Experiencing the High Life in Kenya

Kenya, the acknowledged birthplace of the safari and home to some of the richest and most verdant wildlife you’ll find in Africa, is also utilizing its “Magical Kenya” powers today – not to mention taking a lesson from the success of the luxury andBeyond and Singita camps and lodges in South Africa – to develop some unforgettable luxury camps and lodges of its own.

The trouble with defining and identifying a luxury product in a place like Kenya is dealing with the issues of subjectivity, taste and the changing nature of the luxury marketplace in terms of the changing demands of the luxury traveler. So to help define that product and the demands of high-end travelers, we went to three different luxury tour operators—all of whom said the majority of their luxury clients customize—to get their input on their experiences in this very unique and diverse destination.

For example, David Jones, v.p. at Ker & Downey, emphasizes that luxury these days is not just about booking over-the-top, drop-dead gorgeous properties. “It’s more about experiential travel now, it’s not just luxury anymore. We’re finding that our particular clients have the means to spend pretty much whatever they want on travel and they want to incorporate the luxury with the experience. They want to ensure that it’s a valid experience and not just a luxury hotel because they can go to a wonderful Four Seasonsanywhere in the world. But they want to make sure the experience matches up with the luxury.”

Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, agrees that the tastes of the luxury client has changed over the years, as well. “They’re more discerning—which is kind of a broad word. They seem to know what they want and I think the Internet helps to some extent. So they come with a fixed idea as opposed to a clean slate. Sometimes that’s easier to work with, but sometimes that’s more challenging because often they might be going up the wrong tree and then you have to send them in the right direction.” Still, he adds, “I think that sheer luxury just for the sake of luxury, is really not what most people are looking for. I think they want a blend of luxury, but very comfortable luxury in the right location with the right wildlife and the right people.”

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Logan Stine, tour consultant for Sub-Sahara Africa at Cox & Kings, points out that Kenya is the perfect place for these new luxury clients seeking an “experiential” safari experience because of its unique combination of culture and wildlife. “That’s something that’s totally unique to East Africa—that cultural and wildlife interaction and if you go to the right places, you can get that experience, whereas Southern Africa is more focused on the luxury wildlife without the cultural aspect. That is one of the coolest aspects of East Africa.”

Certainly, the three main areas all three of these luxury tour operators highlight on their safari itineraries are the Amboseli area in Eastern Kenya, the Samburu area in Northern Kenya and, of course, the Maasai Mara, home to the annual “great migration.”

In Kenya’s Amboseli area—facing snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro located just over the border in Tanzania—all three operators recommend a unique lodge called Ol Donyo Wuas—Maasai for “spotted hills”—situated on the slopes of the Chyulu Hills, with exclusive access to a quarter of a million acres of one of the few remaining wilderness areas of East Africa. The lodge consists of nine individual cottages, each with an en-suite bath, electric lighting, an open fireplace, a centrally positioned dining area and a verandah with a panoramic view of the plains and Mount Kilimanjaro. Each suite also has an outdoor bedroom above the villa—a “star bed”—accessed by a set of winding stairs, which open on to a large deck with an outdoor bed, and seating where guests can, on request, sleep out under the stars. Each bed is appointed with linens, bedside tables with lamps and a mosquito net.

In addition to a variety of activities such as game viewing by vehicle, on foot and on horseback, there’s still another unique feature guests love—the log jam hide. Basically, it’s a mass of heavy logs piled about five feet high and three feet thick, where guests are able to safely view wildlife at exceptionally close range at the lodge’s waterhole—almost like being a part of the herd. After a visit to the hide, guests learn so much about the wildlife, and elephants in particular, they’re able to watch interactions and movements closely.