Kitesurfing nirvana in Miavana – Financial Times

Ahead of me, the mountains of mainland Madagascar turn purple in the evening light. The wind whips up, filling my kite, driving me fast through the cresting waves. For me kitesurfing is freedom. For more than 10 years I’ve been hooked; it’s been a catalyst to travel, to follow the wind to new places. Here, off the coast of Africa, I’ve found a destination of intense colour and nature, which few other people reach.

The Varatraza trade winds blow strong and pure across Madagascar, buffeting the eastern flank from mid-March to November; for centuries they carried early settlers from Indonesia, along with their cargoes of vanilla. One of a cluster of islands off Madagascar’s north-east coast, Nosy Ankao might have been drawn by a kitesurfer: a circle of reef protects it from the deep swell coming across the Indian Ocean; the windy side is formed into a wide, round bay, a crescent sand spit bounding brilliant water. 

The main pool at Miavana
The main pool at Miavana © Vivek Vadoliya

I set up late afternoon, and ride out into the bay, my body leaning back against the pull of the kite, my hair dipping in the water. I move upwind, tracing the shore in glorious long tacks. As I pass, pallid ghost crabs run away along the sand, seeking refuge under bleached driftwood. Above me, the first stars are appearing. It’s total flow: exploring this new arena, testing the wind.

In 2017, financier Thierry Dalais co-founded Miavana on Nosy Ankao. An ultra-luxury private resort encompassing the island’s 10sq km, Miavana’s 14 beachfront villas are tucked into its sheltered lee. It’s hard not to draw a line from the storied North Island resort in the Seychelles, of which he was part-owner. Built with local woods and pale-cream stone, dressed in fabrics whose hues are picked out of the ocean, it’s a faultless backdrop from which to venture into the wild winds of Madagascar. This month the resort will open a seriously well-appointed kite centre, with a panoply of F-One branded equipment. I’ve come to play.

Sunrise on Turtle Bay
Sunrise on Turtle Bay © Vivek Vadoliya

How to describe kitesurfing? It’s a sort of marriage between windsurfing and wakeboarding: you move the kite to generate power (so no heavy mast or engines). As a woman, I find it appealing because strength is less relevant to riding well than technique (it’s also notable as an adrenaline sport where the female pros earn the same prize money as the men). The experience is also recollective of skiing (but with no need for mountains); as I ride out of the sheltered bay and work my board through more choppy surf, it’s like switching from the rush of a downhill descent to the bumps of a mogul field.

While I’ve travelled to many kitesurfing beaches alone, my gear tossed in the back of a rental car, in this distant place I’m glad to be in company. Jonhson, Miavana’s senior guide, is a trove of knowledge and good humour. Still, I’m mindful we’re traversing a place where ships have been wrecked, where divers seeking wrasse and rays come up with sunken bullion.

The author kite-surfing in Turtle Bay
The author kite-surfing in Turtle Bay © Vivek Vadoliya

I set out with Jonhson early the next day toward the nearby island of Nosy Manampaho. To tack upwind through the currents, I drive my legs hard to edge my board. It’s a demanding but exciting way to explore the archipelago. Here, the waves are breaking on the reef, a neat spot for riding; there, I see the glint of fish – giant trevally – swimming beneath me. I land on Manampaho’s picture-postcard sand with a feeling of victory.

Even from the beach, the thick chatter coming from inland is audible. We walk up and over a small ridge to find a colony of some 70,000 terns. The nesting birds call to their partners, who dart through the air; they move together like a tremendous shoal of fish, black on their backs, their white undersides catching the sun. “After fledging, these birds spend two years on the wing,” Jonhson explains. “They don’t land again before returning here to breed.”

On my way back I nearly stand, barefoot, on a snake. “Pencil snake. Endemic to Madagascar,” Jonhson informs me. “Won’t hurt you.” Simply being here is a safari: after breaking free from the supercontinent Gondwana 180 million years ago, Madagascar evolved a unique ecosystem; today 90 per cent of its species are found nowhere else on the planet. 

The trip downwind is easier, and faster. The terns diving between us, we ride in great swooping arcs, lit with exhilaration. Back at Nosy Ankao, we pop into the local fishing village for a Madagascan THB beer (the village enjoys good relations with Miavana, which funds and operates health and education programmes for its community). Crowned lemurs bark in the trees, watching us with amber eyes. A group of small boys play pétanque.

Travelling across the mainland along Réserve Spéciale d’Ankarana
Travelling across the mainland along Réserve Spéciale d’Ankarana © Vivek Vadoliya

There have been many turns in the path that brought me to kitesurfing in this elemental place. While it demands resilience, kitesurfing isn’t a difficult sport. Over the years the equipment has evolved, making it safer than it may look.

But the initial phase, while you figure out how to position your kite, can be brutal. My first lessons were in Bahía Salinas, a remote bay in Costa Rica; I’d been inspired by two kiters gliding across its reach – the pair racing one another, trailed by a frigate bird. Bahía Salinas is fabled for its winds; they rise on Lake Nicaragua and funnel through the Cordillera Central to blow, steady and powerful, across the bay. While conditions were perfect, communications were not; I could make little sense of my instructor’s thick Spanish accent. When you’re attached to a 10m kite, misunderstandings hurt. 

Bruised but intrigued, I tried again in Poole Harbour, Dorset, whose glassy water makes it ideal for a novice. My instructor was no obvious feminist: “No babe. No babe! Can’t you understand? You’re doing it all wrong…” Sadly I didn’t have the chance to disabuse him; the breeze failed, and we were becalmed. My breakthrough came with an instructor in Prea, a former fishing village in northern Brazil, whose long, shallow beach is now a magnet for kitesurfers. She was no-nonsense. But if her tuition was direct, her kiting was fluid and balletic: she showed me how to harness the kite’s power with grace and skill, rather than try to muscle it into submission (her maxim, “Don’t fight the kite”, has become a life mantra). After a couple of lessons, with a walkie-talkie tied to my helmet, I was at last able to ride up and downwind – and ready to try jumps.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about kitesurfing is how high it can take you: a jump might soar five or 10m, enabling a host of aerial tricks: rotations, inversions, flips. Inevitably, this brings a whole new learning curve. I have a gift for losing my board. To find it requires “body dragging”, in which you fly a kite with your body semi-submerged – a makeshift rudder. It’s a fantastic way to swallow saltwater. But there is a kinship out there: some kind stranger has often saved me deus ex machina, returning the board in a flourish of glittering spray.

The view from the Piazza at Miavana, looking north
The view from the Piazza at Miavana, looking north © Vivek Vadoliya

The scene is equally welcoming, and communal. If kitesurfing fosters grit, it also brings camaraderie. Over the years I’ve done it in all sorts of settings, from cheap resorts in Kenya to tents in Morocco, overwater bungalows in Polynesia to beachside cabins in Scotland. While I’ve often travelled by myself, I’ve seldom felt out of place or uneasy as a solo female (perhaps once, walking home late from the boombox beach bars outside Paje on Zanzibar, but that was nothing to do with the excellent kiting). The community is open to newcomers: there is no fight over a line-up or precise patch, as you have with surfing; and unlike with skiing, novices and experts can happily ride in the same stretch.

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“I came from a sailing background, where it’s competitive both on and off the water,” says Ellie Aldridge, selected to compete at Paris 2024 Olympics in kite-foiling. “It surprised me how welcoming everyone is.” While Aldridge’s UK favourites are Portland Harbour and Poole Harbour, where she started out, she learnt to foil at La Ventana, in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. “These experts who were winning the tour would come over and ride with me, afterwards giving tips and hanging out – just happy to share their sport.” 

While the most fêted arenas – like Tarifa in Spain, Essaouira in Morocco, and Cabarete in the Dominican Republic – throng with hundreds of kites, increasingly even more far-flung destinations have become busy. Seeking a rawer experience can be a commitment; with a GDP lower than Yemen and scant infrastructure, Madagascar is not for the faint-hearted. Though Miavana – where breakfast looks like rock lobster omelette and dinner a zebu fillet; where an evening dip might be accompanied by a fresh, shaken Malagasy Rum Mojito; where the villas measure in the thousands of square metres, all their pristine surfaces gleaming – exists at a huge and very cushioned remove. Some of its great cost may be justified by the layers of safety (support vessels and trained medics are rare at these remote coordinates), and by the health and education outreach programmes carried out in the area by the Time + Tide Foundation (the philanthropic arm of the Time + Tide company). But it remains an eye-watering indulgence: one for the extremely wealthy, or else a chunky, once in a lifetime experience.

The author on Kite Beach
The author on Kite Beach © Vivek Vadoliya

To the north of Nosy Ankao there’s a stretch of coastline that has barely been touched. Here and there a few pioneering, kite-friendly lodges have opened, which can be reached by 4×4 or a fishing boat. Notable among them is Sakalava Lodge, a set of solar-powered thatched huts run by Gregory Quignon Fleuret, a passionate kitesurfer. 

The grail of this area, of which I’ve long heard spoken reverently, is the Emerald Sea, a 12km lagoon whose shallow sand makes for water of the palest, glimmering green. It’s stunning. It’s also a spectacular playground for a more experienced kitesurfer: more exposed, miles from anywhere, with reef breaks for jumping and a sheltered corner so smooth it’s locally known as La Piscine. 

As well as from Miavana, you could reach the Emerald Sea on a boat, for example from Sakalava. Whatever your means of transport, visitors are few; there’s a decent chance you’ll have it all to yourself. I kite until I can barely stand up, but the day has more in store. On the horizon Jonhson points out humpback whales breaching and, moments later, a pod of spinner dolphins. Then the band of a double rainbow, twin arcs that are psychedelically bright. I would not have come here were it not for the Varatraza winds. Once again, I’m grateful to have followed the kite. 

Rebecca Newman travelled as a guest of Scott Dunn, which plans week-long trips to Madagascar, staying at Miavana by Time + Tide, from £30,420 per person full-board, including return flights to the UK, private helicopter transfers and selected activities. Miavana by Time + Tide, from $3,700 per person per night plus $300 conservation fee. Sakalava Lodge, from €173 per person per night or €520 for three days

Four more kitesurfing meccas

Valdevaqueros, Tarifa

© Getty Images

The winds bathing the Spanish town of Tarifa make it one of the world’s leading kite destinations. There are plenty of beaches to choose from; Valdevaqueros is a long sandy stretch with an array of kite schools. Stay at the nearby Hotel Hurricane, fronting the beach, but with tropical gardens (and Andalusian horses, a Finnish sauna and views across to Morocco). From €131;

Poole Harbour, UK 

Europe’s largest natural harbour, Poole’s glassy, waist-deep water is locally known as “the pond”, and is a great place to learn. Head into the deeper reaches around Brownsea Island for waves, or perhaps a downwinder. Stay at The Pig on the Beach, which is just round the headland. From £255 for two;

Bahía Salinas, Costa Rica 

On the north Pacific coast of Costa Rica, close to the Nicaragua border, the bay at Bahía Salinas is gifted with steady, strong winds and warm water; it’s undeveloped, with most visitors here to kite (and plenty of sea turtles). Stay at the Blue Dream Hotel, run by Italian kiter Nicola Bertoldi, just up the track. Come for very simple rooms and a highly convivial atmosphere. From £36;

Essaouira, Morocco 

The same trade winds that brought Phoenician sailors to the Moroccan Atlantic port city now bring kitesurfers; the half-moon-shaped beach at Essaouira Bay slopes with shallow sand and a wide expanse of flat water. With the beach a 10-minute walk from the medina, there’s any number of places to stay: Atlas Essaouira & Spa overlooks the shorefront so is a popular kiter choice, while Riad Villa Maroc, at the edge of the souk, has charming, pretty rooms and an excellent spa. From £71,, and from £108,

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