Nkhata Bay is a small, bustling fishing village about 50 kilometers from Mzuzu. Straddling the steep, verdant mountains of Malawi's rift valley, Nkhata Bay overlooks the Lake like a lord overlooks his manor.
Several years ago, an English couple bought some property on the Lake and built a budget lodge, relatively famous in Africa for its eco-friendly construction. Since then, good word of mouth has led Nkhata Bay to become popular with independent travelers.
From Mzuzu, take a minibus to Nkhata Bay. The winding, scenic, hour-long trip costs about $1.
Nkhata Bay is fairly small, so walking should be appropriate. Alternatively, you can hire a water taxi to take you from one end of the village to the other; this is also a neat way to see the coastline. Finally, most of the hostels and hotels have vehicles. When they go into town, you can usually hitch a ride.
The Lake is what Nkhata Bay is all about.
However, if you have a vehicle at your disposal, you should visit the huge coffee plantation located roughly half-way between Mzuzu and Nkhata Bay (as you travel towards Nkhata Bay, there's a small sign on your right). A very friendly Sikh manages it, and he's happy to take you around and show you how the plantation runs.
There is a scuba shop at Njaya, and they offer day trips (around $20). Although the mouth-breeding cicadas are fascinating, experienced divers might find the trip a bit dull.
Njaya also rents small sea kayaks for 2 or 3 people. This is an affordable way to spend the afternoon, and the coastline is terrific. Take a sandwich, some beer, and a waterproof camera. Be aware, though, that you might see a hippo in the Lake.
There is a "Bureau de Change" in town.
There are also several "Rastas" posing as curio vendors. Aside from accommodation, food, and drink, these guys offer among the only options for taking your money.
Aside from Njaya, which has a great kitchen, and a fabulous Christmas feast(!), there are several independent restaurants in town, which change regularly. If you have a dollar, you can find a burger, Malawian pizza, or a great Chambo (fish) dinner.
There are a number of local bars in Nkhata Bay. Additionally, small tourist-friendly bars spring up regularly.
There are several places to sleep in Nkhata Bay. Njaya Lodge, complete with its own guard-goose, is among the most popular, especially with backpackers, despite being about a mile or two outside town. Situated high atop a mountain overlooking the lake, Njaya offers a variety of accommodation -- from en suite cottages ($15/night) to spartan, reed chalets ($4/night). Camping is also available for $3/night.
Chikale Lodge offers en suite chalets, on the water, for about $40/night. This lodge is about 1 mile from town.
There is a government rest house in town, but most travelers find municipal accommodation run down and depressing.
A ferry visits Nkhata Bay twice a week and can take you south to Cape Maclear or east to Mbamba Bay, in Tanzania. The ferry is a popular, albeit slow, way for travelers to see the Lake and journey to other parts of the region.
Nkhata Bay has recently earned a reputation for being dangerous. Be careful walking at night and do not carry all your cash with you.