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If the most you know of Malawi is that Madonna adopted children from there, you’re not alone, but you’re missing out on an outdoor travel secret that’s worth your attention. While countries like South Africa and Kenya are well known for bucket-list safari vacations, nearby Malawi has safaris (including opportunities to see all of the Big 5 mammals most sought after by travelers), is far less touristy, and is home to the vast Lake Malawi. At a north-south length approaching 356 miles and widths near 52 miles, “calendar lake” encompasses roughly 20 percent of the nation and is coveted for its 700+ species of tropical cichlids—the brightly colored tiny fish of fantasy. Three island groups within the lake are home to countless bird species, ancient trees, colorful lizards, and very few people, as most are uninhabited. People, though, are a prime reason to visit Malawi, affectionately called “the warm heart of Africa,” enchanting visitors with boundless generosity, a welcoming spirit, and engaging smiles impossible to ignore.

Malawi is easily reached on South African Airlines through Johannesburg (a nonstop journey from either New York City or Washington D.C.), and the cost of the extra flight is more than offset by the U.S. dollar’s tremendous value in Malawi’s considerably weaker economy. The lack of development through much of the country encourages an authenticity and purity harder to encounter in more commonly visited African countries and, quite simply, you’ll feel good about spending your dollars here, supporting the growth Malawi is working toward. Most destinations are supported to some degree by tourism, but in Malawi you will clearly see what your dollar is doing.

UPTOWN was invited to explore some of Malawi’s lake and safari retreats this summer, and here’s what we found.

Kumbali Country Lodge

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Kumbali Country Lodge is a tranquil respite just minutes from the capital city of Lilongwe, and the ideal place to bed down after your long journey to Malawi. Rest and refresh yourself on the 1,600-acre forest reserve with its own dairy farm, and stroll the gardens, spotting playful bushbabies (monkeys!) and exotic birds. Have a sunset cocktail on the veranda overlooking the pool before enjoying an upscale meal at Kumbali’s cozy restaurant and, if you stay an extra day or two, enjoy the nearby Malawi cultural village and permaculture centre, both within walking distance.

Huge bonus of this property: It’s just minutes from the presidential palace, assuring the power stays on (an occasional issue in some other areas around Lilongwe). Oh, and, if you are that Madonna fan who only knew of Malawi because of her children, you’ll be stoked to know that this is where she stays when she visits.

Blue Zebra Island Lodge

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No, there aren’t blue zebras of the four-legged variety here (or anywhere), but this is the place to spot the blue zebra cichlid, and hundreds of other cichlid species, many of which are endemic only to the island chain that is home to the Blue Zebra Island Lodge. See these shimmering, impossibly colorful fish simply by standing along the rocky shorelines, take a kayak around Nankoma Island (otherwise completely uninhabited), or make your way by speedboat to isolated snorkel havens nearby. The more adventurous can even dive the lake, including beginners. A sunset cruise with a Malawi gin and tonic or Kuche Kuche beer is a must (drinks run about $2 or less here, and throughout much of the country, even at high-end lodges like Blue Zebra).

Aside from the lake and its inhabitants themselves, the showstoppers of Blue Zebra are the executive tented chalets. Each accommodation is uniquely designed, isolated from any neighbors, and directly on the lake with idyllic porches. Most boast a small patch of private lakefront beach carved out among the surrounding vegetation, too. Furnished as fully as any hotel room (possibly more than many) and including full-service bathrooms, these chalets are still tents, which means every external “wall” is a heavy canvas that is rolled up by day to reveal surround screening that keeps the animals (and mosquitoes) out, and lets all the sun and lake breeze in.

The Makokola Retreat

For a more resort-like lake experience, try The Makokola Retreat near the southern tip of Lake Malawi. Makokola’s expansive sand beach is reminiscent of a Caribbean getaway, complete with fire pits by the beachfront bar, an enormous pool, and all the water sports you can imagine. Lush gardens surround beach rooms, each decorated with handcrafted furniture, local textiles, and original artifacts and art. Newly-constructed lake suites offer ultra-modern accommodation options for those seeking the full resort-chic feel.

Don’t miss a speedboat tour around Bird Island where you’ll ogle some of the 200+ African Fish Eagles that call this tiny island home. Your Makokola guide will instigate an impressive display by tossing fish into the lake, inspiring the eagles to dive and capture prey just yards from your boat. You can also explore some of the rocky shoreline and swim among the cichlids. During our swim, we also spotted two otters.

Mvuu Lodge

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Below Lake Malawi is Liwonde National Park, and along the eastern bank of the Shire River within the park is Mvuu Lodge, an intimate safari camp within a massive park reserve. Impala, kudu, elephants, rhinos, zebra, baboons, cheetah, and the newly-introduced lions are among the prizes to be spotted, but it’s the hippos who steal the show at Mvuu. With upwards of 2,500 hippos in an 18-mile stretch, you’re sure to find yourself immersed in hippo mayhem on both river and land safaris alike. You won’t want to encounter hippos on a bush walk, but do take at least one early morning hike through the terrain and learn how to track these and other impressive beasts. Sunsets on both land and river are breathtaking here, and are sure to be a highlight of each day.

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The eight luxurious “tents” of Mvuu Lodge are beyond spacious with ample outdoor porches backing up to woods and water that bring much of the wildlife up close and personal. Though the lodge is not enclosed separately from the park, and vigilance is encouraged as the random elephant or hippo has wandered into camp from time to time, safety is a top focus of the lodge and guests are personally escorted to and from tents after dark and during early morning hours. It’s a truly immersive wilderness experience with the appointment and service of a fine hotel.