From desert to coast, Swahili hideaway to Maasai conservancy, Tamara Britten picks five stunning, diverse – and distinctly Kenyan – places to stay.
1 Rusinga Island Lodge, Lake Victoria
2 Elsa’s Kopje, Meru National Park
3 Peponi Hotel, Lamu Island
4 Desert Rose Lodge, Mt Nyiru
5 Porini Amboseli Camp, Selenkay Conservation Area
1 Cradle of Mankind – Rusinga Island Lodge, Lake Victoria
On a tiny island in Lake Victoria, the discovery of a well-preserved Proconsul skull dating back 18 million years changed archaeologists’ understanding of the link between apes and humans. The finding reaffirmed the Great Rift Valley and its surroundings as one of the world’s most important hominid fossil sites, and established Kenya as home of the earliest evidence of human evolution.
Rusinga Island Lodge, a sumptuous collection of open-fronted cottages, is located on this historic site surrounded by rolling lawns, exotic trees and gleaming water. The capacious cottages, with their soaring thatched roofs, handcrafted furniture and cream drapes, look out over the largest freshwater lake in Africa. Homegrown vegetables and fruit contribute to contemporary menus that can be enjoyed by candlelight in the gazebo.
Rusinga’s Wellness Spa offers aromatic treatments using local organic fruits and shrubs, with enticing names like African Awakening and Kenyan Caress. Despite the island atmosphere that induces indolence, the lodge offers a wealth of activities. The island is ideal for birdwatching, fishing, biking, hiking and visiting the prehistoric sites, while on the lake visitors can go water-skiing, tubing, banana-boating and kayaking.
• From US$280 full board, including all activities except watersports
2 Safari Chic – Elsa’s Kopje, Meru National Park
With a clutch of awards to its name, including Best Safari Camp in East Africa, Best Accommodation in Kenya and Eco Warrior Award, Elsa’s Kopje is a little gem set in a national park that remains one of Kenya’s best kept secrets.
Named for Elsa the lioness of Born Free fame who was fostered here, Elsa’s Kopje raises the bar on safari chic. Perched on a kopje with spectacular views on all sides, the lodge has a private house, honeymoon suite and several open-plan cottages. The secluded decks, infinity pools and private dining areas, adorned with unique handcrafted furnishings, provide unlimited opportunities for luxuriating in this romantic idyll.
Meru National Park, a rugged and beautiful ecosystem of rivers, waterfalls, forests and open grassland, is home to a diverse assortment of wildlife and bird species. Devastated in the 1980s by land conflicts, bandits and poachers, the park implemented a comprehensive renovation programme and reintroduced over 1350 animals. On game drives, experienced guides track such rare species as black rhino, greater kudu, African wild dog, caracal, serval, aardvark, aardwolf and honey badger.
The romance of Elsa’s Kopje combined with the untamed wilderness of Meru make this one of Kenya’s most alluring safari destinations.
• From US$410 full board, including all activities except spa treatments
3 Arabic Coastal Culture – Peponi Hotel, Lamu Island
Lamu’s winding alleyways and eclectic whitewashed buildings echo with history. A trading post for many centuries, the island has absorbed the influence of Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chinese and Europeans, yet remains distinctively Kenyan at heart.
Peponi Hotel, which opened in 1967 and has remained in the hands of the same family ever since, stands on the shores of Shela Village. With a name that means ‘heaven’ in Swahili, the hotel epitomises the elegance of the island. Each of the individually designed rooms has a view over the sea from its private balcony, and is decorated in chic Lamu style. The seafront swimming pool meanders through a vibrant collection of tropical palms, exotic plants and ancient baobabs.
The hotel’s terrace restaurant is renowned for fresh seafood, Swahili dishes and tropical cocktails including its signature ‘Old Pal’. Activities include water-skiing, scuba diving, snorkelling and boat trips. In order to protect this historic stretch of coastline, the hotel works closely with the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust and has initiated the Turtle Trust.
An appealing blend of history, culture and contemporary coastal life, Peponi Hotel has become a Lamu icon.
• From US$235 per person, per night, or US$290 per double per night on a bed and breakfast basis
4 Natural Diversity – Desert Rose Lodge, Mt Nyiru
With everything from ice-capped mountains, to searing deserts, Kenya has a more diverse landscape than almost any other country. And nowhere showcases this rich variety better than the treasure of the north, Desert Rose.
Set on the slopes of a mountain revered as sacred to the Samburu people, this wilderness lodge has lava fields to the west, desert to the east, cedar forests to the south and Lake Turkana to the north.
Each hand-built house and cottage is designed around a natural feature, and is entirely secluded. The indigenous gardens, main lounge and swimming pool have been landscaped to enhance the magnificent views of Mt Nyiru. With a gravity-fed water system, solar power and a policy of not cutting trees, this distinctive lodge is truly eco-friendly.
The north of Kenya offers activities such as camel treks in the desert, visits to El Molo and Turkana villages, birdwatching, game walks, fishing and rock climbing.
• From US$500, full board, including all activities
5 Traditional Tribes – Porini Amboseli Camp, Selenkay Conservation Area
Community-run and located on lands leased from the local Maasai, Porini Amboseli Camp, provides an authentic insight into this ancient culture. Maasai warriors dressed in bright shukas and armed with spears escort visitors through dusky bush dotted with towering red termite mounds and yellow-barked acacia trees. Visitors learn about the indigenous plants used by the community before being welcomed into the Maasai village.
The camp’s spacious tents are furnished with traditional safari furniture and adorned with Maasai ornaments. With no permanent structures, this ecocamp boasts solar power and water conservation systems, and has been the recipient of a Silver Ecotourism Award.
Adjacent to the northern border of Amboseli National Park, it gives visitors the chance to enjoy game drives, night drives and sundowners in a private conservancy. An important area for wildlife, Selenkay gives the camp’s qualified guides the chance to seek out the rare caracal, African wildcat, civet, gerenuk and lesser kudu.
• From US$440, full board, including conservancy fees and activities