November 18, 2019
Just Back: The Best of Kenya & Victoria Falls
Kenya is a dream destination—and one of our top picks—for an unforgettable wildlife safari. In addition to incredible game viewing, the country also offers many wonderful cultural experiences and soft-adventure activities, making it a well-rounded destination for all types of travelers, including families, couples and honeymooners.
We recently toured some of our favorite places in Kenya, visiting Nairobi, Mount Kenya and iconic Maasai Mara. We also added a few days at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We went on game drives, visited animal orphanages, rode horses, visited crafts workshops, met Maasai villagers, visited a local school and enjoyed fantastic cuisine. We also experienced the incredible hospitality of Kenyans everywhere we went.
We spent several days in the legendary Maasai Mara, one of the most famous and impressive safari destinations in the world. Morning and afternoon game drives were unforgettable. We saw a wide range of wild animals—including lions, giraffes, rhinos, antelopes, zebras, hippos and warthogs—on the open plains, along the Mara River and in the nearby hills.
Afternoon showers made for dramatic skies over the Maasai Mara as the sun set.
Sunrise is also a beautiful time to be on the plain.
We saw lots of baby animals during our game drives.
The hippo pool next to our safari lodge had its own smiling baby.
Seeing predators is always a highlight of a game drive. We were lucky to see many lions, including a mother with two cubs and a male that was feasting on a fresh kill.
Among the smaller animals we saw were dik diks and lots of colorful and interesting birds, including a gray-crowned crane…
…a lilac-breasted roller…
…and yellow-billed oxpeckers.
One day, we visited a Maasai village. We were greeted by the chief…
…and the village women, who sang for us.
We also went inside one of the mud huts in the village to learn about the traditional Maasai lifestyle.
Next, we visited a local school, where 500 children of all ages came out to greet us! Their enthusiasm and joy were an inspiration. They performed a song and traditional Maasai dance for us, and we donated school supplies and other items to them. We can arrange these types of memorable activities as part of a private Kenya tour.
Among our favorite safari lodges in Maasai Mara are Mara Plains…
…and Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp.
We also spent time in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and one of the main hubs for East Africa. Kenya Airways now flies directly from New York City to Nairobi, which is ideal for travelers wanting to get to East Africa without a layover (many travelers also combine a safari in East Africa with time in London, Dubai or other destinations).
Highlights of Nairobi were visiting the Giraffe Centre to feed giraffes (a family favorite)…
…and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to see orphaned baby elephants…
…and a baby rhino!
British colonial style is reflected in Nairobi’s best hotels, including Giraffe Manor, in the suburb of Karen. Giraffes from the nearby Giraffe Centre visit Giraffe Manor regularly to stick their heads through windows for a snack.
Hemingways, also in Karen, is another top option.
Fairmont The Norfolk, the most historic hotel in the city, is in downtown Nairobi.
Another reminder of Nairobi’s colonial history is the Karen Blixen Museum, the house in which the Danish author also known as Isak Dinesen lived from 1914 to 1931.
Meryl Streep portrayed Blixen in the Hollywood version of her memoir Out of Africa, and the museum has some of the costumes used during filming.
We visited local crafts workshops around Nairobi and Karen (named after Blixen) to see artisans making beads, and we browsed local boutiques and markets for jewelry, bronze objects, woven bags, traditional textiles such as lesos and kikoy, Maasai blankets, waxed cotton and more.
MOUNT KENYA SAFARI CLUB
We also traveled to the iconic Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, a resort at the base of beautiful Mount Kenya. American actor William Holden once owned and ran the hotel, and many notable figures—including Winston Churchill and Bing Crosby—have spent time there over the years.
The sprawling grounds feature acres of lawns and gardens, a golf course, a swimming pool, a hedge maze and more.
The mild climate of the region makes it ideal for relaxing outside.
Many of the rooms at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club have great views of the peak of Mount Kenya (elevation 17,057 feet/5,199 m), the second-highest mountain in Africa. The centerpiece of Mount Kenya National Park, the extinct volcano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another geographical attraction of the property is the equator, which runs through the middle of the resort.
Among the many activities on the hotel grounds and in the surrounding countryside are horseback riding, golf, tennis and hiking.
Meals were a highlight at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club. We had a barbecue in the walled garden, breakfast in the bush, cocktails in a boma (protected outdoor space) on a nearby wildlife conservancy and a lamplit dinner on a platform over the river.
At the animal orphanage next to the resort, we saw endangered bongos (forest antelopes) as well as rescued animals such as a leopard, a cheetah, an ostrich, monkeys and owls.
We also arrange day excursions from the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club to wildlife sanctuaries in the region, such as Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Samburu National Reserve.
With so many activities on-site and in the surrounding region, the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club is great for families. Even the local wildlife agrees—we saw this family of colobus monkeys (including the all-white baby in the arms of its mother on the right) in the trees on the property.
Another highlight of our stay at the resort was going into the nearby town of Nanyuki to see local life and visit a textile workshop. The women here spin merino wool, dye it with natural colors such as carmine from cochineal (a small insect that lives on cactus pads)…
…and then weave it into blankets, throw rugs and other items.
We also visited a local shop to browse for other locally made crafts, such as paintings, carved wooden sculptures and Maasai blankets.
Next, we flew to Zimbabwe to visit breathtaking Victoria Falls. One of the largest waterfalls in the world, Victoria Falls stretches along the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia and is renowned for its awesome power and sublime beauty.
We enjoyed a private walking tour of Victoria Falls, which is formed when the Zambezi River spreads 5,604 feet (1,708 m) across a broad basalt plain and plunges 351 feet (107 m) into Batoka Gorge. This narrow chasm concentrates the rumble and mist of the falls, directing the spray hundreds of feet into the air and creating an effect captured in the local Lozi name for the falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The Smoke That Thunders.”
We visited the 16 viewpoints on the Zimbabwean side of the falls—from the David Livingstone Statue to the Railway Bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia—to see varied perspectives on the dozens of cataracts and enjoy the rainforest environment.
At some points, we gazed the length of the gorge—white water on one side, cliffs and forest on the other—and in others, we stared directly across at the falls as the mist drifted up, soaking us.
Victoria Falls is protected within national parks on both sides of the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for the largest curtain of falling water in the world, as well as its unique ecosystem that supports flora and fauna such as flame lilies, vervet monkeys and hornbills.
Later, we enjoyed afternoon tea on the veranda of the Victoria Falls Hotel, a landmark from the British colonial period that has views of the mist, the gorge and the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The hotel has atmospheric public rooms and courtyards.
The hotel also has a boutique selling items from around Africa.
But the highlight of our visit to Zimbabwe was staying at the outstanding Matetsi Victoria Falls, a luxurious private lodge on the Zambezi River that’s our preferred property in Zimbabwe and at the falls.
In addition to being the best luxury option in the Victoria Falls region, Matetsi is also an amazing safari destination. With a 50,000-acre private concession and nine miles of private frontage on the Zambezi River available only to guests, game drives and cruises feel unbelievably exclusive.
Everything at Matetsi was superlative and unforgettable, starting with the spirited welcome the staff gave us with drumming, singing and dancing.
The private villas at Matetsi were beautiful and had ample space inside including large living areas, giant tubs, and indoor and outdoor showers. Glass doors open onto views of the forest and river.
Outside, the villas have private plunge pools overlooking the Zambezi River.
Matetsi also has a lap pool, a gym and a boutique selling high-quality African items.
Meals were a highlight at Matetsi, which has an excellent restaurant and a well-stocked wine cellar. We enjoyed several alfresco meals in the bush, where the chefs were able to create delicious dishes despite the challenges of the locations.
The design of the main lounge and bar at Matetsi show how the lodge combines modern style and traditional Zimbabwean elements.
We enjoyed seeing birds, elephants and crocodiles—and no other people—on a Zambezi River cruise. Our boat was also well-stocked with treats and drinks.
Early morning and late afternoon game drives on Matetsi’s private concession revealed the rich biodiversity of the area.
Elephants were a highlight. Tens of thousands of elephants live in the region and travel between Zimbabwe and neighboring Botswana…
…which can create traffic jams.
We saw elephants playing in the river from afar and up close during a canoe trip on the Zambezi.
The orange and yellows of the many giraffes at Matetsi contrasted with the greenery of the forest.
We saw many memorable birds around Matetsi, including bee eaters…
…a Verreaux’s eagle owl, a bateleur and a fish eagle.
As night fell, we saw wild dogs, a rare spotting.
Victoria Falls is a must-see for travelers to southern Africa, and Matetsi is an ideal place to stay when visiting the region. Matetsi and Victoria Falls combine well with tours in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania.
Contact Artisans of Leisure to begin planning an unforgettable African safari.