Lakeside living

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With pristine sandy beaches and water sports aplenty, Lake Malawi is a wonderful escape destination for one and all. But where should you stay? Gemma Catlin scoured the 500km shore to uncover the best options

PumulaniLake Malawi (or Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Lago Niassa in Mozambique) is the third-largest and second-deepest in Africa. More species of fish (around 1000) reside in its clear waters than in any other lake anywhere, making it one of the greatest freshwater diving spots in the world. Whether you’re on honeymoon, holidaying with the whole family or savouring some post-safari R&R, there’s something for everyone. From world-class lodges to eco-island retreats, we list the top places to stay:

Price index
$ = under £65 per person per night
$$ = between £65 and £130 per person per night
$$$ = over £130 per person per night

1 Pumulani, Nankumba Peninsula $$$ (pictured)
Robin Pope Safaris’ Pumulani (meaning ‘rest well’ in Chichewa, the local language) is one of the country’s most renowned five-star lodges. Stylish rooms hug the forest edge and overlook a private patch of white sand. When you’re not lazing on the beach, the activities here are endless: you can potter around on a 40ft traditional dhow, zoom around the lake in a speedboat or go waterskiing, wakeboarding or tubing. If you’re an experienced sailor, take a dhingy out or go snorkelling. Alternatively, head inland for a walk in the forested hills or a cycle ride through the local village.
• Best for active types

2 Ngala Beach Lodge, Ngala $$$
Set within carefully manicured gardens on a beautiful stretch of shore, this retreat has a shady campsite as well as affordable chalets or cottages for couples and dorms for backpackers. At its heart is an infinity pool, a lovely place to unwind with a sundowner after a day on the lake or playing golf. The hosts Sandi and Chris couldn’t be more helpful, and the restaurant serves excellent food (particularly its renowned clay-oven pizzas).
• Best for flashpackers

3 Njaya Lodge, Nkhata Bay $
With boats lining the beach, a vibrant marketplace, fresh fish grilling on the barbecue and music in the air, Nkhata Bay feels more like the Caribbean than Africa. It’s one of the best places to dive, and days can be spent admiring jewel-like fish, many endemic to the lake. British couple Paul and Claire Norrish discovered this ‘little slice of heaven’ in 1993, and now a series of reed chalets, stone cottages and two villas overlook Chikale Beach. Malawian brothers James and Dixon, whose chambo and chips have become legendary in the area, run the relaxed restaurant.
• Best for divers

4 Nkwichi Lodge, Mozambique $$$
Along Lake Malawi’s east coast, in an area belonging to northern Mozambique, there’s a hideaway so remote that you’ll need your passport, a plane and a boat to get there. The lodge lies on delicate, white sands, surrounded by ancient mountain terrain. With rock pool baths, stargazing beds and alfresco dining, there really is no better place to get away from it all.
• Best for tranquillity seekers

5 Danforth Yachting, Cape Maclear $$$
If you’re seeking a unique place to stay on the lake, charter the 38ft Yacht Mufasa, a large ocean-going catamaran (sleeping eight), for a few days. Renowned for its first-class service, Danforth offers a range of tailor-made voyages around the lake, rustling up sumptuous three-course feasts throughout, washed down with delectable wines.
• Best for foodies

6 Makuzi Beach Lodge, Chintheche $$
With its private palm-fringed beach, kids-friendly activities, on-site nannies and children’s suppertime, this is a great choice for families. Hidden between rocky outcrops and built entirely with local, sustainable materials, the eleven-hut lodge blends seamlessly into the rainforest. Priding themselves on their green ethos, the owners work hard to support the local fishing community, whose catch of the day can be found sizzling in the kitchen alongside a selection of Makuzi-grown herbs and vegetables.
• Best for families

7 Norman Carr Cottage, Namakoma Bay $$
This little-known romantic hideaway is set in lush gardens and overlooks a secluded cove. With open-air showers, alfresco dining and beach breakfasts, you will find yourself reconnecting with nature and forgetting the outside world. Be sure to embark on an evening boat trip to soak up the sunset armed with a mean MGT (Malawian gin and tonic).
• Best for young couples

8 Sunbird Livingstonia Beach, Senga Bay, Salima $$
With her elegant white curves and grand entrance, this 1920s-built resort takes you back to another era, while providing guests with modern comforts such as Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, satellite television, a fitness centre and babysitting services. It has a lovely garden and swimming pool, immaculate beaches, a waterfront bar and regular live music, making it a good choice for families and budget travellers.
• Best for home comforts

9 Kaya Mawa, Likoma Island $$$
Remote Likoma, a 17sq-km splodge of loveliness in the east of Lake Malawi, is worlds away from the paradise island cliché. Think baobab forests instead of palm trees, beaches of golden nuggets rather than powder-puff sand and giant granite boulders as opposed to coral reefs. Each simple yet sophisticated room is tasteful, bright and quirky, effortlessly combining African heritage with modern luxury. For a more affordable option, book Mango Drift, a charming, few-frills beachfront haven just along the beach.
• Best for honeymooners

10 Makokola Retreat, Mangochi $$$
This relaxed retreat was constructed using traditional building methods and decorated with vibrant handcrafted furnishings. The owners claim that this is the only lodge on the lake from where you can watch the sun rise and set from the swimming pool. But that’s not its only advantage: hidden among mango trees and coconut palms, there’s a series of spa treatment rooms, where the bespoke spa treatments, using local plants and traditions, will coax you into a world of unadulterated relaxation.
• Best for spa lovers

11 Mumbo Island $$$
This isolated, kilometre-wide speck in the south of the lake is home to an eco-lodge like no other. In this paradisal setting there’s no electricity or running water. Chalets, dotted precariously along the rock face, are constructed entirely from wood, thatch and canvas, lashed together with rope. Each one comes equipped with a sun deck, a hot bucket shower (filled on request), and an eco-loo, which has no flush, just a handful of woodchips. Mumbo provides authentic island living in its simplest form and redefines the concept of ‘getting away from it all’. Central African Wilderness Safaris also runs another beautiful lakeshore escape called Chintheche Inn, which is worth a visit.
• Best for eco-travellers

12 Blue Zebra Island Lodge, Nankoma Island, Marelli Island Archipelago $$$
To reach this high-end lodge, you have to take a fifteen-minute boat ride from the mainland. It’s so minute that it can be walked or canoed around in just a matter of hours, but it hosts 350 species of bird, making it a twitcher’s utopia. The smart tented chalets have private decks, perfect for watching the fish eagles dive at dawn.
• Best for birders

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Safari Planner
• Getting there  Air Malawi flies regularly between Blantyre and most major regional cities, including Johannesburg, Lusaka, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. There are no direct flights between Europe and Malawi, but several African carriers operate connecting flights, such as Kenya Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines.
• When to go  The best time to visit Lake Malawi is in August, September or October, when the wind drops and the lake is at its calmest and clearest.
• Health  Malaria is widespread, particularly along the lakeshore, and prophylactics must be taken. A certificate of yellow fever vaccination is also required. Bilharzia is prevalent in Lake Malawi so it’s highly advisable to test for it after you get home.
• Further reading  Bradt Guide to Malawi (6th Edition) by Philip Briggs; Livingstone’s Lake by Oliver Ransford

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Lake Malawi: beneath the surface

Lake Malawi is one of the world’s most popular freshwater diving and snorkelling destinations. Its marine life is superb and its waters remarkably transparent. There’s also plenty of wildlife to spot in the sky and on its shores. By Laura Griffith-Jones

Snorkeling on Lake MalawiOne of the Great Rift Valley lakes, Lago Niassa (in Portuguese) lies in a depression that plunges well below sea level. At 365 miles long and 52 miles wide, it is the third largest lake in Africa, and contains around 1000 fish species. Most of these are Cichlidae (the largest family of fish in Africa), 99 per cent of which are endemic to the lake.

As you glide under the water some shine in the sunlight like gleaming silver trophies, while others, such as the cobalt zebras and mumbo yellow cichlids (only found around Mumbo Island), give off dazzling hues and seem so tropical you might think you’d been momentarily transported to the Great Barrier Reef.

However, the lake is in fact best known for its minute and vibrant mbuna rockfish, which are as fascinating to scientists as they are attractive to snorkelers.

When you’re not gazing beneath the surface, look out for the birdlife, too: you’ll be sure to see fish eagles, kingfishers, herons and cormorants eyeing up their next snack.

And on the lakeshore, you may spot huge monitor lizards, skinks, geckos, baboons and antelope, or even a furry, ever-so-slightly rotund hyrax.

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