Barely 100 years ago, when it was proclaimed capital of British East Africa — the country we now know as Kenya — Nairobi was still a swamp.
Wild animals would wander in from the plains, so that if you were foolhardy enough to take a late night stroll, you were as likely to be mauled by a hungry lion as bitten by a mad dog.
Fast forward a century, and Nairobi today is the 10th largest city in Africa, an economic and cultural hub with a thriving stock exchange and a vibrant arts, food and music scene. With techie industries flourishing, it is not for nothing that it is known as the Silicon Valley of Africa.
Nairobi is also home to one of Africa’s most famous hotels, Fairmont The Norfolk. Opened in 1904, The Norfolk is, like Raffles Singapore or the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo, the stuff of legend, as integral to the development of Nairobi as Nairobi is bound up with the history of the hotel. The Norfolk is where President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit stayed in 1909, and from where they set off on their notorious great safari, with 500 porters carrying everything from collapsible bathtubs to crates of Champagne; where Hugh Cholmondeley, Lord Delamere, English aristocrat and founder of the equally notorious “Happy Valley” set, would ride his horse into the dining room and jump over tables; and where royalty and heads of state, film stars and top-tier rock musicians have always chosen to hang their crowns and pith helmets in the Kenyan capital.
A Fairmont Hotels & Resorts property since 2004, The Norfolk is still the best address in town. Attention to detail shows: Guest rooms feel fresh and inviting. The hotel’s celebrated gardens — a lush oasis in this dusty city — are primped and spruced. And, thanks to executive chef Aris Athanasiou, some of the best food in town is to be found on the hotel’s landmark Lord Delamere Terrace and in its steakhouse, Tatu.
Meanwhile, there is a great deal to occupy you in the town and, whether or not you are on your way to or from safari, you should schedule two or three days here. Karen Blixen’s house, now the Karen Blixen Museum, with its evocative view of the Ngong Hills, is a quiet joy and the prelude to exploring the wider neighborhood of Karen (named, of course, for Blixen herself.)
At the House of Treasures Emporium, a thoroughly upscale shopping Shangri-La, I came across Sally Dudmesh’s opulent jewelry, made using silver, gold, fossils and gemstones; as well as Bumble & Ava’s made-in-Kenya kids’ clothes; Bush Princess handbags; and Deepa Shah’s home goods and Indian quilts. And diagonally across Dagoretti Road, hidden away in the tony residential enclave of Windy Lane, I found Englishman Chris Payne’s eclectic emporium — beautiful artifacts and furniture upholstered in vintage African fabrics, like suzani, ikat and Rwandan wax cloth. (Lug home an armchair? “We ship everything,” Payne says.)
If wild beasts no longer prowl Nairobi’s streets, uniquely, in this African city they are never far away. Big game — which is to say lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants and Cape buffaloes — roam the Nairobi National Park, within sight of the city skyscrapers, while at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, also within easy reach of downtown, you can see orphaned elephants and black rhinos that are being rehabilitated before being reintroduced to the wild.
For the full-on safari experience, however, the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, in the northwest Masai Mara, awaits — a luxury en suite glamping experience, on a bend of the Mara River at the foot of the Aitong Hills. This is country the Big Five call home, where pods of hippopotamuses gather by the river facing your tent. It is also one of the best places to see herds of wildebeest crossing in migration season, which runs from July to October.
For a gentler but no less awe-inspiring experience, take my advice and head north. It’s a mere 35-minute flight from Nairobi, by Cessna or de Havilland Dash 8, up to Nanyuki, a rapidly gentrifying town that sits virtually on the equator, with snow-capped Mount Kenya in the distance. A few miles out of town, the Mount Kenya Safari Club — also in the Fairmont stable — was formerly the home of Hollywood movie star William Holden. Smart and self-assured, like the actor himself, with colonial flourishes here and there, the club is the kind of hotel they don’t build anymore. (Some might say just as well, but from an architectural point of view at least, I think that would be to miss the point).
At the Safari Club, there are wood-burning fireplaces in every guest room. (Despite being on the equator, Nanyuki’s elevation means it gets cold up there at night.) The hotel shop, a destination in itself, sells African Kente cloth shawls, exquisite Kitengela glass, fabulous Nubian hats and beaded Masai bracelets, all in the colors of the rainbow. There are pink gins in the bar (where you can play at being a character straight out of a Graham Greene novel) and Indian curries at the hotel’s Tusks restaurant, prepared by a very talented Keralan chef. And there are game drives to spot zebra and wildebeest in the early dawn and sundowners around the fire pit in the conservancy at dusk, with only the whisper of the breeze in the baobab trees and the crackling of the fire for company, and the wide African night falling like an ink-black velvet cape to swaddle you and make you wonder at the grandeur of it all.
The equator itself, invisible of course but palpable, actually bisects the club; in one of the club’s luxury suites it actually sits between the double sinks in the bathroom, so you can wash your hands in the Northern Hemisphere and dry them in the Southern, if the fancy takes you.
Downstairs in the magnificent public rooms there are antlers on the wall, to remind you of where you are, in hunters’ country — but not too many, thank goodness. The mandate of the Animal Orphanage, on the grounds of the club, is to prevent the extinction of species, to conserve the ecosystem and to rescue young animals, returning them where possible to their natural habitat. The orphanage’s main project right now is the breeding of the mountain bongo, the exquisite but now critically endangered striped antelope, of which, piteously, today less than 100 remain.
The tragedy of poaching is brought home even more acutely at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, just west of Nanyuki, a 30-minute Land Rover ride away, where, until mid-March, 45 year-old Sudan was the last male Northern White rhino in the world. Come here and learn at firsthand what we have done to our planet and how we may yet save what we have left.
In a lighter mood, back at the club, you can horseback ride, play tennis, golf or croquet, walk the glorious estate or simply sit around the pool, Mount Kenya as your backdrop, reading Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen) short stories perhaps, or listening to Benga, Reggae or Congolese pop on your iPhone. Bliss.
“A unique blend of relaxation and adventure,” as Laurent Chaudet, the hotel’s genial general manager puts it, and really it would be hard to phrase it better.
This fall, Delta’s long-awaited nonstop from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Nairobi is due to start service and will make getting to Kenya easier than ever. If you have ever promised yourself a safari, or wanted to experience the incomparable African night on the plains, or dreamed of that farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills, there could be no better time to plan it than now.
For more, visit fairmont.com/Kenya.