Malawi is an African success story with a growing economy and relative prosperity. It is also one of the continent's best-kept secrets when it comes to adventure travel. Hiking, wildlife, river cruises, water sports — this tiny country has it all, and a warm and hospitable local population to boot. With great tourist infrastructure and dozens of gorgeous, largely undeveloped locations to explore, Malawi is a great place to discover before the crowds do.
Mount Mulanje, near Blantyre and the Mozambique border, is the country's highest mountain. A popular location for trekkers and climbers, it can take up to four days to fully explore and reach the summit, but stunning vistas reward those who persevere. Hire a guide in one of the several villages at the base of the mountain and choose a trailhead. Mulanje Town is a great place to start, and the multiple routes pass through unique eco-systems. This is rugged terrain, with moderately difficult trails and a few technical challenges for experienced climbers.
As in most colonial tropical areas, British and Scottish settlers developed gin drinks in the interest of warding off malaria. Malawi gin is coveted around the world. Stock up in the main towns of Lilongwe and Blantyre, which, as the name suggests, maintains its link to Scotland. The classic cocktail, available in either town's nightclubs and lounges, is the gin and tonic with a twist of lemon.
Malawi is landlocked, it's true, but most forget that fact when confronted with the epic expanse of Lake Malawi. Although it is freshwater, the lake is more like an inland sea, with golden beaches and snorkeling in the south, and the charming, car-free Likoma Island to the north. Ferries and cruise boats run between the two, and there's a great choice of cottages, resorts, and villas at either end.
Hippos and elephants and lions, oh my. Liwonde, which runs along the Shire River through 200 square miles of savannah and forest, is home to many iconic African animals people travel across the world to see and photograph. Plan to visit during the cooler dry season from June to August, and set up your base in one of the luxury lodges that arrange excursions to the interior of the park. Kuthengo Camp and Mvuu Lodge are both excellent.
Located near the town of Zomba, the more southerly former capital of Malawi, the Plateau is an area of stunning vistas, waterfalls, and cooler, higher elevations. It's a great place to catch your breath, ride horses, or hike to breathtaking lookout points, such as the Queens View that overlooks old colonial Zomba. There are many resorts and inns up and down the Plateau; travelers report that forest-cloaked Sunbird Ku Chawe Hotel is the best.
Maleri, Nankoma, and Nakantenga are the three largest of a 13-island archipelago in Lake Malawi's protected freshwater preserve — the world's first. Teeming with birds, fish, and other wildlife, the area is a naturalist's delight. The islands are uninhabited, but you can stay over at the sumptuous Blue Zebra Lodge, a luxury retreat on Nankoma.
Located north-west of Dedza in Central Malawi, the Chongoni rock paintings date back millennia. The densest collection of their kind in Africa, these artworks depict scenes from hunting and farming life dating back to the Stone Age. The cave- and rock-sheltered paintings have cultural significance to those living in the region, who use more than a hundred of the sites for traditional rituals and ceremonies. There are no facilities for tourists in the area, but you can hire a guide in Dedza or a nearby village.
Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and its general market is located in the old part of town. Be prepared to haggle for everything from tea to grilled fish with nsima, a staple of Malawian cuisine. Among the most popular items from the craft section near the post office are handmade wooden utensils, colorful woven and printed textiles, and traditional carvings and jewelry.
The Malipenga Dance Season takes place each August and celebrates Malawi's traditional iconic dance form in cities and villages all over the country. An elegant ensemble dance designed to honor the ancestors, the Malipenga is accompanied by call and response and the playing of bells, whistles, and kazoos. The tradition is especially popular in the Koronga, Rumphi, and NKhatabay areas of northern Malawi. Another popular cultural festival focuses on music, with dance as a natural partner. The acclaimed Lake of Stars festival takes place in September on the shores of Lake Malawi and features both African and international performers.
Malawi has special ties to Scotland: Blantyre and Limbe, the country's current commercial heart, was founded by Scottish missionaries in the 1800s. The area retains vestiges of its colonial past — including the lovely but slightly askew St. Michael and All Angels Church built in 1891 out of red brick by a devout team of amateur builders with no architectural or engineering skills. It's worth noting that Malawi has a connection to England, as well, and remains a favorite destination of royals such as Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.