There's a mash-up happening in front of my eyes: Jane Austen meets National Geographic. The couple enjoying afternoon tea on the lawn, clad in white linen, nibbling on sandwiches, could be Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. The intruders capering nearby, however, are something else entirely.
Their limbs are long and agile, like monkeys', but with thick white-and-brown fur and large eyes, they look more like stuffed toys come to life. They are lemurs, a peculiar animal found only on the island of Madagascar. And, it seems, they're as enchanted by the tea drinkers as the tea drinkers are by them.
It's an odd scene, but then, Madagascar is an odd place. This surprisingly large island – more than four times the size of England – floats on its own in the Indian Ocean, 400 kilometres east of Africa.
Natural wonder … a limestone outcrop worn away by the tides in Moromba Bay, near Anjajavy. Photo: Corbis
Madagascar broke away from the ancient Gondwana landmass (which also included Africa, Australia, South America and South Asia) 80 million years ago. Confined to the island, Madagascar's plants and animals evolved in surprising ways – 90 per cent of its flora and fauna are found nowhere else on earth.
Take a stroll through any stretch of forest and you're bound to spot some typical locals: maybe one of the seven species of the massive baobab tree, or the 100 species of chameleon, or even the giant hairy crabs. There's the endangered fossa, a catlike predator that hunts its prey through the trees. Then there is the fossa's favourite food – the lemur, Madagascar's most famous animal.
Lemurs used to dominate this island: a bewildering array of species once swung through the jungles, including one terrifying gorilla-sized specimen. Today, more than 100 species and subspecies still exist. The white-and-brown specimens doing a teatime dance on the lawn are sifakas. There are also panda-patterned indris, the largest surviving lemurs, and the beautiful diademed sifaka lemurs, with thick, champagne-coloured fur. Or there's the tiny nocturnal dwarf lemurs; curled up asleep on the branch of a shrub, they're so small they are easily mistaken for a tropical flower.
There is much to explore in Madagascar, and many ways to go about it. You can take a leisurely approach, relaxing at one of the resorts in the island's tropical north, such as Anjajavy, where wild lemurs drop in during afternoon tea. Set on a white-sand beach surround by 550 hectares of forest, Anjajavy offers a deluxe wilderness experience. The 25 rosewood villas are luxurious and the meals are superb, as you'd expect in a former French colony.
Those interested in something more adventurous are also spoiled for choice, with Madagascar's diverse terrain ranging from the forests, grasslands and lakes of the west to the desert of the south. Popular activities include canoeing down the Tsiribihina River in the centre of the island, past scenic gorges and cascading waterfalls, or hiking through or climbing the dramatic pinnacles of the nearby Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.
Whichever way you choose to play it, schedule a day or two in the island's quirky capital Antananarivo, commonly shortened to Tana. This hilly town changes character depending on how high you're willing to climb. The Lower Town is typically African, its sprawling markets filled with baskets of lychees and bananas, tomatoes and shallots, powdered spices and vanilla beans. Here, the only signs of the country's French colonial past are the taxi fleet – a collection of vintage Renaults, Peugeots and Citroën 2CVs – and the somewhat bizarre sight of strolling vendors offering soft cheeses for sale.
Tana's Middle Town, however, has a much more colonial flavour. In cobbled streets lined with shady trees, you'll find intimate bistros offering classic French fare, from steak frites to foie gras. And with superb dinners on offer for less than 20 euros ($25), you'll definitely be coming back for seconds.
TIPS FOR YOUR TRIP
South African Airways flies from Sydney and Perth via Johannesburg (flysaa.com.au). Return economy fares start at $2818 from Sydney and $2678 from Perth. Air Mauritius (airmauritius.com) flies to Madagascar out of Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Return fares start at $1850 ex Sydney and Melbourne, $1750 ex Perth.
Where to stay
La Varangue (tana-hotel.com) is a tranquil haven in Antananarivo with pretty rooms and a superb restaurant. Enjoy elegant villas and lemur spotting in the 550-hectare nature reserve at Anjajavy (anjajavy.com). Set on its own private island, Constance Lodge Tsarabanjina (tsarabanjina.constancehotels.com)offers a laid-back beach getaway.
What to wear
Casual clothes that suit the warm climate, and a good pair of walking shoes.
What to drink
One of the island's more unusual drinks is litchel, made with lychees. It's usually served as an aperitif.
Hello. Manahoana e.
Thank you. Misaotra.
How much is it? Ohatrinona ity e?
Hearing a tribe of rare indri lemurs sing – a sound that veers between haunting and raucous.
Eating a three-course French meal in an Antananarivo bistro for a fraction of the price you'd pay in Paris.
Madagascar grows tasty vanilla, so pick up a jar of dried pods. At the markets, you'll also find fossils and stones such as jasper and amethyst.
The Aye-Aye and I by naturalist Gerald Durrell.
Go to madagascar-tourisme.com.