Malawi might be off the beaten track, but it’s worth making the effort to get there. The sea horse-shaped central African country more than delivers – from dazzling fish and lazy cruising to forest hideaways and fine food.
1. Hide in the forest
Before you plunge into the crystal waters of the lake, head up the mountain to Namizimu Forest Retreat, hidden in indigenous forest 30 minutes from Mangochi. Off the grid, with temperamental cell signal and accessed only via a 4×4 (or walking!), Namizimu is a serenely cosy hideout in which to recharge.
Through the treetops are vistas of the southern tip of the Lake Malawi as well as Lake Malombe; the two are connected by the mercury-bright ribbon of the Shire River. The boulder above the house offers even better views (best enjoyed with a gin and tonic in hand, of course).
Enjoy long lunches and hearty dinners at the verandah’s long table – host-owners Tara and Dave’s team can cook for you or you can stay on a self-catering basis. Because bookings are for a minimum of eight bed-nights, linger for a while, or come with a group of friends. The unpretentious rooms in the outbuildings and farmhouse are so comfy and characterful, you’ll be reluctant to leave.
2. Swim with the cichlids
The Lake Malawi National Park is a World Heritage Site and for good reason: it’s home to about 1000 species of cichlids. The best way to get up close to these brightly coloured tropical fish is to don your SCUBA gear and dive, though floating on the surface with snorkel and goggles will do!
Escape the backpacker bustle of Cape Maclear, and head to the verdant Domwe Island, a 5km paddle away. With pre-erected tents as well as sites where you can erect your own, it’s ideal for the more budget conscious traveller. If you’re feeling in the mood for something a little more luxurious, the smaller neighbouring island of Mumbo is just the ticket, with full board and adorable chalets. But the best of all? Combining both in a kayak safari.
3. Cruise like yesteryear
Move over the Darjeeling Limited! If you really want to enjoy the languorous rhythm of the golden age of travel, climb aboard the Ilala ferry at Monkey Bay, which has been plying up and down Lake Malawi since 1951.
Rustic but comfortable, the Ilala’s slow progress allows you to really appreciate the shimmering blue enormity of this almost 600km-long lake. There’s several cabins should you want the privacy, but nothing beats sleeping on the upper deck, and watching as iridescent dawn steals over the water (it’s much cooler up there too!).
4. Feast like a king
Kaya Mawa, on Likoma Island, is hands-down the most luxurious accommodation in Malawi – whitewashed rooms nestling into the hillside, decorated with pops of East African-inspired colour. It also offers some of the finest lodge cuisine you’ll encounter south of the equator. Chef Richard Greenhall conjures up unforgettable culinary memories, such as curried grill chambo (a local fish) with lentils, caramelised carrot and red cabbage – yum!
Kaya Mawa offers lots more than exquisite food, though. There’s a snorkelling set with every room; as well as PADDI-accredited divingand water-skiing. Enjoy a massage in the spa treatment room perched right above the lake, or head out on an exhilaratingly bumpy quad bike tour of Likoma, zooming past friendly villages, giant baobabs, a bustling market; you’ll also get to visit the vast Anglican cathedral – which is apparently the size of Westminster Abbey.
5. Live like (a luxurious) Crusoe
Although it’s just a 45-minute boat ride from Likoma Island, the deliciously remote Nkwichi Lodge, on the lake’s Mozambican shore, feels like it’s at the end of the world. Roomy thatched chalets (most with lake views) lurk discreetly in lush forest bristling with vervet monkeys and birdlife.
While it’s tempting to laze on the dazzling white beach with a book, Nkwichi is the perfect place to let off steam – from snorkelling to stand-up paddling. A half-hour kayak trip will take you to an enormous baobab where the staff will serve you lunch (replete with table cloth and crockery!). You can climb up through the dense foliage to the Lookout Rock for sundowners, admiring views of Likoma island 7km away; on clear days you can see all the way to Tanzania.
For the ultimate romantic experience, ask for the Star Bed to be set up on the beach and be dazzled by the Milky Way overhead as you fall asleep to the soundtrack of the lake’s lapping.
Levies from Nkwichi support the Manda Wilderness Community Trust. In addition to cultural and education initiatives, the trust also works with local communities to conserve the fragile forest ecosystem and enhance farming methods. You can visit its permaculture farm – a 20-minute walk from the lodge.