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The Vanilla Coast

Located in the remote tropical northeast of Madagascar (map), the Vanilla Coast is every bit as exotic as it sounds. Arriving on the twice-weekly flight from Tana (short for Antananarivo, the capital), we caught a whiff of vanilla, clove, and other exotic scents as soon as we were heading into Maroantsetra on the back of a pickup truck. One of the main “towns” on the Vanilla Coast, Maroantsetra is little more than a sleepy village (pop.: 20,000) at the end of what carries the grand-sounding title of Route Nationale 5, but is in fact a dirt road passable only with a 4×4. (More on that here.)

Spending a few days in Maroantsetra, we set out one day on bicycles with Donna, a local guide, in search of a vanilla plantation. Cycling around with him, we stopped at a school ground, which during the summer holidays was used for drying and sorting vanilla. Vanilla is an incredibly labour intensive crop. Not only does it have to be hand pollinated, curing Bourbon vanilla – killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning  it – takes up to 8 months. The drying has to be done extremely carefully: often, the vanilla is left in the sun for only half an hour a day. Leave it out too much, and it’ll end up dry; leave it out too little, and it’ll be prone to getting mouldy.  Finally, once the vanilla is cured, it is graded, with the quality mainly determined by length. (Grade A beans are 15cm and longer.)

Seeing the vanilla processing – and buying a whole bunch – was a promising start, but we had set out to see a vanilla plantation. Following various detours – including a stop at a “frog garden” that is home to the rare tomato frog – we slowly headed out of town, the air full of the heady scent of clove, which was being dried by the roadside everywhere. In a small village on the outskirts, we visited Donna’s family and afterwards were shown green vanilla pods on a plant nearby.