Suzan Crane explores idyllic beach resorts along East Africa’s serene Lake Malawi.
There are few places left on Earth that remain serene and untouched — synced with nature and rich in local culture allowing us to disconnect from the world as we know it. The coast of Lake Malawi is one such place. And as any discriminating traveler knows, the thrill of unearthing such a halcyon destination is unrivaled. Here I share several discoveries — from organically opulent to charmingly rustic — along the unspoiled and less visited northern coast of Lake Malawi (aka Lake Nyasa), the aquatic centerpiece of the small East African nation of Malawi.
Book-ended by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, Malawi is an undiscovered gem amongst Africa’s more crowded holiday stalwarts. Not yet sullied by mass tourism, the country’s reputation as “the warm heart of Africa” is no misnomer. Defined by affable locals and relative stability since attaining democracy in 1994, Malawi’s striking scenic diversity encompasses sprawling plateaus and towering mountains, verdant tea plantations, forested rivers, and dense bush. But the centerpiece of this geographic splendor is the country’s spectacular Great Rift Valley fresh water lake — Africa’s third largest as well as the world’s ninth biggest “inland sea.”
Anchored in the northeast corner of the imposing white-capped lake, Likoma Island is a pristine haven ringed by sandy beaches and vaulting sea-borne rock sculptures. Home to one of Africa’s grandest churches, the Anglican Cathedral of St. Peter, Likoma is densely populated (about 10,000 indigenous people scattered in 11 settlements) but nary a curio shop exists and visitors are amiably embraced.
Perched on Likoma’s remote shores, the earthy elegance of Kaya Mawa Beach Resort beckons the intrepid upscale traveler. Cited by Conde Nast Traveler as among the world’s “Top Ten Most Romantic Destinations,” a solo visitor can similarly relish in the bucolic surroundings, solicitous service and superb cuisine proffered by Chef Richard, a Jamie Oliver protégée. Families capping off a safari holiday also find plenty of sea-faring activities to keep kids busy, while bicycles, quad and guided excursions afford opportunities for land exploration.
My Kaya Mawa Experience
As I lounge on the multi-tiered deck that fronts my massive stone-hewn indoor/outdoor casita — one of eleven uniquely stylish suites peppering the property – a whispering breeze merges with hypnotic waves to lull me into an almost comatose calm. Just steps from my open-air bathroom, a small plunge pool summons a naked dip as the undulating lake unfolds before me in an endless blue horizon.
I’m in a quandary, though. Shall I savor this breathtaking tableau in the seclusion of my inviting room, fully kitted out with petal-laden king-size bed and furnishings locally crafted from recycled materials and salvaged wood? Or, shall I venture out to experience island culture and visit Katundu Textiles, a workshop founded by the wife of Kaya Mawa co-owner James Lightfoot to empower widows and other vulnerable local women? Perhaps I should go snorkeling beneath the azure sea? Or better yet, indulge in an al fresco spa treatment on the lake-view gazebo? Such are the “luxury problems” I effortlessly endure throughout my stay at this exclusive boutique resort. (www.kayamawa.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; +265 (0) 993 318 359; + 265 (0) 999 318 360
Around the headland, Mango Drift (also owned by Lightfoot and partner Nick Brown) caters to the less posh crowd with beach-front en-suite chalets, cozy cabins, dormitories, and camping facilities. The magnificent setting and reasonable prices appeal to those on a budget and/or taking PADI courses. (www.mangodrift.com; email@example.com; +265 (0) 999 746 122. Details: Ulendo Airlink operates charter flights from the capital of Lilongwe which can be arranged directly or through Kaya Mawa. (www.ulendo.net, firstname.lastname@example.org) The Ilala Ferry may be boarded or disembarked at various sites around the lake. Current schedules are available through the hotels or Milawi Lake Services. (email@example.com).
Back on the mainland, the less lavish but equally idyllic — and decidedly more accessible — Makuzi Beach Lodge is secreted on a stunning private cove in Malawi’s Chintheche district. For those not requiring 5-star amenities, this inviting character-laden inn offers comfortable accommodation options that range from camping to well-appointed villas — all literally kissing the coastline and providing tranquility on what is arguably the best white talc beach in Malawi. Fabulous food, friendly staff, and astounding sunrises further support my recommendation of this intimate lodge where I could have happily nested for much longer. Details: (www.makuzibeachlodge.com; firstname.lastname@example.org;; +265 (0) 999 273 287, +265 (0) 999 283 980
Conveniently located about four hours north of Lilongwe, Ngala Beach Lodge is an isolated outpost set along a stretch of pristine beach. Located in the shadows of the Vipya Mountains, the lodge features tastefully adorned garden view rooms and A-frame villas constructed of wood and reeds. This is the type of place where from a veranda one can watch a vervet monkey scramble up a tree and dhows glide across the lake’s small swells while locals march to the slow rhythm of Malawian rural life. It’s also a place that is blissfully devoid of commercialism and where a smile is the only price to be paid for a friendly exchange. Owners Sandy Webb and Chris Buckley welcome all visitors like long-lost-friends, providing a homey respite for both road-weary travelers and those seeking a holiday refuge. Sandy is “Queen of The Kitchen” and conjures up some fine cuisine, while Chris’s obsession with his vintage car collection — the inspiration behind the couples’ African Classic Car Tours venture — will likely result in an invitation to take a spin in one of the rare vehicles. It all adds up to just another memorable detour on the road to adventure while experiencing the magic of Malawi. (www.ngalabeach.com; email@example.com; +265 (0) 888 192 003, +265 (0) 999 075 566.