My challenge to the travel agent was a steep one: satisfy my wife's desire for a romantic seaside holiday and my yearning to see Madagascar's exotic wildlife - without having to traipse from place to place or leave the children behind in Joburg for more than a few days. In other words, give me lemurs on the beach.

By the third day of our visit, my requirements had been fully met. From the veranda of our chalet I could see my wife absorbing the tropical sun, waves massaging the beach behind her. To my right, a souimanga sunbird put the finishing touches to her well-camouflaged nest of spider silk, grass and leaves. Above my head, a crested drongo chattered incessantly.

And straight ahead, a troop of Coquerel's sifaka lemurs, wearing improbably fluffy white coats for the balmy climate, lounged on limbs and munched on leaves in a koropoka tree. Revived by a meal and a nap, they bounded from trunk to trunk until they reached the palms at the fringe of the beach.

Then, as if fulfilling a prophecy, the lemurs hopped, kangaroo-style, onto the sand itself.

When first presented with my lemurs-on-the-beach challenge, Janet McCloughan of Unusual Destinations had explained that most beach bums head for Nosy Be or its outlying islands, while bird-watchers and lemur-lovers hike in the national parks, many of them in rainforests.

Experiencing the best of both would mean a trip of at least a week, preferably two, criss-crossing Madagascar. Just one place might suffice as a compromise between beach and bush - a north-western coastal resort with its own forest reserve called Anjajavy.

Within minutes of arriving at Anjajavy, we knew that there would be no compromising whatsoever. Riding from the airstrip to the hotel seated on padded benches in the back of a bakkie, we wound our way through the 450ha reserve, past bottle-shaped baobabs - Madagascar has six of its own baobab species - and huge greater vasa parrots whistling from the forest canopy. Bird calls sounded from every direction. We spotted sifaka lemurs draped in the trees.

Nor would my wife have to compromise on her desire for seaside luxury. Part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux group, Anjajavy pampered us from the first welcoming cocktail in a sugar-rimmed glass to the final wave goodbye.

We found our spacious, thatch-roofed chalet sprinkled with bougainvillea and frangipani blossoms, brightening the interior of dark rosewood.

The sea-facing deck featured an inviting hammock.

Mostly we declined the invitation to lounge there, however, because Anjajavy is bursting with so many things to do. Aside from floating in the bathwater-warm Mozambique Channel, a full schedule of morning, afternoon and evening walks saved us from such slothful temptations.

Most of our organised walks meandered through the forest reserve, where Radolalaina Patrick ("Rado" for short) expertly tracked down the shyer creatures.

Brown lemurs eluded us for a couple of hours, but our patience was rewarded when Rado eyed a pair high in a tamarind tree, munching on flowers, their half- metre tails dangling.

Not long afterwards, a family of these primates had us dashing down the trail to keep up as they leapt through the canopy.

Rado told us that we might be able to see six of Madagascar's nearly 100 lemur species. To tick the others, we volunteered for a night walk.

With some determined clambering through the undergrowth, Rado and his torch found us Milne-Edwards' sportive lemur, the fat-tailed dwarf lemur and mouse lemurs. Their compact bodies, owl-like eyes and habit of bouncing from branch to branch reminded us that Madagascar's lemurs and Africa's bushbabies are thought to share common ancestors.

The birds in the reserve range from the almost-familiar - any Kruger Park regular would recognise the Madagascar green pigeon or the Madagascar coucal - to the truly bizarre. Sickle-billed vangas look like sunbirds on steroids, but we heard them crying like babies from the tops of the trees.

The two coua species we saw resembled grey loeries sporting fleshy masks in garish shades of blue.

Although we made some use of our Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands, this was truly Bird-Watching for Dummies. Having evolved with fewer mammalian predators, Madagascar's birds are more approachable than their mainland cousins - and much easier to identify.

In South Africa, dedicated twitchers will spend ages debating whether the tail feathers of the nightjar caught in the spotlight are edged in white or buff. At Anjajavy, when we came upon a mother nightjar and her two fledglings resting on the path in the mid-afternoon, we had delight, but no debate. They could only be Madagascar nightjars.

Over the course of our three-day stay, we saw 40 bird species, 35 of which are endemic to Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands.

One member of a nature tour group we met, who had been slogging through muddy Madagascar rainforests for two weeks, admitted that she saw just as many creatures at Anjajavy, and with far more creature comforts.

We did not even have to leave the hotel's manicured grounds - and some couples never did - to sample Madagascar's exotic fauna.

On the lawn near the reception, I witnessed a long and bloody battle between two collared iguanid lizards worthy of a David Attenborough documentary.

More tranquil sightings included the brilliant crimson fodies, which flitted among the gardens' flowering bushes, and the Madagascar malachite kingfisher, which took up his regular posting at the Oasis pond.

The shady Oasis, framed by regal ravenala palms fanning their giant leaves, is the site of afternoon tea. The sifakas are regular guests, watching from above, just to be social. Pink-eyed sakalava weavers gleaned any crumbs that fell to the grass from our cakes and shortbread, while the iguanids tried to chase them off.

Lest anyone get too relaxed during tea, a Malagasy giant hognose snake put in an appearance at one tea time.

Other meals were also taken in the open air, on a long, sea-facing deck. All dining, including three-course lunches and dinners, is covered by Anjajavy's all-inclusive, but pricey, tariff.

The chef spoiled us with such delicacies as aubergine gateau and lobster crumbs drizzled with a saffron sauce and fresh tropical fruit with white-wine sabayon.

Fish, vegetables and fruit are sourced locally, while the supply boat carrying non-perishables from Antananarivo arrives just once a month. This may help explain why the prices for Cape wines were hard for any South African to swallow.

Between courses, sifaka lemurs provided entertainment, hanging out - and sometimes upside-down - at the fringe of the forest.

Flocks of grey-headed lovebirds combed the lawns under the shade of coconut palms. In the distance, past the swimming pool and the beach, white-sailed dhows angled across a blue horizon.

The heat of the afternoon called for a less ambitious agenda - napping in the hammock or floating lazily on the buoyant, salty waters of the Mozambique Channel.

The main beach never had more than a few people on it, but for the ultimate in privacy we once headed down the Crique en Crique (Cove to Cove) trail to explore Anjajavy's five secluded beaches. Along the sand forest path, a pair of Madagascar lesser cuckoos courted with their romantic duet.

At the cliff above the first beach, a Madagascar buzzard signalled that we should buzz off from his beach by diving in our direction. Further down the trail, we settled on the third strand. The only occupants were a pair of Madagascar pratincoles perched on a limestone outcrop rising from the shallow waters. Otherwise, we had this strip of sand and sea, large enough to accommodate two busloads of holidaymakers, to ourselves for as long as we chose to stay.

In the remote bliss of a world without calendars, telephones, newspapers or television, we quickly lost track of days. But the staff reminded us that Sunday was approaching - market day in the nearby village of Anjajavy.

Ten guests accepted the offer to take a boat ride to visit this fishing community. Set on the beach, the entire village seemed to be made from palm leaves.

Nets and laundry were hung out to dry on racks and walls, and the residents clearly took an interest in beautifying their homesteads, with annuals blooming in the sand and hanging planters made from tin cans.

People from the surrounding areas had converged under a shaded courtyard to buy and sell anything from soap to shallots.

We were neither ignored nor inundated, but made to feel welcome in the relaxed Malagasy style. When invited, children did gather to see their images glowing on the back of our digital cameras, to their endless amusement. Several ladies had embroidery to sell, and although we felt no pressure we could not resist bringing home a tablecloth charmingly decorated with baobabs.

A teacher opened the school to show us her classrooms with pride. No school existed here before the resort opened in 2001, and we were sorry that we missed the e-mail suggesting that we bring donations of stationery.

Most of the staff at the hotel come from its two neighbouring villages. With 95 employees looking after a maximum of 50 guests, no effort is spared to make Anjajavy a paradise of comfort. Early one morning, I spotted a couple of men grooming the beach and burying twigs and seaweed that had washed up the night before.

My only criticism is that for an ecotourism destination, the hotel management seemed blithely uninterested in energy and water conservation.

Despite the fact that Anjajavy relies entirely on generators burning imported diesel, electricity was squandered on air-conditioning fixed at frigid temperatures and spotlights illuminating palm trees throughout the night.

Compared to the gold-standard in ecotourism resorts, Tanzania's Chumbe Island with its solar-heated, rainwater showers, Anjajavy is a rather pale shade of green. (The hotel's management says that energy-efficiency efforts, such as low-wattage lights, are now under way.)

The reserve, however, was lush and verdant when we visited in November, early in the rainy season. Our timing was fortunate, as the deciduous forest had burst out of the brown patina it wears through the winter months, and love was in the air. Birds were frantically building nests and calling for mates, with the exception of a Madagascar bulbul who was already sitting tight on her eggs. I also spied a pair of Madagascar coucals mating.

Anjajavy closes for the heavy rains from the end of January to the beginning of March but we never felt more than a light sprinkle.

Nothing at Anjajavy could dampen our mood except the thought of leaving. All too soon we were flying back to Antananarivo, via Nosy Be. On the final leg, I sat next to a British retiree who had just spent a week on that island, famous for its beaches and plantations but not for its wildlife.

He had been thrilled with his single bird sighting, a kingfisher, and asked to borrow my field guide.

I could see the brilliance of his kingfisher fade in his mind's eye to a muted grey as he looked at my notes on the 40 birds I saw.

Then, as he stared at photos of dangling lemurs and nesting birds on my laptop screen, his face sunk in the realisation that he had only experienced half a Madagascar holiday. We had enjoyed the best of both worlds.

  • Author's accommodation was paid for by Anjajavy.