Malawi is one of my favorite African countries to visit. Not just because of the stunning Lake Malawi, friendly people, and bustling markets, but also because Malawi is the place I called home for the first few decades of my life. Many people are familiar with Malawi as the poor country that Madonna adopted two children from, but there's much more to it. Malawi may not have the best-known wildlife parks, but there's plenty of wildlife and beautiful places to enjoy, and you won't have to compete with hordes tourists to see it.
Lake Malawi is a beautiful freshwater lake that takes up a good chunk of landlocked Malawi. It is blessed with golden beaches and an incredible colorful variety of fish, that makes snorkeling and diving here extremely rewarding. The southern end of the lakeshore is very popular due to its proximity to the commercial capital, Blantyre. There are numerous bays to choose from and accommodation runs from simple campsites and cottage rentals to the more luxurious Club Makakola. Monkey Bay, at the southern tip, is where you can catch the Ilala ferry to cruise up the lake to Likoma Island and the northern end (see below). The fantastic Lake of Stars music festival is held annually at Nkopola Sunbird Lodge. Cape Maclear is a mecca for snorkeling and other water sports.
Mulanje Mountain is a huge granite massif in southern Malawi. Its highest peak Sapitwa reaches just over 3000m. There are plenty of hiking routes to choose from to enjoy this mountain, with simple huts at the end of each one. This is a wonderful hike for families, (I spent my youth hiking here) with lots of streams and peaks to explore. You should spend at least 2 nights on the mountain. The Mountain Club of Malawi has good route information as well as information on fees and how to pay your porters. If you join the Mountain Club you can use their cooking facilities stored in the huts. Enjoy the delicious smell of Mulanje cedar in the fireplace! Most hikers will start out from Likhubula, so a night at Likhubula Forest Lodge is convenient to get an early start. The best time to climb Mulanje is between May and October.
Likoma Island is actually in Mozambique waters but is still a Malawian territory. It's home to a huge cathedral built in the early 1900's. Likoma Island has several lovely beaches with two excellent eco-friendly resorts including Kaya Mawa, and some budget accommodation (check out Mango Drift) as well. Likoma is a very peaceful spot and there are just a few cars on the island. You can take some nice walks inland to visit local villages, the local market, or kayak around the island. There's a diving school here as well that offers certification at very good rates. Dance troupes from other islands gather regularly for a "dance-off", which is seriously entertaining. Getting to Likoma is half the fun, especially by boat; the MV Ilala stops here once a week. There are scheduled flights from Lilongwe as well as charters available.
Liwonde National Park
Liwonde National Park is Malawi's premier wildlife park. It's setting is lovely along the banks of the Shire River, where you can view pods of hippo in the water and large herds of elephant on the side enjoying a drink and a splash. The bird life is fantastic and you're very likely to see African fish eagles displaying their skills as well as the rare Pel's fishing owl. Most people who visit will stay at the luxurious Mvuu Lodge. The best time to visit is during the cooler dry season from June - August as Liwonde can get very hot and humid during the rains.
The Ilala is a large ferry that crosses the lake every week (about a 300-mile trip). There are 5 double cabins in first class with the exclusive use of the top deck, and the captain' cabin (with AC -- if you're lucky you can book it). The Ilala makes regular stops for passengers and freight along the way, including the lovely Likoma Island (see below). You can get off at any point, or sail the whole route back to the starting point of Monkey Bay (southern lakeshore). This is not a luxury cruise and you'll be sharing the boat with hundreds of passengers and freight, but it's a classic African adventure.
How to Book: Through a travel operator or buy a ticket at the point of departure. The Ilala does not always sail to schedule, so be flexible.
Alternative Cruise: Budget sailing tour on Lake Malawi and Liwonde National Park.
Zomba plateau offers incredible views, waterfalls, dams filled with trout and a lovely respite from the heat. The 900m plateau is located in the lively old capital of Malawi, Zomba. Most visitors to Zomba plateau will spend a day or perhaps a couple of nights and enjoy hikes along wooded paths. My favorite view is the "Queen's View". You can take horse rides down lovely trails from the long-established Plateau Stables. The best way to get up to the plateau is by car or taxi, it's a long steep walk otherwise, and the rewarding hikes are really at the top of the mountain anyway. The nicest place to stay is the Ku Chawe Inn.
Malawi's northern lake shore is much less developed than the southern shore. Less populated in general, the North is also chillier during the dry season (June - August), but perfect when it's hot. Towns like Livingstonia and Karonga also offer a dash of history and culture to entice you away from the beach. Perfect places to stay include Nkhotakota, Nkhata Bay (Chikale Beach in particular), Dwangwa, Kande Beach, and Chintheche.
AddressNyika Plateau, Malawi
Just over 50 years ago, the northwestern part of Malawi, known as the Nyika Plateau area, was so unknown to the British (who were in charge at the time), that they sent explorer Laurens Van Der Post to report on it. Laurens turned his mission to this vast escarpment into a best-selling book "Venture to the Interior". He described the beautiful high rolling hills of grasslands dotted with zebra, antelope, orchids, and butterflies that make Malawi's largest national park well worth visiting. Hiking, mountain biking, and horse riding are the principal activities here. You can rent cottages at Chelinda Camp.
Malawi is the world's largest producer of burley tobacco. I'm not quite sure what that means, but I can vouch for the absolutely fascinating process of getting the tobacco bought, sold, and then bought again to end up in the world marketplace. The tobacco auctions are held in huge warehouses (floors) in Lilongwe (the capital) and Limbe (near Blantyre the commercial capital) during the months of May - September. It's a very fast, highly skilled, and totally incomprehensible business, which is what makes it so fun to watch. Check out an online video to see what it's like. Since Malawi heavily relies on tobacco for its foreign exchange, and up to 2 million Malawians earn their living from it, this is a serious business and my excuse for taking up smoking as a teenager in Malawi. On a more serious note, documentaries showing children working on tobacco estates have made the news in Britain and is good to keep in mind.
Lilongwe is Malawi's capital, a pleasant enough city where you'll find embassies and government departments. It's a planned capital, and the population is smaller than Blantyre, at around 1 million. The "new town" is spread out with modern office buildings and residential areas. The "old town" is much more lively with a really great market where you can buy everything from bikes to fans. Just watch your valuables here and enjoy a little bartering. Lilongwe is a good place to regroup if you've been on the road for a while, lots of accommodation options and some decent restaurants can be found in both the old and the new town. The Lilongwe Wildlife Center and the tobacco auctions (see above) are two of several worthwhile attractions in the capital. Some of the embassies and cultural centers host local art shows which are worth attending, check local papers for information.