Tonight’s dinner menu is tea. Tea, tea, tea, tea, tea!” declares my jovial host Anette as I pull up at Malawi’s Huntingdon House, and she’s not kidding.
The “sticky chicken” main arrives smoked in tea and it infuses the rice while a subtle twang of oolong flavours a delicious panna cotta.
Tea even invades the cocktail list with a “mo-tea-to” before making a fragrant return at breakfast, enriching the freshly baked bread and moreish muffins.
Thankfully, as former family home to the owners of the surrounding tea estate Satemwa, the tea is top notch and in between a factory tour, tasting session and walking and cycling tours of the estate I learn a lot about it, including the fact that it’s stocked by Waitrose and star chefs such as Heston Blumenthal. Yet my stay yields so much more.
Satemwa enjoys an idyllic Highlands setting around an hour’s drive out of Chileka International airport, near Blantyre, while Huntingdon sits framed by beautifully manicured grounds. Similarly beguiling are the heritage interiors and my cosy, homely room, The Planters’ Suite.
It’s a wonderful place to kick back over lovely, long meals and drinks in great company. The owners prove genial hosts and lift the experience with inventive menus, stories and little touches. One example being the scenic sundowners Anette serves up at a picnic spot on nearby Mount Thyolo as I look out at the spot where the Rift Valley melts into the plains.
Hemmed in by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique in southeastern Africa, what landlocked Malawi lacks in a coastline it makes up for in Lake Malawi, its vast “inland sea”, home to the Cape Maclear resort, Lake of Stars music festival and relaxing getaways such as Mumbo Island.
I spend my first night at Pumulani, run by Robin Pope Safaris, one of the lake’s swankiest properties.
After roadtesting its new infinity pool I strike out in a kayak, spending hours watching the lakeside birdlife, from fish eagles to malachite kingfishers.
“We’re going to cruise across the bay and try to find some hippos,” declares Precious, captain of the sunset cruise aboard Pumulani’s wooden dhow. He duly delivers, prompting me to juggle my camera and steady supply of gin and tonics.
My second night comes courtesy of the Makokola Retreat, an older property backed by tree-covered grounds and fronted by a dreamy beachfront, which is in the process of adding a cluster of 23 new modern-style rooms, set to open in April.
Everything from a nine-hole golf course and squash courts to a spa is on hand though, aside from the barman’s memorable whisky sours, my main takeaway proves to be the birdwatching and snorkelling on a Bird Island boat trip.
With manager African Parks planning to introduce more big cats this year to make Liwonde Malawi’s second Big Five park after Majete Wildlife Reserve, and new products such as Kuthengo, Robin Pope Safaris’ new four-tent camp in Liwonde, opening in April, the wildlife proposition is improving steadily.
Understandably, the Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium is keen to work closer with UK agents to capitalise on such efforts. As is South African Airways, which flies daily from London to Lilongwe and thrice-weekly from London to Blantyre both via Johannesburg.
That said, Malawi’s real strengths lie elsewhere, working best for clients who’ve developed a taste for Africa having previously ticked off the Big Five in a more accessible destination such as South Africa or Kenya.
Ideally they’ll crave an “authentic’ experience and be non-plussed by factors such as the erratic power supply rather than seeking the kind of slick, high-end offering that destinations such as Botswana excel in.
Malawi’s strengths include the diverse scenery, from Mount Mulanje and the Highlands tea country to the lowlands and the vast lake.
Then there’s the incredible locals who elevate so many experiences. A guided bike ride from Makokola is accompanied by shouts of “hello, how are you? I’m fine!” from the beaming local kids who engulf me in an excitable scrum when I stop, while a visit to a local school supported by Tongole Lodge proves a real hoot.
Then there’s the simple sunset walk down the beach to watch the local fishermen preparing to go out. Within minutes they’re striking poses on their boats as kids dart about busting acrobatics in front of my lens.
Simply watching life unfurl by the roadside while driving around the compact country proves a pleasure. Alongside the slow-pedalling guys on old bikes, excitable kids play with improvised toys and colourfully clad women balance improbable loads.
Goats totter on hind legs to nibble low-hanging treats and expectant sellers nurse piles of mangoes while radios pump out upbeat tunes.
Even the climate delivers. Despite arriving in late November at the start of the rainy season, the temperature tips the 30C mark on occasion, ensuring a ready supply of customers seeking shade under the roadside red flowering flame trees and purple jacaranda.
With ever more of us scrabbling for experiential travel, surely Malawi has never been so on-trend. Indeed, as David Nangoma from African Parks tells me: “We have the potential — we just have to play our cards right!”
Book it: Rainbow Tours’ 10-day Malawi Safari and Beach features four nights at Mkulumadzi Lodge in Majete Wildlife Reserve and four nights at Pumulani Lodge from £3,930pp, including South African Airways flights and a light aircraft transfer. rainbowtours.co.uk