Vakona Lodge, Andasibe, Madagascar
Vakona is the Malagasy name for a Pandanus palm. This lodge is reputedly the best in this area and from the others we saw I think that is the case. The lodge is reached by a dirt road of varying quality over about ten miles so quite a trek, we were in a four wheel drive but there were some normal cars parked at the lodge. The lodge is a long three and a half hour drive from the capital Antananarivo and there is not really a huge choice of places to stop for a break so be prepared with water etc for the trek when you embark on the journey, toilet facilities are also not widely available and those that are available leave a lot to be desired.
We had already booked so we checked in and were told that no credit cards are accepted, only cash either local or Euros which if we had not already known this might have been a problem! We were escorted up to our room, literally up two sets of stairs, by two porters and our guide!
Reception is just a desk in the main lodge building which also houses the dining area, the bar, a sitting area and a shop upstairs. There is also a table tennis table, a pool table and a pile of board games, mainly Scrabble to occupy you if it is raining and you are not out on a wildlife trek. Within this main building you can get free wifi with a code provided by Reception but it is VERY slow and a bit intermittent.
We were very high above the main lodge building so we had a lovely view of the lake, gardens and the main building with the rainforest behind. In front of our room or small house we had a patio area with two seats and a small wooden table carved on top with animals and the name of the Lodge.
As we entered the room the first thing that struck you was the size of the bed which was huge, so huge that in fact it took up most of the room. It was actually two 3 foot singles made up as a large double but we did have a small table either side of the bed with a drawer and a shelf. Over the bed was a mosquito net which pulled back into four corners by ties during the day, giving the impression of a canopy four poster type bed.
Beside the bed in the main part of the room we had a wooden armchair and a wooden table case stand. Apart from the main section of the room there was a small side part which had a wooden wardrobe (coded safe inside) and a table with a kettle, tea, cocoa and sweeteners but no milk or sugar. There was also a small fridge with mini bar offering soft drinks and beer at prices the same as at the main lodge and not expensive at all.
Just off this side part of the room was the bathroom with a shower, basin and toilet and a wooden stand for your bits and pieces. The shower was clean, everything worked and the water was lovely and hot. I was joined one day by a large caterpillar like creature trying to get of the wooden boarded part of the shower but in the end I think he drowned. Had I known he was harmless I might have helped him but I wasn't sure so I just kept a wary eye on his efforts and avoided contact. There was a shower gel on the wall and a nice lemon scented soap which rather bizarrely they replaced the day before we left with a new one. There were plenty of towels, a little on the thin side but a decent size and they did the job.
From the side part of the room was a spiral staircase leading to an attic room with two single beds and a chair so a family could have stayed in the room together.
Our only complaint about the room was that the windows were very dark wooden with small panes the room was dark most of the time unless we left the door open. If we wanted to read in the day we sat outside. At night with the reading lights on in bed it was okay but not great.
FOOD AT THE LODGE
Breakfast was included in the tariff. This was a sort of buffet affair. The waitress brought you the juice of the day, no choice. They also brought you tea which was watery and very weak or coffee which was French style and very strong. They then asked if you wanted eggs and how you wanted them. If you asked for scrambled you got a big pile of scrambled eggs on a plate, fried was just two fried eggs on a plate. In a basket on your table you were brought a few slices of toast, a few chunks of toasted French bread and a couple of croissants. Also already on the table was a small dish of local honey, a small pot of jam which changed daily and a tiny dish of butter.
The buffet part was a fruit salad and a choice of about three cereals so not really a huge buffet at all. It wasn't great but it did the job and was filling and more than we would have at home anyway.
On our first day we were going to be out until after the official lunch was over which was 2 o' clock so our guide suggested we got a packed lunch. They were quite happy and it was ready for us to taje with us the next day in a plastic bag. The lunch for the two of us was two bottles of water, four boiled eggs, and two half French sticks with ham, cheese and tomato. I am not keen on eggs and so we gave them to our guide, the driver and the local guide. The sandwich would have been plenty and was actually quite tasty. There were also two of the 'pipiest' oranges I have ever come across.
The next day we were back for lunch and the menu we were handed was exactly the same as the one for dinner. Salads were on offer but I tend to steer clear of those when in countries where hygiene may not be that great. We decided to try two Malagasy dishes, mine was a pork and cassava leaf dish served with rice and my husband's was a very interesting dish of fried shredded beef and ginger with a sort of soup also served with local rice which is quite a sticky rice. Mine was nice but rather over salted so i couldn't finish it but my husband's was very tasty so in fact I had it for dinner that night.
The same menu was brought out for lunch and dinner. The first night we chose a veal curry with almonds which was quite nice but not spicy at all and after a while became a bit too much, I could have had half the portion with a second accompaniment. Each dish had the same accompaniment, fried vegetables, chips or rice .On the second night we both opted for Zebu steak again with chips or fried vegetables or rice. It was very tasty, generous portions and well cooked. By the third night we were running out of things we like the sound of, I am afraid I don't eat spaghetti bolognaise when in Africa and sea food when far from the sea, the chickens around the place looked scraggy and so I wasn't going to risk that so my husband went back to zebu steak and I had the dish he had for lunch. I think three nights and you will have exhausted the options here so they obviously cater for short term visitors likeus and I think most people do only stay a couple of nights so they are quite safe not changing the rather limited menu.
They are really beautiful full of lovely tropical plants and the lodge nestles in the lowest part of these grounds with its feet in the large lake so reflecting the lights on the water at night and this looks really very charming.
You do have to be fit to stay here as there are steps everywhere from the main lodge building. All the rooms are up stairs as is the large swimming pool. It was too chilly to swim so no one was using the pool or sitting around on the sun beds. This is a rainforest area so it rains most days so I am not sure how much use the pool gets.
As we walked around the grounds we came across a children's play area and there were local children playing on it so presumably they were children from the staff of the lodge or the local village.
Within the lodge grounds is a group of islands which are a sanctuary or zoo of lemurs. One island te lemurs are compete used to people so they leap on you and you can have you photo take with a lemur on your shoulder. There other two islands they are not used to people but you can take a boat trip around to see them in the trees.
This place is part of the lodge but you do have to pay extra to go in to see them even if you are staying at the lodge. I believe the price was about $10 US per person but my husband is a bit anti zoos and places where they import animals as he prefers the challenge of seeing them in the wild so we didn't go.
I did see photos taken by a Swiss man I got chatting to as he was putting his photos on line on his i pad. They were lovely photos and the lemurs were on his wife's shoulder but I think it is up to your own choice whether you want that experience or the challenge of seeing them in the wild. You can of course do both here should you choose.
NOT SO GREAT
Our guide and driver were lovely people and such great company. They picked us up at the airport and stayed with us all the time we were in Andasibe and then brought us back to Antananarivo for the night, collected us and brought us to the airport for our flight the next day. You are very unlikely to go to Vakona without a guide and driver so therefore accommodation should be provided with a room for these people for every room at the lodge. Our guide and driver had to sleep in a car one night as when they got to their allocated room someone else was in there. The other option is for them to drive about twenty miles back to the nearest town and stay there which gives them very long drives back and from the lodge our two did this on the other nights which made the day very long for them. I felt this was very poor of the lodge as they do only provide them pretty basic rooms with. T bunks and it really costs them nothing. I shall be writing a letter to the lodge via our tour company to tell them how poor I think this is.
The waiting on staff were very pleasant and smiled as they brought food and drinks and the kitchen staff were obliging making packed lunches and allowing you to come in at 8.45 pm for dinner provided you pre ordered your meal before you went out for your night hike.
The staff at the Reception were very hit and miss. Some smiled and were pleasant while others were quite surly and verging on rude. On checking out the man at the desk almost threw our chits at my husband, took the money but no eye contact or ' Did you enjoy your stay' 'Have a safe journey' etc and that costs nothing and just leaves you with a slightly 'hmm' feeling as you leave which is not really what should happen.
I believe our room cost about 60 Euros a night for the two of us which was very good value. The food prices were also good as main meals cost about $5 or £6 each and a large bottle of local beer was £1.50 which was really excellent value. I have converted the food as it was in Malagasy Ariary but the room cost was in Euros and you can work that out re conversion as it varies.
WOULD I RECOMMEND?
Well this is the best there is so yes. The rooms were comfortable, there was hot water and electricity, the food was good and cheap though a limited menu if staying any length of time. The service was hit and miss though we didn't come across any surly waiting staff, just the grump Reception staff.
The lads who carry your luggage up and down from the room do expect a tip and I believe we gave then $1 US as we had no Ariary or Euro small change and they seemed quite happy. You are expected to tip everyone in Madagascar and this added about £200 to our trip by the end with guides, local guides, drivers and porters. You can't avoid the porters as they wait and pounce on you if you try to carry your own luggage so you just have to accept it.
Once again I struggled with the star rating, 5 star setting, but the negatives pulled it down for me to a three star so I have chosen four stars to be fair.
Thanks for reading. Hope this might be useful to someone heading this way. This review may be posted on other site under my same user name.
Vakona Forest Lodge is located close to the national park in its own small reserve. The lodge offers simple clean rooms with en-suite facilities and showers. The food is good and mainly French in style and the restaurant area has an outdoor terrace surrounded by a small lake.