African Retreats In Tanzania

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Villa at Lupita Island

There are few places that overwhelm with a sense of remoteness and solitude and sumptuousness as Lupita, a speck of an island on Tanzania’s Lake Tanganyika. Its name means “the place where one goes” in Swahili—and this is where relaxation goes to reach new levels, and where the majestic beauty of the lake and its surroundings invariably make visitors feel like they’re intruding into a feral yet serene world in a country that just might be Africa’s most fascinating destination.

Tanzania is where, under the Equatorial sun, adventure holds hands with unparalleled natural wonders. Its beauty and remoteness consistently rank it among the world’s most enthralling destinations. It’s less developed than South Africa, more remote than Kenya and it’s where one finds the truest examples of Africa in that vast, astonishing area of real estate that lies between Cairo and Cape Town.

Coming here is a long trek that only begins upon arrival in Dar es Salaam—Tanzania’s ancient and weathered, traffic-clogged capital—after 10 hours in the air from London, a flight made easier by the amenities and comfort British Airways offers on its “World Traveller Plus” section. Airline officials say this service is “aimed to cost-conscious business travelers and discerning leisure passengers who want more space and privacy.” With a cabin featuring a 2-4-2 configuration, the airplane format has reaped rave reviews.

Dazed travelers arrive early in the morning and, after paying a $100 visa fee, will be jolted by the thoroughly African experience of noises, smells, confusion and general chaos. This is where the expertise of tour operators proves invaluable because they will maneuver guests through the sweltering maze of the airport and breeze through the bureaucratic process.

New arrivals would do well to remember that the rewards lying just beyond the airport gates are worth the hassle.

One of the tour operators that stands out with its efficiency while tendering Tanzania’s luxury side is Firelight Expeditions, founded in 1998 by Tom Lithgow and his wife Belinda. Firelight just might be the “go-to” company for those who want both upscale tastes and incomparable adventures in
a country not generally known for its well-appointed side.

Lithgow, a third generation Tanzanian from English ancestors who settled in the country decades before 1964—
when Zanzibar and Tanganyika joined in the federation that comprises modern Tanzania—owns the remote luxury lake resort on Lupita Island as well as Palahala (“sable antelope”), a luxury safari tent camp in Katavi Province and Mwanga Moto (“firelight”), a plush seasonal mobile operation that shadows the great migration of wildebeest in the Serengeti Plain.

The caveat of venturing into east Africa is that one should make allowances for long trips between destinations. While the distances aren’t particularly great, Tanzania’s infrastructure (only a handful of paved roads, non-existent roadside amenities and the overwhelming sense of having been shoved into the Third World) can frustrate and overwhelm.

The country is determined to turn itself into a world-class destination and is presently upgrading the status of the Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB) into a full-fledged government authority to oversee all facets of tourism.

Khamis Kagasheki, minister of tourism and natural resources, explains that the authority will be responsible for marketing Tanzania “as a destination, as well as managing all of [the country’s] tourism products.”

He adds: “There’s a lot of work to do, but the authority will be in place by November 2013. Its main mission is to dramatically increase the number of visitors.”

Ibrahim Mussa, Tanzania’s director of tourism, adds, “Our numbers have seen a positive trend. Foreign visitors have increased 73 percent (867,994 in 2011), currently bringing in about $1.32 billion in revenue.

“As a result, we are dedicated to improving our tourism infrastructure while stressing that conservation lies at the heart of tourism development planning. Nearly 30 percent of the country has been designated as a wildlife protected area, with 15 national parks, three marine parks, more than 30 game reserves and the multiple land use in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where wildlife co-exists with the Maasai pastoralists and their herds of cows and goats.”

Both government officials concede that tourism needs upgrading in what is one of Africa’s most beautiful, stable, democratic and progressive republics.

lupita island

Lupita, however, needs little improvement.

The 130-acre island is reached from Arusha, the nearest international airport. From there, a 3-hour flight on small commuter planes (on Mondays and Thursdays) takes guests to Lupita’s airstrip in Kipili, a dun-colored village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika for a 20-minute boat ride to the island.

Next year, direct chartered flights from Dar es Salaam will take guests to the resort where the high quality of personal service, impeccable amenities, manicured grounds and the feeling of remoteness will immediately make the long trip seem like the distant past.

Fourteen luxurious, thatched-roof, open-air villas with uninterrupted lake views set amidst a pristine and removed natural habitat are whimsically decorated while exuding an atmosphere of solitude.

Even the smallest cottage measures a whopping 1,800 sq. ft., while the 2-bedroom, 2-bath family suite weighs in at 2,400 sq. ft. Every villa features open-air, stone bathrooms with waterfall showers oozing from overhead rocks. The villas seem designed to make stress melt. Plunge pools on the terrace overlook the lake making soaking a delight. The main pavilion, a short distance away, has a large lounge with spectacular views of neighboring islands.

Lupita has the ambiance of an African lord’s manor from the past. It’s full of exquisite native carvings, hand-hewn tables, comfortable leather chairs, ornate rugs and works of art gathered from remote corners of the country.

The resort evokes classic movies. Clark Gable and Ava Gardner would have felt at home here when filming “Mogambo.” The huge lake recalls Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn ramming the African Queen into a World War I German battleship.

Indeed, Lupita seems custom-made for romance- and adventure-spiced luxury.

What do you do once here?

“Anything you want,” says Lithgow. “We offer waterskiing, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, or just the opportunity to sit in your lodge to bask in comfort or merely to enjoy solitude.”

The dishes from its kitchen, described as “continental cuisine with an African flair,” are wide-ranging and change daily. There is an ample selection of fine liquors and wines.

Some amenities like spa services and special guided hikes, however, cost extra.

One of the more inviting activities is a ramble through fields of elephant grass and plots of cassava to Ulwile, Lupita’s sister island reachable by a narrow land bridge. Ulwile is home to the village of the same name, an African settlement that reflects its remote location and background.

Home to about 1,000 fishermen and their wives, Ulwile is dramatically absent of men during the day. Its mud, thatched-roofed huts and dusty tracks are overrun by squealing children and women drying sardines on woven mats under the blinding sun as their husbands and fathers sleep all day after having spent the night fishing. The village is a true scene from a rapidly disappearing world.

The resort also offers the option of lunch on a nearby beach where umbrellas and chairs face the lake while fawning attendants see to every whim a guest may have with an ample selection of imported liquors and domestic beers.

In the evening, Lupita guests can embark on sunset cruises on a sparkling 37-ft. cruiser to either dive into the unusually warm waters of Lake Tanganyika or to enjoy drinks and snacks while the bright day turns into night, giving way to an astounding display of Southern Hemisphere stars.

Swimming in Lake Tanganyika is an experience. The 480-mile-long lake is the second deepest in the world and holds an estimated one-eighth of the world’s fresh water supply.

Prices range from approximately $2,200 per night dbl for a luxury villa, to $3,600 for the family unit, a marvelous open-air structure that sleeps six.

There are very few places on earth that can match Lupita’s solitude and privacy.