Kenya had been at the top of my travel wish list for decades—roughly since elementary school—before I finally paid my first visit to the country in the fall of 2018. The entire trip, from Nairobi to Nanyuki to the Maasai Mara, exceeded my expectations, which were already sky-high. What’s less sky-high these days, of course, is the cost—this once-in-a-lifetime trip is suddenly all the more accessible for the adventurous traveler.
It’s a wonderful time to score last-minute flights to the Maasai Mara, and after endless days and nights spent at home, there’s no better place to fall asleep than beneath the East African stars. But until then, I’ll retrace my own experience, in hopes of sparking your very own wanderlust and encouraging you to follow in my footsteps (and hop aboard my prop planes) as we travel across Kenya. And now that revenge travel has officially entered the lexicon—a term for booking vacations we’d long been denied at the height of the pandemic to counteract the past couple of years of sheltering-in-place—there’s no better time to visit than now.
Ceremonial arrival in Nairobi of the first Kenya Airways direct flight from NYC (provided by the author)
I boarded the first-ever direct flight on Kenya Airways from New York City to Nairobi and touched down in the Kenyan capital just after dawn. Leaving the airport, the gridlock traffic rivaled Los Angeles at rush hour, allowing extensive opportunity for street vendors to weave their way down the line of cars on the highway, selling everything from water and fruit (standard) to sneakers and modern art (less so). And they had buyers—perhaps unsurprising when your customer is captive in his seat. I looked out the window; I looked at the advertisements; I wondered how long it would take for me to walk the remainder of the drive.
It would be another 45-minutes to the hotel, but when we arrived at our first destination, the iconic Fairmont The Norfolk hotel did not disappoint. The hotel’s pastel architecture and tropical gardens resemble a glamorous, turn-of-the-century fever dream — and it is. An urban oasis in the heart of Nairobi, the private courtyard has long provided a lush hideaway for infamous lushes, the staff serving sundowner cocktails each evening until far past sunrise. One of the hotel’s famed regulars was none other than Ernest Hemingway. In fact, my triangular jaunt across Kenya was an unwitting tribute to Papa’s favorite haunts. He was also a member of the Hollywood-favorite Mount Kenya Safari Club, and his love of big game hunting in the Maasai Mara is also well-chronicled.
Fairmont the Norfolk Hotel (provided by the author)
It was easy to picture Hemingway holding court out on the terrace at The Norfolk that very first evening. Drinking a Dawa Cocktail (Swahili for “medicine”) at the Cin Cin Bar, listening to the tinkling sounds of the pianist and saxophonist performing from across the room. Time seemed to stand still, the rush of the city silent beyond the towering palms shading the Lord Delamere Terrace. It seemed possible that these musicians had performed these very songs a century ago, while Hemingway and his comrades were assorted around this very room. Perhaps the lyrics would be changed, but the outlook would remain the same. “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.” The debonair introspection of a life well-lived, a refusal to concede any losses—yes, Papa’s energy was still here.
Though Nairobi is the country’s largest, most cosmopolitan city, the capital still contains lush pockets of greenery and conservancies for wildlife. One such manicured destination is found only 20 miles from downtown Nairobi at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, home to the Out of Africa author’s original farmhouse (pen name: Isak Dinesen). We had lunch in the formal gardens before heading half a mile down the road to the Karen Blixen Museum to utter the author’s famous opening lines in the spot where she once stood: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. A trip to visit the elephants at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust gave a taste of the adventures in the countryside that awaited me in the days to come on my trip.
Mount Kenya (Adobe Stock)
Many travelers opt to fly into Nairobi and head straight out to the Maasai Mara, which is a mistake on two levels. The first error, of course, is missing out on the lively, intoxicating stay in Nairobi, and the second is to skip over the wondrous villages and countryside surrounding Mount Kenya—which is where I headed next. After a quick Safarilink plane from Nairobi to Nanyuki, I touched down at an airport surrounded by endless plains and rolling hills of green, where I was picked up by shuttle and escorted down a winding dirt road to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, another favorite hangout of Hemingway’s.
Mount Kenya Safari Club (provided by the author)
While it was once a hunting club, the property is now dedicated to conservancy, and we visited the mountain bongo rescue mission occurring on the property, as well as the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy for a spectacular afternoon drive. After riding horses to a champagne breakfast in the bush and enjoying sundowners beneath the acacia trees, I was convinced I’d arrived in heaven—and I was only halfway through my vacation.
Though the properties I visited were luxury establishments with individual identities within Kenya, they were all operated under the Fairmont umbrella. Fairmont is the only major global brand with properties in Nairobi, Nanyuki, and the Maasai Mara, which are premier locations for experiencing the beauty and diversity of the nation. As such, it was easier to coordinate travel to and from each destination (and arrange a multi-stop trip).
The author in Masai Mara with guide (provided by the author)
My final destination was the most celebrated: the Maasai Mara, which translates to the “spotted plains” as opposed to the endless plains of the Serengeti. After another Safarilink plane and winding dirt road, I arrived at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, where I dropped my bags at my luxurious tent beside the Hippo Corner. I would spend every morning waking to the sounds of the hippos returning home up the river after what sounded like a raucous night out, and was grateful for the alarm clock—morning drives require early wake-times, and, unless I’m in East Africa, I’m not a morning person.
Thankfully, in the Maasai Mara, there’s more than enough reason to rise with the sun. The iconic images of the African savannah can’t even do the beauty of the landscape justice. Sunlight beamed through translucent clouds overhead, highlighting streaks of gold across the vast plains of East Africa. The Maasai Mara of Kenya extends through to the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania, and you truly feel a sense of wonder and astonishment at your own insignificance in the face of such untouched beauty.
Wild zebras in Masai Mara (provided by the author)
This insignificance is reinforced by the carefree and unbothered presence of the African animals—zebras, lions, giraffes, elephants, warthogs, and cape buffalo mingling and socializing as if the safari Jeeps simply didn’t exist in their vicinity. To exist in a land dominated by animals and not humans is a rarity in this world—I’ve only ever experienced it before in the Amazon Rainforest or the Galapagos Islands. But—no offense to the blue-footed booby birds of Ecuador, or the pink dolphins of Brazil—it’s hard to compete with the size and the wisdom of a parade of elephants crossing before you in the bush.
Though Kenya is legendary for its natural beauty, I found I was most moved by the culture and the people I met on my journey: From the urban capital of Nairobi to the forests of Mount Kenya to the spotted plains of the Maasai Mara, I encountered warmth and kindness at every turn. In short, there’s much more to Kenya than just the animals. Though a dazzle of zebras running through the plains is, well, dazzling, of course. (And, yes, a dazzle is the correct term, both linguistically and visually, to describe such a phenomenon.)
Local villagers in traditional garments (provided by the author)
Safari means ‘journey’ in Swahili, the native tongue of Kenyans, and that’s truly what the entire experience felt like, from beginning to end. A journey beyond my daily life, my own little world, and beyond the limits of the self. The Dixie Chicks famously claimed humans require wide-open spaces to grow as people, and—considering the open spaces of the American West have been overrun by tourists the past two years—why not take a chance on the African savannah? It’s that rare once-in-a-lifetime trip that’s so unbelievably intoxicating, that you’ll find yourself coming back again and again.