Malawi’s lakes, mountains, and wilderness have been drawing an increasing number of visitors since 1993, when President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s three decades of autocratic rule finally ended. The country’s five national parks and four wildlife reserves are home to a wealth of big game, and Malawi has wisely begun promoting itself as an affordable alternative to safari destinations such as Botswana, Kenya, and Tanzania. Unlike countries with more established safari operations, Malawi’s protected areas are easily and inexpensively accessed by independent travellers and are conspicuously devoid of touristladen Land Rovers.

Malawi is wedged between Mozambique and Zambia. Within its narrow boundaries lie amazingly varied landscapes, from a massive lake edged by palm trees and mountains to a pine-forested plateau stitched with streams and hiking trails. Although there’s no shortage of accommodations, luxury options are few. Simply furnished hotels and guesthouses are the norm.

The centerpiece of the country is 360-mile-long Lake Malawi, which covers 20 percent of the nation. Typically calm and crystal-clear, it supports some 1,000 species of fish and is one of the world’s best freshwater diving locations. (Beware of areas affected by the bilharzia parasite.) Some of the nicest accommodations on the lake are on the island sanctuaries of Mumbo and Domwe. Likoma Island, accessible by public ferry just once a week (or by chartered boat or plane), is well worth a visit to see Chipyela, a quaint town with cobbled roads and a stone church, built by Anglican missionaries in 1906, that is nearly as large as Westminster Cathedral. Thirty miles south of the lake, Liwonde National Park teems with hippos, crocodiles, and elephants. In the north, the hills of Nyika National Park attract hikers; horseback safaris are also popular. Other prime trekking areas are the misty slopes of 10,000-foot Mount Mulanje and the pine forests of the Zomba Plateau

The Zomba Forest Lodge, a tranquil homestead on the Zomba Plateau, offers perhaps the best value for the money. It has five simple but comfortable rooms, and there are few better places to watch the blood red sunsets than from its front lawn (265-9200369; z.f.lodge@mw.celtelplus.com; doubles, $60, including dinner).