Blue Zebra is an amazing place no matter who you are, but to truly appreciate why we love it so much, you have to understand what it’s like to live as a foreigner in Malawi. There is almost nowhere we can go where we just blend in with those around us, except for a handful of restaurants that are frequented by other foreigners. We get asked for money almost every day of our lives. Sometimes it’s employees asking for loans or raises, sometimes it’s beggars in town, and sometimes it’s neighborhood kids who have learned to say, “give me my money,” without even fully understanding what it means. Every time we go to town, we get swarmed by vendors selling everything from fruit to art. Just going for a walk around our neighborhood involves dozens of kids spotting us and excitedly chanting “azungu,” (foreigners). It’s exhausting. While we absolutely love this country that we call home, from time to time we just need to find some calm and quiet.
Blue Zebra is a little island sanctuary where we can do just that. Before visiting Blue Zebra, the only other place we’d been to on Lake Malawi was Cape Maclear, which we hated. There, you can’t even go onto the beach without being harassed by men selling things and kids begging for money. Cape Maclear is also known to have a high rate of of bilharzia (aka schistosomiasis), a parasite that gets into your body from swimming in the water and can make you really sick for a long time.
In a desperate desire to enjoy Lake Malawi, but being sure we didn’t want to return to Cape Maclear, our internet searches led us to find Blue Zebra.
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Let us just say upfront that Blue Zebra is not cheap, especially for a family as large as ours. I would put it in a mid-range between your average budget lodges and luxury lodges like the ones managed by Robin Pope Safaris. But we’ve come to realize that it’s more than worth it for a few days away from the stressors of our normal lives here. The first time we went, we were given money as a gift and told to use it for a vacation (such a blessing!), and the second time we saved up to pay for it ourselves. Both times, we also got some good resident specials that made it just within the realm of doable for us.
To get there from Zomba, we drove 4 hours north to Senga Bay, parked at the Red Zebra Lodge, and then were ferried from there to the island by Blue Zebra’s own small boat. The little boat took about 10 minutes… maybe 15… to get to Blue Zebra’s private island, Nankoma Island. If you’re coming from Lilongwe, Red Zebra Lodge is only about a 2 hour drive.
Things to Do
Nankoma Island is small, but offers just enough for an active traveler. There’s a pool, small beach, plenty of kayaks for all seven of us to go at the same time with extras left on the beach, and a hiking trail that goes all the way around the island. Or if you’re a less active traveler, you’ll love the comfortable chalets, hammocks, and gorgeous pool with a big partially shaded deck and bar right at the pool. The pool is also stocked with games, toys, and snorkeling gear for kids and adults alike to enjoy.
We stayed in the Superior Family Cottage, and it was a dream. They brought in extra beds so we could put all 5 kids in the large main bedroom, and we parents took the smaller second bedroom. Each bedroom has an en-suite bathroom. There is a small kitchenette, dining table, couches, and large wraparound porch with a long table and a comfortable seating area.
If there is one negative thing I have to say about the cottage, it’s that there is no ceiling in it. The rooms are all open to the thatched roof, which is good for letting the heat rise, but not great for staying up later than your kids or having to turn on the bathroom light when you get up to potty in the middle of the night. If just one light is on, it illuminates all of the rooms in the cottage. And if one person is talking, everyone can hear.
Also, the main bedroom’s bathroom is very unique and open to the bedroom, just down a few wooden steps. Thats cool for couples, but not so ideal for a room full of mixed-gender siblings. We made it work, though.
The majority of the options are tents of varying sizes, but don’t be deceived by the word tent, you aren’t camping! They have full electricity, one or two bedrooms, a nice bathroom, some have a sitting room, and most have front decks overlooking the lake.
Besides the idyllic, peaceful atmosphere of the island, the other thing we love most about Blue Zebra is the food! Room rates are all-inclusive, and it is truly more food than you can handle. There is a generous breakfast buffet of cereals, toast, fruit, yogurt, tea, coffee, and more. Then you sit down and order a hot breakfast meal too! We felt like hobbits eating first breakfast when we first woke up, and second breakfast about an hour later.
For lunch you get 2 or 3 choices of meals, one of which is always a vegetarian option, and lunch always comes with a dessert. At 4:00pm, they serve tea and coffee by the pool, which includes a different baked dessert each day and freshly popped popcorn.
Then for supper you choose between 2 starters, 2 or 3 main courses (generally fish or chicken, beef, and vegetarian options), and 2 desserts. By the end of our stay, we’d been eating so much that we couldn’t finish our meals. And that was with being incredibly active all day!
As I’ve mentioned before, we are all (except for Josh) gluten and dairy free. Blue Zebra didn’t bat an eye at that, and their chefs whipped up some of the most delicious gluten and dairy free meals and desserts we’ve ever tasted! They even had gluten free bread on the breakfast buffet!
During our first stay there, they were just getting hooked up to a new solar power system. The entire island is run on solar power, and with the new system the power is on the whole time (which is not at all a given anywhere in Malawi). It was great to have fans all night, because there is no air conditioning anywhere! Our room got warm enough (and I am so hot-natured) that we ended up sleeping with the wall-to-wall glass doors in our room completely open. In the tents, you can keep your windows zipped open (with a screen) or closed based on your preference.
What We Did
While we were there, we settled into a routine each day of going on a hike in the morning, swimming until lunch, having a bit of a rest time in our cabin after lunch, and then going kayaking before more swimming until time to change for supper. It worked really well for us!
There is one hiking trail that goes all the way around the island, and also a few that go up and across the middle of it, so we didn’t get bored with the hikes. We also did the trails in both directions for a little variety. The hiking trails have a few interesting things to see along the way, like the ancient fig tree and giant baobab.
As we said, this was our favorite place we’ve stayed in Malawi, and we would absolutely go back in a heartbeat… once we have a while to save up again. We highly recommend spending a few days there if you are in Malawi!