Cape Maclear is a small fishing village on Lake Malawi in Malawi. It has one dirt road leading into (and straight out of) town. Along this road, there are a few hostels; some dive shops; a handful of vendors selling curios and fruit; and a few bars. The pace of life here is . . . very . . . slow.
Cape Maclear is really Chembe village, a fishing village of about 10,000. The fishermen live in the center of Chembe, while either end of the village caters to tourists. In order to get from Steven's Guest House, for example, to Fat Monkey's, you must go through Chembe. This is not a problem -- in fact, it's a great way to see how the average Malawian lives. It can just be a bit surprising when the road opens up, and you see a village.
From the bus station in Lilongwe, take a minibus to Monkey Bay for a few bucks. Flag down a pick-up that will take you the rest of the way into Cape Maclear, for just a few more dollars. (If you get stuck, you can always stay in Monkey Bay.) Although the trip is fairly short, you should budget the entire day.
Cape Maclear is very small. A short stroll will get you wherever you need to go.
There is a beautiful beach to stare at. Also, there is Lake Malawi National Park which flanks the Missionary graves on the north end of town.
Frankly, doing as little as possible is the whole point of Cape Maclear, but there are actual activities, in case you get bored.
One of the highlights of Cape Maclear is the surprisingly large number of dive shops. Among the best is The Scuba Shack -- run by a wiry, friendly Canadian -- which offers day excursions as well as certification courses. Although the dive trips are very economical (about $20), the real bargain here is that certifications only run about $100, or one-third of what they cost elsewhere. If you are going to be in the area, and if you have been thinking about getting certified, this is the place to do it. On the down-side, however, the beach is very comfortable, and the beers are usually cold: this does not encourage effective studying. (A note to avid divers: you might find the diving merely average. To compensate, look for mother cichlids. These vibrant mouth-breeders suck in their fry when they sense danger. It's quite amazing.)
Scuba Shack also offers cheap parasailing (only $5!), as well as opportunities to waterski.
Kayak Africa runs day trips from Cape Maclear. Since the Lake is pretty calm, boat trips can be rewarding. Be sure to check out their dog Boxy; take him to the beach and tell him to "dig." Watch what happens.
Recently, someone imported a large catamaran from South Africa, and they provide sunset cruises and day-trips. The boat is beautiful, and a ride on it is lots of fun. Warning: there is no head on the boat, and if you're drinking during a trip, you might feel uncomfortable.
Curio vendors hawk their wears along the road, and prices are reasonable. Especially noteworthy are the hand-carved backgammon and mancala boards.
Beach Boys stroll the beaches, selling anything they think you will buy, from canoe trips, to handmade reed cars, to chocolate cakes made by their moms, to handmade jewelry to . . . While these Beach Boys arrange interesting goods at reasonable prices, they can become aggressive; beware.
Fat Monkeys is an open-air restaurant with a cool beach-vibe on the south end of the village. They have good Western-styled food (try the pizza) and sometimes play host to lively parties at night.
There are several small Malawian restaurants along the main road. If you want a great, reasonably priced seafood dinner ($2 or so for a big Chambo fillet), try any of them. A reservation is a good idea -- not because the restaurant is likely to be crowded, but rather, so the owner knows he's going to have some business.
Be sure to eat some of the "chips" (French fries) the boys sell along the main road. They'll fry them fresh, and they make a great snack. If you order them regular, be prepared for "soggy" fries. If you want them crispy, order them "brown." For lunch, grab some chips, buy some bread and tomatoes, and have tomato-sandwiches and chips.
Don't forget to arrange with one of the Beach Boys for an evening fish dinner on the beach. It's a lot of fun. Be careful, though -- they're likely to come back and ask for more money, for any number of reasons. Be firm but respectful.
Fat Monkeys is the place to go for drinks.
If you want a quiet night, buy some beers on the quiet side of the village and watch the moon rise over the Lake.
Among the quirkiest options for accommodation is Steven's Guest House, offering simple, cheap rooms ($3/night, including a bathroom, mosquito net, and double bed!). Mr. Steven's is a gruff, elderly Malawian man who must have presaged Cape Maclear as a relaxing, hedonistic destination decades ago.
Fat Monkeys offers accommodation for about $5/night. There are a number of twin rooms with mosquito nets, a dormitory and a campsite. Situated on the beach with an excellent bar, very friendly staff and good cheap food. Activities such as boat trips, kayaking and scuba diving can be arranged by Fat Monkeys (or by the beach boys). Fat Monkeys has long been popular with backpackers.
If you're looking for higher-end accommodation, try Danforth Yachting (around $150/night including activities) or Chembe Lodge (around $60/night for a chalet or tent on the beach, with en-suite chalets available some time in 2006).
Remember that Malawi suffers from malaria and in this part of Malawi there is a high risk all year round. Talk to your doctor before you go, wear insect repellent and cover your skin while it's dark, and sleep under a mosquito net.
Some parts of the lake are contaminated with flatworms, which can cause schistosomiasis (bilharzia). The parasites enter your body through the skin, so just getting your feet wet could make you sick. However, you are not guaranteed to acquire it, even if you swim daily. Among the symptoms (which might not appear for months after exposure) is painless, bloody urine. Bilharzia is easily treated, but convincing a Western doctor that you have bilharzia can be tough — tell them you have been to Malawi and ask for a test.
Cape Maclear has a reputation for being a sort of "traveler's black hole." In other words, once you get there, you won't want to leave. If you want more beach time, you might try Senga Bay, Monkey Bay, or Nkhata Bay. If, however, you've gotten a sunburn, you can head south to Zomba, the former capital of Malawi, and a beautiful, wooded mountain-town that feels very little like Africa.