Our Water Special Issue coincides with the launch of a new Kenya Airways route to Malawi – renowned for its beautiful Rift Valley Lake. Blantyre joins Lilongwe as KQ’s second destination in the country.
Few countries are so dominated by a single geographical feature as the ‘Land of the Lake’. Lake Malawi follows the dramatic contours of the Great Rift Valley for a distance of 585km; it is up to 100km wide in parts and it covers more than 15 per cent of Malawi’s surface area. Enclosed by sheer mountains and edged by seemingly endless palm-fringed sandy beaches, Lake Malawi is the most beautiful of Africa’s great lakes and the indisputable focal point of Malawi’s tourist industry.
Gazetted in 1980 and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site four years later, Lake Malawi National Park (LMNP) extends over some 95 square kilometres of land and water at the southern end of the lake. The park covers much of the Nankumba Peninsula, a tapering sliver of mountainous land that juts northward towards Cape Maclear and includes the surrounding lake waters and nine offshore islands.
The park was set aside for its unique diversity of fish, the evolutionary significance of which has been compared to the finches of the Galapagos Islands. LMNP is also perhaps the country’s most popular snorkelling and diving destination, with the islands in particular offering the opportunity to see dozens of different cichlid species swirling colourfully around the rocks, a wildlife encounter as memorable as anything Malawi has to offer on land.
Malawi’s oldest city and main commercial centre, Blantyre comes across as positively bustling by comparison with anywhere else in this most laid-back of countries. Read on for our quick guide to KQ’s latest destination.
Emanating from a compact central business district (CBD) bristling with people, traffic and commerce, Blantyre has a pleasant midlands climate, set at an altitude of around 1000m in a well-watered valley ringed by low hills. The CBD is surrounded by mature green suburbs dotted with hotels and restaurants. Blantyre has evolved greatly in recent years, in particular the city centre where multi-storey office blocks house numerous banks and other financial institutions (including the Stock Exchange of Malawi). Recent years have seen a rise in upmarket shopping, eating and nightlife facilities from the city centre to the suburbs, epitomised by the Chichiri Mall, the country’s largest shopping centre and home to its only cinema complex.
Where to stay
The modern Malawi Sun Hotel (www.malawisunhotel.com) on Robin Road around the corner from the Mount Soche, has large grounds offering lovely views towards Mount Ndirande. Spacious and contemporary styled rooms come with terracotta tiles, uncluttered wooden furnishings, Wi-Fi and private balcony.
A flagship of the government-owned Sunbird Group, Sunbird Mount Soche Hotel (www.sunbirdmalawi.com) is probably the smartest address in Blantyre, offering a range of accommodation from standard rooms to superior suites. Centrally situated at the junction of Glyn Jones Road and Victoria Avenue, the hotel stands in expansive green gardens with a large, welcoming swimming pool and affords wonderful views to the surrounding mountains.
See and do
The Museum of Malawi between Kasungu Avenue and Kamuzu Highway, houses a fascinating ethnographic section displaying life-sized Chewa masks and dancing outfits, including the devilish Kwaweni Kulihe Mkuwe, who enforces local customs on visitors, the ‘spoilt child’ Chisenga, the amorous Kang’wang’wi, and a menagerie of semi-mythical beasts. Also on display is the Machinga Meteorite, a 93kg ball of metallic stone that fell dramatically to earth in Machinga District in 1981. Malawi’s most famous brewery, Carlsberg (the first Carlsberg Brewery outside Denmark) opened in Blantyre in 1968 (www.carlsberggroup.com)and offers very popular free day tours every Wednesday at 2.30pm.
Where to eat
Blantyre is endowed with restaurants to suit most tastes and budgets. Being so close to the trade routes from the Mozambique coast, it is known for seafood, especially prawns, but a good range of European, African and Asian foods is represented. There are at least a dozen worthwhile restaurants in the city centre, many concentrated on Hannover Avenue, and a similar number scattered around the suburbs. Try 21 Grill (tel: 01 820955) – an annexe to Protea Hotel Ryall’s, this is the smartest eatery in Blantyre, enforcing a strict dress code (no T-shirts, caps or shorts). The chef has built up a reputation for the imaginative fusion cuisine, which infuses continental-style dishes with African, Asian and Latin American flavours. Mandala Cafe (tel: 01 871952/671932) is situated alongside La Caverna Art Gallery in Blantyre’s oldest building and is a great place for a light lunch, with seating in the shady gardens and a selection of Thai and Italian dishes. Just up the road from L‘Hostaria on Kidney Crescent, Blue Elephant (tel: 099 9955242) is a popular sports bar serving good steak and chips.