ones here. You can fly from Madagascar (Antananarivo and Mahajunga), from Reunion and from Paris, to the small airport of Fassene. From there you catch a taxi to the main town by the strange name of Hell Ville. Not much to do there except buying supplies and visiting the small oceanographical museum. A car rental will allow you to take one of the two roads and discover the north west where the nicest beaches are. Hotels are scattered here and there, but need a careful check before booking as they can go from correct to scruffy. Most of the original vegetation has been cleared for sugar cane but there are still a few patches in the interior, around the sacred lakes. Those lakes can be visited, but their sacredness forbids swimming in them, enforced by the presence of crocodiles (which are also sacred themselves of course but not vegetarians...). The south hosts the nature reserve of Lokobe which is about 740 hectares and will allow you to have a glimpse of what the area was like a long time ago. The reserve has many birds, batrachians, lemurs, snakes and numerous insects, don't forget an effective repellent! And around Nosy Be itself lay several tiny islands which are worth a visit, they can be reached by motorboat or even sailing pirogues for the closer ones. In Nosy Komba there is still some interesting forest and numerous lemurs, in Nosy Tanikely is a marine reserve with stunning corals and huge schools of colourful fishes. For the more adventurous ones the Mitsio archipelago in the north can provide exciting time in a very pristine area. And the art amateurs will not want to miss the music festival held every year in May, the Donia.
So all in all this tiny island definitely deserves a visit, whether you like scuba diving, snorkelling or simply enjoying the warm water, fishing either from the shore or going big-game fishing (spade fishes and tunas are around). The Lokobe reservation will be a good treat for the nature lovers (check often the trees, boas enjoy taking a nap on a branch a couple meters above your head!). And the lazy ones can simply relax on a white sand beach, enjoy grilled fish for lunch and lobster for dinner, all of which for a bargain price. Now do not forget that this is a malaria risky area and treatment is necessary especially during rainy season, if you go in winter (say July-August) mosquitoes are very few and can be dealt with just using repellent and long clothes in the evening