When it comes to pirate lore, few places can equal the tales told of the infamous Ile Sainte-Marie, an island off Madagascar's remote east coast.
In the 17th and 18th centuries up to 1,000 pirates reportedly called the rocky island home, including widely-feared brigands William Kidd and Thomas Tew. Thanks to its safe and secluded bays and location on the trade routes frequented by treasure-laden ships returning home from the East Indies, Sainte-Marie (known locally as Nosy Boraha or St. Mary's Island in English) afforded the perfect spot for shifty sailors looking for booty and a friendly place to live with like-minded looters.
With so many pirates abiding on the island, some even raising families at the time, it's no wonder Sainte-Marie claims to have what may be the world's only legitimate pirate cemetery, a must-see for anyone braving all the hours required to get there.
Atop a verdant hill and overlooking a deep inlet once used by the same pirates who supposedly rest six feet below, visitors can walk among crumbling headstones and swaying sailor palms. Cyclones and centuries have worn away many of the well-aged engravings on the stone markers. But clearly visible on one grave, among wrought iron crosses and knee-high grass, there remains the clear outline of an almost childlike carving of a skull and cross bones.
Is it authentic? Everyone on the island, including government tourism officials, naturally claim it is.
And with so many pirate legends floating around Sainte-Marie, it's easy to believe.
For my wife and I during a recent visit, it didn't really matter. Sipping a locally-made rum we'd plundered (err, purchased) from a store back in town, we sat alone among the centuries-old headstones as the sun set, imagining what life must have been like way back then. Dead pirates or not, this cemetery is a place you can't miss next time you're in Madagascar.
The remains of what may be the world's only legitimate pirate cemetery still serve as an eerie place to visit on Ile Sainte-Marie, a slender island some 30 miles off the east coast of Madagascar.
The skull and crossbones carved into the grave stone above marks the final resting place of what islanders say is one of many pirates buried here.
An aging, hand-painted sign points out the route to the graveyard.
Getting to the cemetery is not for the faint of heart--it's also a trip best undertaken at low tide. Above, the author "walks the plank" across a fast-flowing inlet to reach the overgrown trail head leading up a hill to the graveyard.
With engravings that reveal burial years from as far back as the 1700s, many of the headstones are showing their age.
The cemetery offers tranquil views across the nearby bay and the Indian Ocean beyond.
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