We were celebrating a 20th wedding anniversary with a return trip to South Luangwa where the proposal was originally made. The itinerary also called for a contrasting chapter, so a beach holiday with a difference was in order. And so it was with Likoma Island on Lake Malawi. We were a family of 4 including 2 teenagers, and everyone felt they had landed in heaven. We've travelled all over the world, and can assure you that Kaya Mawa is a pretty special property indeed.
It is seamlessly run by Michelle and Richard with the former acting as head of house and the latter mastering the kitchen. We tend to judge a property not just by the quality of service, but how committed and happy the staff are all the way down the ladder. They say Malawi is the warm heart of Africa, but the staff at Kaya Mawa are not only capable and completely willing to please you could really see they enjoyed working here too.
Kaya Mawa is pretty remote, and we were expecting a Robinson Crusoe sort of experience which might be characterised as 'shabby chic'. That wouldn't capture what was on offer though here. Quirky for sure but certainly not shabby. Barefoot, casual luxury more like it.
To the extent possible everything is sourced locally. The accommodations certainly reflect that as ours (Mainja House) was literally built/incorporated into the rocks and decorated with locally designed treasures (many sourced from the textiles factory). However, the quality of the rooms, the main restaurant and lounges and things like the beach furniture and spa were all super and first class in every way.
Most any 5 star property around the world worth the rating shows itself off photographically/audiovisually on the internet with considerable aplomb. What I will say is that Kaya Mawa's website if anything under plays the considerable charm and atmosphere and uniqueness of the property. It is extremely difficult to photograph with any real justice.
With regard to meals and drinks I was a bit concerned as there is no menu. Richard designs the offering each day based on what is available / of best quality / what suits the mood. One of my daughters is a veggie, so I wasn't sure what to expect. My wife said it would be fine as any place can rustle up eggs. I shouldn't have worried. The food was simply sensational. We couldn't fault a single dish. I would challenge anyone to find a better meal at any leading London restaurant. I was also a bit concerned before hand that whilst the property includes food in its pricing that isn't the case with drinks. It's not truly an all inclusive. So I was worried about how quickly the drinks bills would tot up. It turns out that Kaya Mawa's mantra about chilling is completely true and this extends to the extras. The house wine for example was of excellent quality, served in generous portions, and priced extremely reasonably.
If the food and quality of lodging was fantastic then the rest of the facilities were also equal to the challenge. The beach was pristine clear and the water was clear and welcoming. We sampled the spa and the treatments were fantastic and most reasonably priced.
I also made use of the dive facilities. It wouldn't be fair to say that Lake Malawi is on a par with something like the Maldives. However, diving in fresh water has its attractions. The dive master was extremely knowledgeable and the equipment was well maintained. The approach to diving was in no way "cowboy", but rather very conservatively and thoughtfully managed. For example, the dive master offered to provide me with a refresher before we set out to deeper water. We dove for a total of circa 50 minutes. If memory serves the charge was something like $40 including all the kit and I was on my own. Very reasonable indeed compared with any other resort I've visited. The water sports equipment (kayaks, sail boats, etc) were all in tip top shape and easy to access. James demonstrated his kite boarding prowess while we were there, but I couldn't muster up the courage to try it.
Another thing that struck us about Kaya Mawa was how sympathetically it had been integrated into island life. The website talks about how the owners set up a textiles business that provides decent jobs for the locals. That's true, but it's a lot more than another craft shop selling souvenirs. It's actually a working factory teaming with activity and well worth a visit. Other things that struck us was the fact that locals are welcome to come on to the beach to undertake daily requirements such as washing pots, etc. This tended to take place early in the morning. We really like the fact that the owners had embraced the local community rather than turning the resort into a gated / walled off enclave. This was also reflected in the jeep transfer to/from the airstrip. It's true to say that all the children and most of the adults waved and smiled as we drove past. There is real poverty here, but the atmosphere on the island was warm and positive. I kept asking myself why the driver was only going like 5-10 miles per hour. Was it to facilitate the meet/greet experience? I thought it was more driven by a case of not kicking up road dust and noise that might upset the people living along the route.
On a final note about ethos, a local choir came to sing for us at one of our last dinners. These people were singing out of real passion. It wasn't some act staged for the tourists. My wife couldn't help herself but join in the beach dancing too. One of the restaurant staff of longest standing (Martin if I recall) was also cheering and dancing like crazy. We asked him if he was a member of the choir during his spare time and cheering the group on. He informed us that he was in fact a choir coach/leader, but for a different parish church, so the performers were in some way rivals. Sweet.
The owners of the property happened to be onsite during our stay, and we had an opportunity to chat quite a bit with them. Very engaging couple with ties to the UK as well as Africa. Kaya Mawa and their other interests are well off the beaten track. It takes a considerable knowledge and attitude to look after this sort of property. James and Susie along with Michelle and Richard have those qualities in spades. This property has a special vibe and it really works. The Caribbean, Maldives, Seychelles, and less travelled places in Asia are all fantastic. But Kaya Mawa has a distinct and enduring offering which we will always remember.
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- Also Known As:
- Kaya Mawa Likoma Island
- Kaya Mawa Malawi/Likoma Island