Malawi

When We Were There: May 14-24, 2009

Places We Visited: Blantyre, Nkhata Bay, Likoma Island

View all of our posts about Malawi here.

Exchange Rate: $1 = 140 Malawi Kwacha (official), 178 Kwacha at money changers (See Notes)

WHAT WE DID

Blantyre
There’s not a lot attraction-wise in Blantyre, but we ended up staying for a few days. One reason for our prolonged stay is that our bus kept getting canceled, but we also found it to be a pleasant authentic African town. We wandered about, checking out the markets and watching election rallies and other local life scenes. We also visited the old British Manager’s House and its art collection.

Nkhata Bay
On the shores of Lake Malawi, Nkhata Bay is small and friendly. We passed a day at the beach, watched a local soccer match, and enjoyed some good food.

Likoma Island
In Lake Malawi close to the Mozambique shore, Likoma Island is an oasis. I was worried with the five days we’d have to spend there due to ferry connections we’d get bored but we were sad when we had to do. We lounged on the beach, swam, walked to town to visit the market and the largest Anglican church in Africa, visited a woman’s craft co-op, kayaked, and snorkeled. The people of Likoma Island are among the loveliest we met on the trip, beyond friendly and beyond excited to talk to you. Just wandering around and enjoying their company was a highlight.

WHERE WE STAYED

Kabula Lodge (Blantyre): A bit pricey, but the room is nice and the views are lovely. The included breakfast is also substantial. There’s a dorm if you’re looking for something cheaper. 7000 Kwacha for a double room with private bathroom, TV, wi-fi access (with a fee), and breakfast.

Henderson Street B&B (Blantyre): The rooms here are a bit worn but the staff is so friendly that it makes up for it. The owners are lovely, giving us a ride on our first night as we walked toward their place and finding us a room at Kabula Lodge when they realized they were all booked up. The other staff was also friendly and good conversationalists. 4,680 Kwacha for a double room with private bathroom, TV, wi-fi access (with a fee), and breakfast.

Kapenja Lodge (Nkhata Bay): There are nicer places to stay near the popular beach, but they’re a long walk from the ferry dock, which was our main interest. Our cabin was stark and basic with a shockingly cold cold-water shower. We did have a nice view, however, and the breakfast was surprisingly substantial. 2,800 Kwacha for a double with private bathroom.

Mango Drift (Likoma Island): There are two real accomodation options on Likoma Island both owned by the same people: an upscale lodge and a backpackers (Mango Drift). Mango Drift is absolutely lovely. The chalets are simple but clean and spacious. The shared bathrooms have hot water. And the location is right on a nice stretch of beach. Josh and Becky, the young British couple that run the place, are so friendly, fun, and helpful, and the local staff is vibrant. The food is also excellent, the (huge) dinners in particular. 2,100 Kwacha for a double chalet with shared bathroom.

PLACES WE ATE

Hong Kong Restaurant (Blantyre): The food at this Chinese restaurant was good but not great. Also be aware that if you want to share dishes, you should order the large. Our waiter said large was family-size and small was enough for two, but he was wrong…or else we eat a lot. 2,100 Kwacha for dinner for two.

Ethiopian Restaurant (Blantyre): This small place run by an Ethiopian family offers really great food at good prices. We enjoyed it enough to return. 1,400 Kwacha for lunch for two.

British Governor’s House (Blantyre):
The restaurant here has a really good-looking menu but at Western prices. We only had dessert; the cake and float were good. Other diner’s meals looked good. 750 Kwacha for dessert for two.

Kaya Papaya (Nkhata Bay): This Western-owned restaurant served up some really good Thai food as well as Western food. Expect to wait a long while for your food to arrive however. 1,500 Kwacha for dinner for two.

Malawi Time (Nkhata Bay): The milkshakes here are really, really good and come in a variety of flavors from local tropical fruits to red bean to avocado. We heard raves about the food but didn’t get a chance to try it. 300 Kwacha for two milkshakes.

Hunger Clinic (Likoma Island):
This local favorite serves up a limited menu, pretty much fish or chicken with your choice of casava, rice, or spaghetti. Not bad but nothing special. Also beware of their sodas, at least the ones in plastic bottles. It might say Coke on the label but it’s definitely not Coke inside. 750 for lunch for two.

Mango Drift (Likoma Island): As noted above, the food here is really excellent. Dinner is a set menu, and the portions are huge. Definitely don’t pass on the fish curry. 800 Kwacha for the set dinner.

NOTES

*Malawi is one of those countries that doesn’t have a lot of specific attractions, but captures your imagination anyway. We hadn’t really planned to visit Malawi, but it was on our route up the coast. We ended up wishing we had more time to stay and explore other areas. The people here are among the friendliest in Africa.

*If we’d known in advance, we would have considered doing our PADI certification on Likoma Island. The lake is supposedly a great place to dive with interesting things you don’t see elsewhere. The price is also quite reasonable. Additionally, Josh and Becky at Mango Drift seem to be excellent teachers.

*The Ilala Ferry, which we took from Nkhata Bay to Likoma Island, is notoriously late, but it was on time and even early when we took it. The various classes are a bit odd. First class gives you a place on the top deck, which is just an open deck with one or two benches. You have to sleep on the floor, unless you can snag one of the mattresses they rent for 300 Kwacha. Problem is they don’t have nearly enough so your chances at getting one aren’t good. We snagged the last one on the way there, but couldn’t get one on the way back. Second class is in a very crowded hold that is enclosed. Third class is a mix of enclosed space and open air on the bottom deck. If you don’t mind the smell of dried fish, which completely permeates the lower class decks, third class is just about as good a choice as first (and much cheaper) so long as you can grab a spot with a bit of space in the open air.

*Apparently Malawi currency has an official fixed rate on the global market, meaning that all ATMs  dispense money at the exchange rate of 140 Kwacha to $1. Money changers will, however, give you a much better rate,  about 178 Kwacha to $1. This is one country where it’s definitely better to take cash and change it once you get there rather than rely on ATMs. (Traveler’s check rates weren’t very good either. All rates as of May 2009.)

Leave a Reply