Mahajanga, formerly known as 'Majunga', is a town and major port on the island of Madagascar. It lies on the island's northwest coast at the mouth of the Betsiboka River, whose estuary widens into Bombetoka Bay. This sprawling and somnolent port town features a palm-lined seaside promenade, wide avenues, shady arcades and walls draped with gorgeous bougainvillea. White-sand beaches can be found to the north and south of Mahajanga. The Old Town is confined mainly to the harbour quarter, and includes some elegant buildings dating from the Colonial period, including Arabian houses, the Androva Hospital, old Post Office, Courthouse and a huge Cathedral. The town's modern buildings include a Roman Catholic Cathedral, a Protestant church and a mosque. The University of Mahajanga, founded in 1977 as a regional centre of the University of Madagascar, became independent in 1988. A trans-shipment port, Mahajanga is linked by road with Antsiranana and with the national capital, Antananarivo, approximately 225 miles (about 360 kilometres) to the south-southeast. An airport is also located nearby.
Mahajanga became established in the 18th century as the kingdom of Boina, and a trade crossroads between Madagascar, the East African coast and Middle East. Swahili and Indian traders settled in the town, resulting in a thriving commerce in cattle, slaves, arms, and spices from the Orient and Middle East. In the 1780s, a community of roughly 200 Indian traders had formed in Mahajanga at the mouth of the Betsiboka River. Confusion arose over their legal status; they often declared themselves to be Malagasy subjects to evade the laws against slave-holding or the building of stone houses, both forbidden to British subjects. Their dhows, which they used to transport goods to and from the African mainland, flew French flags. Initial arrivals were mainly Muslim Khojas, Ismailis and Daoudi Bohras, with some Hindus settling later. When Merina King Radama I overthrew the Sakalava people, Mahajanga's inhabitants rioted and set one section of the town on fire. Because of the capital's strategic location, the French selected it as the base of operations in 1895 for their expeditionary forces, which would turn Madagascar into a French protectorate. Immigrants from Comoros were almost as numerous in the town as the Malagasy until 1976-77, when most of the former were repatriated to Comoros following riots in Mahajanga. The Comorian population has since increased, and the town now has a substantial Indian merchant population, too.
Fishing, agriculture, cattle-raising, hardwood lumbering, and the manufacturing of soap, sugar and cement in Mahajanga and its surrounds are vital to the local economy, as is the cultivation of coffee, rice, sugar cane, cashew nuts, cassava, cotton, and raffia palms. However, Mahajanga's tropical beauty, warm, sunny climate, baobab trees, scattered islands, forest reserves, lakes, and caves have made tourism an important part of the local economy. This picturesque and inviting port city serves as a gateway for exploring its white-sand beaches, idyllic natural reserves, splendid parks and other natural landmarks. Included are the Antrema Nature Reserve and Forest, Ankarafantsika National Park, Eco Parc Reniala, Tsingy de Bemaraha Nature Reserve, Anjohibe Caves, Nosy Barren, and Sacred Lake.
With its historical connections to Africa and large Muslim and Indian populations, Mahajanga is one of Madagascar's most multicultural and ethnically diverse locales, and similar in atmosphere to many areas on the East African coast. The women wrap themselves in the brightly coloured cotton wraps seen in the Comoros, Zanzibar and Mombasa. Other vestiges of Mahajanga's culture, traditions and history can be explored during visits to the Old Town, Port Quartier, Akiba Museum Mozeal, traditional villages such as Antsanitia, Belamoti and Ankabokabe, Lake Mangatsa, a site of great religious importance to the Sakalava tribe, and the Giant Baobab Tree, the revered town symbol of Mahajanga.
Mahajanga's inland and coastal beauty is highlighted by a variety of scenic and memorable sightseeing venues for outdoor enthusiasts. Land-based excursions include picturesque nature and walking trails at Baly Bay National Park, bird-watching, jungle and rainforest trekking at Baly Bay National Park and the Antrema and Tsingy de Bemaraha nature reserves, wild and protected animal species at the Eco Parc Reniala, off-road 4WD tours, and tennis at the Amborovy Resort, located 5.6 miles (nine kilometres) from the town of Mahajanga. Scenic, fun-filled water-based excursions include swimming, sunbathing and beachcombing on the white-sand beaches located to the north and south of Mahajanga Town, canoeing, kayaking, wind- and kitesurfing, jet- and water-skiing, fishing, boating, sailing, snorkelling, and scuba diving. It is important to note that the caution must be observed whilst swimming or engaging in water-related activities due to the strong current and local shark population along the coast. Local hotels, tour operators and even bars in Mahajanga will provide you with the latest prevailing conditions to determine if it is safe to enter the coastal waterways on any given day.
Due to its compact size, Mahajanga can be easily explored in just a single day.
Going Ashore in Mahajanga
The ship may be at anchor. Guests will tender ashore to the Moriceau Pier. Mahajanga's town centre is approximately 1.8 miles (three kilometres) from the port. Complimentary shuttle bus service to a convenient location in the city is offered in the morning and afternoon.
Mahajanga is renowned for its spices, embroideries, clothing, handicrafts and other souvenirs. Shopping locations include the Angaya Town Centre, located 1.8 miles (three kilometres) from the town of Mahajanga, and Bazar Be, located 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometres) from Mahajanga Town. Several clothing shops can be found in Mahajanga, including Clementy, Maki Company, Carambole, Urban Wear, Clea Tendances de Paris, Fun Boutique, Shop Style, Baobab Company, and the Carla Shop. Most stores are open from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m, and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The local currency is the Ariary (MGA).
Majunga is renowned for its Malagasy, European, Italian, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisine. Local specialities include grilled or cooked manioc, zebu and kebabs. Popular dining destinations include Roches Rouges, Chez Madame Chabaud, Thi Lan, Karibu, Chez Karon, La Petite Cour, Mafilotra, Kannibalus, Baobar, Bolo Pasta Gelato, Cap Ouest, Hiranot, Kohinoor, Gastronomie Pizza, Le Canal de Mozambique, Chez Jovane, JRS, Lemizo, La Petite Cour, Le Chinois, Bel'Air, Nika, Fitiavana, Sampand'Or, Saigon, Rainisoa, Exotic, Irish Bar, La Rotonde, New Caprice, Espresso, Kanto Fils, and the restaurants at the Antsahani Tia, Zaha, Anjary and Le Vieux Baobab hotels.
The Old City, which is delineated by Boulevard Poincaré, Avenue de France, Quai Orsini and Rue du Marechal Joffre, is best explored on-foot. The historic sights feature remnants of the Arabic origins of the city, including trading posts, sculpted wooden doors, old Colonial houses with ochre facades, and narrow streets with small gardens planted with bougainvillea plants. Along the seaside, wooden boats transport goods such as rice, cotton and cement.
Along the Avenue Mahabibo is the lively old port district, with its colourful markets and mosques. The eight mosques with minarets, Arab ornaments adorning the houses' facades and exquisite carved doors at the old houses of Indian traders reflect the Arab influences of the late-19th century. Residents clad in blue and white djelabas follow the muezzins' call to prayer that will probably lead them to one of the two major mosques of the city; the old Indian Mosque or Comorian Mosque. The port district also preserves some elegant buildings dating from the Colonial period, including the Androva Hospital, old Post Office, Courthouse and huge Cathedral. On top of the hill overlooking the city, a finely decorated stone gate with gracefully carved flowers is the last vestige of the rova built by Radama I that once dominated the city.
Walking towards the end of the Avenue de France, where the avenue meets the seaside promenade, you cannot miss the huge, 49-foot (15-metre) baobab tree that it thought to be 1,000 years old and has become the revered symbol of Mahajanga Town. According to local tradition, every new visitor is supposed to go around the tree seven times to worship the ancestors and thus obtain their blessing. Despite the holy character of the tree, this was the also the place where executions took place during 19th century. The sights engraved in the tree's branches and trunk remind us of this sad chapter of the history of Madagascar.
Port aux Boutres
Port aux Boutres bustles in the morning hours. Watching ships loading and unloading huge piles of bundled coconut and wood, whilst dhows and schooners glide by in the background pushed by the wind, is an unforgettable experience.
Located on Boulevard Poincaré, the Seaside Promenade is ideal for a stroll during the evening hours and a favourite gathering place for the Malagasy. Along the way, pass by the Jardin d'amour, or 'Love Garden', on Ponte du Caiman, which looks rather a Greek building with its white balustrades. From here, walk along Boulevard Marcoz, a classical meeting point for families that was refurbished before a visit by Jacques Chirac in July 2005. Do not miss the magnificent, Colonial-style building that now serves as the Town Hall. Port Schneider, at the end of the Boulevard Marcoz and near the tourist village, offers the astonishing spectacle of a pier coupled with a pipeline that extends into the bay. Offshore, the tanker lights shine in the tropical night. This route extends generally to the town centre, the main avenue, followed by Port Schneider and the Tourist Village.
The Royal Shrine of Tsaramandroso
The Royal Shrine of Tstaramandroso preserves such relics as teeth, nails and pieces of clothing belonging to the Sakalava kings Andriamandrosoarivo, Andrimisara, Andrinamisara, Andrianamboniarivo, and Andrimihanina. Once a year, an annual procession celebrated in July marks the climax of the joyous New Year Festival. During this time, the four male ancestors whose relics reside at this shrine are paraded around their respective shrines immediately after been soaked in water, a ritual known as 'Fanompoa Be' or 'Great Service'.
Bombetoka Bay is located on the northwest coast of Madagascar near the city of Mahajanga, where the Betsiboka River flows into the Mozambique Channel. Numerous islands and sandbars have formed in the estuary from the large amount of sediment carried in by the Betsiboka River, and have been shaped by the flow of the river, and push and pull of tides. Along coastlines and on the islands, the vegetation is predominantly mangrove forests, which provide shelter for diverse mollusk and crustacean communities, as well as a habitat for sea turtles, birds, and dugongs. Shrimp and rice farming are common near the bay, while coffee plantations abound in the surrounding terrain.
Akiba Museum Mozeal
Located at the entrance to the Ambodrona University campus, this museum explores the history of the Boeni Kingdom. Highlights include old photographs, an introduction to the wildlife of the region, as well as a selection of crafts and some impressive fossils and dinosaur bones discovered in the Mahajanga Valley.
Located 6.2 miles (10 kilometres) from Mahajanga Town, this splendid beach offers a wide selection of accommodations in traditional fishermen's houses and holiday bungalows. Unlike the east coast, where sharks are prevalent, they are seldom found here. Fish specialities like lobster and pulp are served in almost all seafront restaurants.
Antrema Natural Reserve
Accessible via Antrema Bay and a stroll past the fishermen's village and mangrove forest, the Antrema Nature Reserve is home to a beautiful deciduous forest featuring lemurs, endemic plant species such as pachypodyum and euphorbia, and the Prince's House.
Cirque Rouge (Red Circus)
Located near the Amborovy Beach, the Cirque Rouge, or 'Red Circus' is a multi-coloured circular rock formation that is reminiscent of the red rock canyons in the southwest United States. Opposite the beach are hillocks where large gullies have been carved. Erosion has made the sandstone surface display a wide range of colours, from shades of white and pink to orange and ochre. Women from nearby Amborovy Village usually come here to carry out some of the colourful sand for filling bottles, which are then sold to tourists. Picnicking is a possibility at the river down the valley. The setting is absolutely fabulous when the sun's rays at twilight hit the cirque, bringing out the natural colours of the sand.
Located approximately 18.6 miles (about 30 kilometres) from Mahajanga, this scenic, sacred lake with transparent waters is home to numerous eel and fish species, including of some of the biggest goldfish you will ever see. Several bottles and jars are placed at the base of the surrounding trees as prayers. Lake Mangatsa is a sacred place, and a restaurant is located here.
Andranoboka and Anjohibe Caves
Located 51.5 miles (83 kilometres) from Mahajanga, these unique sites with amazing rock formations can be only accessed through a dirty track during the dry season. The caves were first reported by a French explorer in 1934, though locals have known about their existence for centuries. Despite the many entrances, it seems that there are two different cave systems which extend under two limestone hills about 1.24 miles (two kilometres) from each other. Anjohibe is the larger and more interesting cave system. It features 13 entrances, and is more than 3.1 miles (five kilometres) in length. In addition to its magnificent natural pool, this cavern system offers a unique habitat for many animal species, such as rodents, snakes, turtles and birds.
Further south along the coast is Katsepy, a beautiful fishermen's village nestled between sandy beaches. The Lighthouse offers spectacular panoramic views of Bombetoka Bay; Boeny Bay is located nearby. Katsepy is ideal for sunbathing, swimming and dining.
Ankarafantsika National Park
Located 71.4 miles (115 kilometres) from Mahajanga in the Boeny Region of Madagascar, Ankarafantsika National Park occupies 333,592 acres (about 135,000 hectares) and consists of patches of thick dry tropical forest interspersed with less dense areas. There are also savannah, scrub and sandy eroded rock areas, and some land is farmed by the indigenous Sakalava people. Highlights include over 800 tree species, many of them endemic to Madagascar, 129 bird species, 10 amphibian species, 44 reptile species, eight lemur species, and the big-footed mouse, known only in the park and its vicinity. The park is also home to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust Centre, which breeds critically endangered tortoises.
Eco Parc Reniala
This beautiful, extremely well-maintained park is home to lemurs, wild boar, ostrich, crocodiles, eagles, snakes, and extensive plantings of trees typical of the region, including large baobabs. The park also rehabilitates injured and abused wildlife.
Tsingy de Bemaraha Reserve
Tsingy de Bemaraha Nature Reserve is located near the western coast of Madagascar in the Melaky region. The area is an UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique geography, preserved mangrove forests, and wild bird and lemur populations. The southern end of the protected area has subsequently been changed into the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, spanning 257 square miles (666 square kilometres). The northern end of the protected area remains a strict nature reserve known as Réserve Naturelle Intégrale, and covers 329 square miles (853 square kilometres).
The Barren Isles (Nosy Barren in Malagasy) are an archipelago located in an area spanning 24.8 miles (40 kilometres) off the west coast of Madagascar, in the Melaky region. The archipelago consists of nine main isles known as Nosy Marify, Manandra, Mboro, Maroantaly, Abohazo, Dondosy, Mangily, Andrano, and Lava.
Baly Bay (Baie de Baly) National Park
Located 93.2 miles (150 kilometres) southwest of Mahajanga on the northwest coast of Madagascar, Baly Bay National Park comprises a total surface of 22.4 square miles (58 square kilometres). It was created in 1997, and identified as an Important Bird Area in 1999. The park is very rich in terms of biodiversity due to its terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including dense dry forests, mangroves, rivers and lakes, white-sand beaches, dunes and impressive coral reefs. The semi-intensive shrimp aquaculture adjoining the protected area has a special economic value in the region. Several Sakavala communities live in small fishermen's villages along the coast. The main attraction of the park is the extremely rare and endangered ploughshare tortoise, which is endemic to the park. Other highlights include 13 mammal and lemur species, 35 reptile species and 120 bird species. Dolphins and dugongs can also be observed swimming in the shallow bay waters.
Located approximately 25 miles (40.2 kilometres) north of Mahajanga Town, Antsanitia is a beautiful fishing village in the Boeny region, and home to exquisite beaches and seashores. The Antsanitia area is home to several varieties of marine animal species, both aquatic and terrestrial. Many types of fish, turtles and shellfish live in the turquoise waters of Antsanitia. Mangroves are the preferred home to a variety of bird and reptile species, along with 30 species of lemurs. Antsanitia also abounds with a variety of palm trees, deciduous trees and baobab trees.
Tsingy de Namoroka Strict Nature Reserve (Namoroka National Park)
Tsingy de Namoroka Strict Nature Reserve, also known as 'Namoroka National Park', is a strict nature reserve located in the northwest part of Madagascar in the Mahajanga Province, specifically, the Soalala District. Namoroka National Park was established in 1927, and became a special reserve in 1966. It forms a complex with the neighbouring Baie de Baly National Park. The park is known for its tsingy walls, caves, canyons and natural pools. Like much of Madagascar, Tsingy de Namoroka is known for its abundant and diverse wildlife. Of its 81 species of birds, 31 are endemic to Madagascar, with 23 other species endemic to Madagascar and other neighbouring islands. Tsingy de Namoroka is also home to over 30 species of reptiles, five types of frogs and 16 mammals, including eight lemur species.
Cultural Events and Festivals
Each year, Mahajanga hosts a variety of cultural and religious festivals. Included are the Fanompoa Be Festival, a New Year's celebration, along with the Semaine Culturelle Koezy, Festival Culturel Sobahya, Festival Maiva, Festival I'Trôtra, Festival Fy-Tsinjaka, and Festival Angonoky.
Mahajanga offers a wonderful array of outdoor activities, including picturesque nature and walking trails at Baly Bay National Park, bird-watching, jungle and rainforest trekking at Baly Bay National Park and the Antrema and Tsingy de Bemaraha nature reserves, wild and protected animal species at the Eco Parc Reniala, off-road 4WD tours, and tennis at the Amborovy Resort, located 5.6 miles (nine kilometres) from the town of Mahajanga. Scenic, fun-filled water-based excursions include sunbathing and beachcombing on the white-sand beaches located to the north and south of Mahajanga, canoeing, kayaking, wind- and kitesurfing, jet- and water-skiing, fishing, boating, sailing, snorkelling, and scuba diving. It is important to note that the caution must be observed whilst swimming or engaging in water-related activities due to the strong current and local shark population along the coast of Mahajanga. Local hotels, tour operators and even bars will provide you with the latest prevailing conditions to determine if it's safe to enter the coastal waterways on any given day.
Private arrangements for independent sightseeing may be requested through the Shore Concierge Office on board the ship.
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