Tranquil Lake Malawi stretches almost 600km along Malawi's eastern border but there are only a handful of luxury lodges set on its secluded beaches and small islands. The southern and central regions are where to go on Lake Malawi for relaxed lakeside living: wander straight out of your suite and onto the beach, laze in a hammock with a good book, swim in gin-clear water and dine on deliciously prepared fish, fresh off the boats of local fishermen.
On the southern shore of Lake Malawi lies Cape Maclear, the best known holiday destination on the lake. Forested hills tumble down to the turquoise water, village fishermen paddle by in their dugout canoes, and the broad stretch of golden sand is lined with backpackers and beach bars giving Cape Maclear a lively atmosphere (at least by Malawi standards).
Most of the places of interest around Cape Maclear - including its offshore islands - forms part of the Lake Malawi National Park, the world's first freshwater nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site protecting hundreds of species of tropical fish.
Mumbo Island is easily reached from Cape Maclear via a 30-minute boat transfer or for the adventurous traveller, a 2-hour paddle by canoe. This laidback little island was uninhabited for centuries and remains relatively untouched: sandy trails meander through dappled forests, secret beaches lie hidden between granite boulders, giant monitor lizards sun themselves on rocks and the island is home to an abundance of birds.
Mumbo Island is completely exclusive to guests staying at Mumbo Island Camp. The accommodation has been built to strict environmental standards with walk-in tents and lovely reed bungalows equipped with hot bucket showers and 'eco-loos'. The overall feel is extremely relaxed and it is a fantastic choice for people who really do want to get away from it all.
Likoma Island lies about half way up Lake Malawi and close to the lake's Mozambican shore. Unlike Mumbo, Likoma Island is inhabited and has a small town famous for its magnificent cathedral which is, amazingly, about the same size as England's famous Winchester Cathedral.
Likmoa has all the essential ingredients to deliver a relaxing beach holiday: sandy beaches, warm water and colourful fish, but an additional unique attraction of staying on this easy-to-explore island is a visit to the market where you can chat to local islanders and get a real feel for why Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa.
Perfectly positioned on a rocky outcrop between two beautiful beaches, Kaya Mawa has 12 stone-and-thatch chalets that lead straight to the clear waters of the lake. Each luxurious chalet is unique in design and ranges from spacious 2-bedroomed family houses to a dreamy honeymoon suite set on its own private island.
South of Cape Maclear, the palm-fringed Mangochi Lakeshore is easily accessible from both Lilongwe and Blantyre. Mangochi has the greatest concentration of hotels and lodges on the lake but even so the beaches never feel crowded and each hotel has a private stretch of sand dotted with thatched sunshades and welcoming sun loungers.
If you're looking for an almost endless list of activities, then this is where to go: water skiing, wake boarding, paragliding, beach volleyball - there's even a nine-hole golf course, its greens and fairways punctuated by giant baobab trees.
Our top place to stay on Mangochi Lakeshore is Club Makokola which has thatched rooms in a beautiful garden setting, an enormous swimming pool and a fantastic spa.
At a Glance
Set at the heart of Africa's friendliest nation, the extraordinary Lake Malawi blends a classic beach holiday with adventure and wildlife - it's the best Rift Valley lake by far.