Safe, affordable and thoroughly enjoyable, Malawi – dubbed the Warm Heart of Africa – has long been a favorite chillout destination for travelers crossing between eastern and southern Africa.
It is technically a landlocked country, but its most popular attraction and dominant geographic feature is Lake Malawi, which runs for an incredible 560km (350miles) through the Rift Valley floor, along the border with Mozambique.
Also known as the Lake of Stars, this vast inland ocean is renowned for its picturesque palm- and baobab-lined beaches and welcoming waterside villages, where travelers can swim, kayak, canoe, snorkel, dive or just enjoy the lush tropical African scenery and relaxed company over a chilled Carlsberg "Green." Here are eight of the best beaches and resort villages in Malawi.
1. Nkhata Bay
It's hard to imagine a more likable town than Nkhata Bay. The setting alone is magnificent, comprising a pair of sandy bays and a narrow woody peninsula hemmed in by the forested slopes of the Rift Valley.
But this laid-back resort village also stands out for its integrated backpacker-friendly beach scene, where the local Tonga people and a cosmopolitan array of globetrotters party, play beach volleyball and generally hang out. Nkhata Bay also has plenty of appeal to active travelers as a base for walking, kayaking and diving courses.
2. Chembe (Cape Maclear)
Nkhata Bay’s southern counterpart, the smaller village of Chembe is most often referred to as Cape Maclear, the name of the hilly peninsula on whose northwestern tip it stands. A low-rise urban enclave within Lake Malawi National Park, the village has a beautiful location, strung along a palm-lined beach that’s lapped by translucent green-blue water and faces an archipelago of impressive boulder-strewn islands.
As with Nkhata Bay, Chembe is an easy place to fritter away time, whether you’re into hanging out on the beach and in the bars or participating in more active pursuits, such as kayaking and snorkeling. Its western orientation also means Chembe is one of the few beach resorts in Malawi where you can watch the sunset over the lake silhouette those evocatively shaped offshore boulders.
Detour: Chembe is surrounded by Lake Malawi National Park, which is inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site on account of its diversity of endemic cichlids. Snorkeling off Otter Point, a 2km (1.2-mile) walk southwest of Chembe, you can expect to see a variety of these colorful fish, and possibly also spotted-necked otters. Terrestrial wildlife you might encounter on the walk to Otter Point includes baboons, rock hyraxes and klipspringers.
3. Kande Beach
Every bit as delicious as its name sounds, Kande Beach has been seducing backpackers and overlanders into staying on for another day, or week, or month, since it opened in 1993.
Owner-managed by the same relaxed former overland truck driver for all those years, Kande is quite simply a great place to hang out, whether it’s for the sun-bleached beach, the sociable bar, the on-site scuba shop or a smorgasbord of other activities that includes canoeing, windsurfing and village tours.
4. Likoma Island
Set within Mozambican waters, Likoma is territorially part of Malawi, thanks in large part to the historical quirk of having been chosen as the site of an anti-slaving Anglican mission in the 1860s.
The island boasts a marvelous setting below the mountainous Mozambican shore, while a handful of idyllic resorts is headed up by Kaya Mawa (literally "Maybe Tomorrow"), an exclusive fly-in retreat whose imperiously chilled vibe offers the last word in "barefoot luxury."
Likoma’s beaches are lovely indeed, but a large part of this baobab-studded backwater’s appeal lies in a sleepy time-warped atmosphere amplified by the remoteness from the rest of Malawi. The island’s most important historical landmark is the immense Anglican Cathedral of St Peter, which was built in 1911.
Planning Tip: Unless you fly to Likoma, the only way to get there from elsewhere in Malawi is on the MV Ilala, a weekly ferry service that stops at the island on both its northbound and southbound legs.
5. Chizumulu Island
If Likoma sounds a bit too hustle-bustle for your tastes, there's always Chizumulu, a smaller and even more unaffected island situated 10km (6 miles) to the west.
Here, a solitary backpacker-friendly lodge combines an idyllic beach location and soporific time-stood-still feel with a great selection of activities, including paddling, snorkeling and village walks.
6. Mumbo Island
This small rocky island in Lake Malawi National Park is occupied by an eponymous lodge that combines eco-friendly rusticity (it’s built and decorated entirely with natural or recyclable materials) with a classy boutique sensibility.
Kayaking, swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of Mumbo’s boulder-strewn shores is an utter delight, or you can just chill out in a hammock, keeping an eye open for the island’s resident otters as they scamper along the rocks or bob in the water.
Planning Tip: For energetic travelers, a popular way to reach Mumbo Island is to kayak 10km (6 miles) northwest across Lake Malawi from Cape Maclear.
One of Lake Malawi’s most northerly beaches, Chitimba stands in a narrow stretch of the Rift Valley, flanked by imposing escarpments that rise 1km (0.6 miles) above the lakeshore.
Unlike established backpacker haunts such as Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay, there's no travel scene at Chitimba, just a couple of laid-back resorts set on a blissful white beach that runs south from the Manchewe River mouth. Perfect for those who want to enjoy a few days of peace and quiet, Chitimba is also a useful springboard for travel elsewhere in the relatively undeveloped far north of Malawi.
Detour: Perched on the precipitous escarpment above Chitimba, Livingstonia was founded in 1894 as a Scottish mission that Hastings Banda, the first president of independent Malawi, would later describe as the "seedbed" of his liberation party.
The road to Livingstonia, traversing 20 tight hairpin bends as it gains 700m (2296ft) in altitude, is one of the most spectacular in this part of Africa, whether you opt to hike there from Chitimba or wait for erratic public transport. En route, you can divert to the forest-fringed Manchewe Falls, which plummet over the escarpment in a single 125m (410ft) drop.
8. Senga Bay
As the closest beach resort to the capital Lilongwe, Senga Bay has emerged as a popular weekend retreat and conference venue. Accommodation here tends to be relatively upmarket and formal, and it’s too scattered to have coalesced into the kind of travel community associated with Nkhata Bay or Cape Maclear.
Despite this, Senga Bay’s long, sandy beach seldom disappoints, and there’s always plenty of activity going on around the local fishing villages. A great place to start or end a fly-in trip to Malawi, or for business travelers seeking an overnight break from Lilongwe.
Detour: If you want to see wildlife in the vicinity of Senga Bay, there are two options. Giraffes, zebras and various antelope inhabit the well-organized Kuti Wildlife Reserve, a rehabilitated ranch that can be explored along a network of drivable tracks and bikeable footpaths. Thuma Forest Reserve is less developed, but guided walks are available and resident wildlife includes leopards, elephants and buffalo.