Word of Mouth: Safari Hotel Hop, Kenya

Four stunning conservation-minded retreats from Nairobi to Maasai Mara

Few nations boast Kenya’s astounding biodiversity, but the birthplace of the luxury safari isn’t only about animals. Home to some of the most spectacular hotels on the continent, Kenya tempts safari first-timers and loyalists with its ever-growing selection of private lodges, tented camps and plush resorts; some set in remote wildlife corridors and others on the urban fringes of Nairobi’s own national park.

Hopping around the country is ideal—if your budget allows—via flights with Safarilink, which offers regular connections and charters to the Maasai Mara, Loisaba and other hotspots from the capital’s Wilson Airport. Building multiple safaris into a single trip isn’t a task that’s lean on logistics. We suggest finding a local team to facilitate, like boutique operator Safari Trails, who crafted our weeklong itinerary including hotel bookings, park fees, transfers and all necessary COVID-19 testing (Kenya’s currently open to American travelers who arrive with a negative PCR test) and protocols.

by Paul Jebara

Though a safari may be considered far-flung to many travelers, the experience itself addresses some of the heightened concerns that have emerged during the pandemic. It’s not only that the major drawcard is spending time in the outdoors, or that wilderness camps are small in size. Most safari hotels that operate in Kenya place a heavy emphasis on community, serving as a major source of employment in remote areas as well as providing financial aid to rural tribes through associated organizations. These hotels are also contributors to conservation efforts, financially and through anti-poaching assistance.

The stylish selections below also care about community and conservation, and provide a remarkable experience for anybody lucky enough to visit.

Elewana Loisaba Lodo Springs

Adopting the Swahili word for harmony as its name, hotel group Elewana Collection pays special attention to how each of its 16 luxurious properties operates across remote swaths of Kenya and Tanzania. Part of its collective mission includes minimizing any environmental impact, outfitting all outposts with innovative power systems to eliminate dependence on traditional fuel. But Elewana Collection’s philanthropic efforts extend far beyond the perimeters of its lodges thanks to its overarching charitable arm, The Land & Life Foundation. The non-profit commits to a range of initiatives in the regions that focus on supporting tribal communities through education and healthcare funding, as well as wildlife conservation and anti-poaching training.

by Paul Jebara

Elewana Collection has five different types of accommodation in Northern Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau, including open-air Loisaba Star Beds and, its newest addition, Loisaba Lodo Springs. With eight breezy tents elevated on wooden platforms, Loisaba Lodo Springs offers a sweeping sense of privacy from its perch on the edge of an escarpment inside the Loisaba Conservancy, a 57,000-acre concession and working cattle ranch managed by American NGO The Nature Conservancy. The private reserve has Kenya’s second-largest population of elephants, as well as large concentrations of rare mammals like Grevy’s zebra, wild dogs, and Jackson’s hartebeests, which roam freely among blossoming acacia trees and spiny cacti. Expert Samburu guides lead a number of daytime excursions, from Land Rover game drives to walking safaris, mountain bike tours and camel treks. And unlike other reserves, since Loisaba is a private concession, night safaris are also a possibility.

Courtesy of Elewana Collection

Elewana Sand River Maasai Mara

Located in the Maasai Mara National Reserve along the great wildebeest migration route, Elewana Sand River is one of the premier sustainable resorts in East Africa, holding a coveted gold rating from Ecotourism Kenya. This ultra-secluded retreat is modeled after the storied tented camps of the 1920s. It comprises 16 deluxe tents outfitted with bamboo flooring, Victorian freestanding bathtubs and private terraces with outdoor showers that overlook its namesake river into Tanzania’s Serengeti plains. The property teems with such an abundance of wildlife that guests are encouraged to secure their tents with carabiners to prevent deviously dextrous primates from intruding.

by Paul Jebara

In between morning game drives, excursions in nearby Olochura village (where a few of the staff members reside) and bush sundowners sipping African botanical gins, guests can lounge by a scenic infinity pool designed by Nairobi-based Landscape Studio. Among Elewana Sand River’s initiatives tied to the Land & Life Foundation is its support for the rural Embiti Primary School, funding digital training for teachers as well as the recent construction of staff quarters and bathroom blocks.

Enaidura Luxury Camp

Once a mobile “fly camp” that followed ungulate herds through the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Enaidura (meaning “migration” in the local Maa language) put down roots on the Talek River about three years ago, less than a mile from a major crossing point during the annual Great Migration. “The government allocates specific spots where you can set up camp, but it’s only for a maximum of two weeks which turned out to be a logistical nightmare,” says Rajay Thethy, CEO of Safari Trails and Enaidura co-founder. “So, I thought, ‘Let me find the perfect spot, right in the middle of the Mara that at any given time during the Great Migration the herds are next to us or a maximum 30 minutes away.'” But just because the camp would eventually settle on a single location, that didn’t mean that the structures had to be permanent. “We still wanted to do something different,” he continues, “not like others who have concrete or cement facilities where there is no soul.”

by Paul Jebara

Enaidura accomplishes just that, catering to those who appreciate the more rustic interpretation of luxury. There are seven canvas tents decked out in modern comforts with a microdose of roughing it: the bucket showers, with bathwater heated upon request, are especially memorable. Ultimately, it is the group of outstanding guides that differentiate a stay at Enaidura from any other safari stay in the Maasai Mara. The camp’s Maasai co-owners, Johnson Ping’ua “Ping” Ole Nkukuu, Peter Kiyaa and Paul Kirui are all gold-level members of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association—the highest credential possible for expert safari guides to earn.

Courtesy of Hemingways

Hemingways Nairobi

Set in the residential district of Karen just 15 minutes from Nairobi’s Central Business District, Hemingways recreates the grandeur of Kenya’s stately colonial-era estates with its country club-style buildings and immaculate gardens that slope toward the Ngong Hills. The resort’s 45 lofty suites are each named after famous places and historical figures who have spent time in Kenya.

Courtesy of Hemingways

Rooms fit the visual brief for a safari-inspired lodge, with rustic decor and wildlife photography, four-poster beds draped with mosquito nets and vintage leather trunks that conceal the room’s flatscreen TV at the push of a button. Just past the opulent lobby is Hemingways’ signature brasserie and patio—a perennial favorite among locals for Sunday jazz brunch. All Hemingways properties have teamed up with charitable foundations. The Nairobi outpost works with humanitarian organization One Horizon (which supports disadvantaged families in Kenya) and engages with The Community Rugby Association’s efforts to bring the sport to children living in the slums of the capital.

Hero image courtesy of Elewana