Trips to East Africa invariably begin and end in Nairobi (or, more specifically, its airport, a monstrous concrete edifice dating from the 1970s, which, to the mystification and discomfort of travelers ever since, was constructed with approximately one-tenth of the necessary seats).
In years past, I was sustained in my struggle through Jomo Kenyatta International by the knowledge that I would soon be relaxing at The Norfolk, a legendary hotel with a uniquely romantic atmosphere. Some hotels are so integral to a city’s history and so bound into the fabric of its social and economic life that they become synonymous with their locations. The Norfolk in Nairobi is like that — or at least it used to be.
The first of my dozen or so visits was in the early 1980s. Back then, the lobby would be thronged each morning with khaki-clad travelers, weighed down with cameras, binoculars and enough ancillary equipment to mount a major expedition to the Congo. And outside, a queue of Land Rovers would be waiting, attended by a handful of Maasai warriors, leaning on their spears and robed in flaming scarlet. You felt you were part of a tradition dating to the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who stayed at The Norfolk on his hunting expedition in 1909- 10, a safari still considered the most lavish in Kenyan history.
In Roosevelt’s day, The Norfolk was a new hotel, having opened five years before in 1904. A curious, mock-Tudor building with a large interior courtyard garden, it soon became a focal point for the whole of British East Africa, as well as the favored watering hole of the notorious Happy Valley set, a dissolute group of aristocratic settlers introduced to a wider audience by the 1987 movie “White Mischief,” starring Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance.
So much for history. I returned to The Norfolk last summer to find that in my absence it had been renamed “Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel.” I had just arrived from New York via London, and while my powers of perception were not at their most acute, I immediately sensed something odd about the place. The lobby was cluttered with a chicane of suitcases, and most of the guests seemed to be glum Chinese businessmen. But at that point, all I needed was a room and a shower; the tour of inspection could wait. The early check-in had of course been arranged far in advance, but the receptionist nonetheless treated me to a look of withering disdain. There might be something available in “a couple of hours or so,” she informed me, so why didn’t I go and have breakfast on the terrace?
Not best pleased, I stumbled away, only to find that at 9 a.m., breakfast was effectively, if not officially, over. The buffet looked as though it had recently been vacated by a flock of vultures. There wasn’t even any bread. I settled for an omelette, which arrived somberly decorated with black flakes of unidentifiable residue, scraped from the bottom of the frying pan. It was only after a third cup of coffee that I began to take detailed note of my surroundings and discovered with unfolding horror that the terrace, once the social center of Nairobi, was now decorated in anodyne pastel colors and appointed with banal furniture, a combination that had all the charm and romance of a Midwestern Marriott.
It is probably unnecessary to dwell at length on the further inadequacies of my stay. I will note only that despite Fairmont’s multimillion-dollar “refurbishment,” the air-conditioning in my room was so noisy that it had to be turned off and that the bottom of my shower was ringed by a sinister black mold. Also, it was impossible to sleep without first having tracked down and eliminated the room’s squadrons of resident mosquitoes.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation for The Norfolk’s demise is a realization by Fairmont that Nairobi is now such a dangerous and unpleasant city that the upscale leisure market has gone forever, leaving the place to the Chinese dam- builders and timber merchants. Nairobi residents now routinely describe streets as “windows open” or “windows closed,” in reference to the precautions required to frustrate a violent assault.
So where do you stay these days? Well, not downtown if you can avoid it. The best bet is the suburb of Karen, where there are three or four boutique properties with pleasant gardens surrounded by reassuring festoons of razor wire. Fleeing Fairmont the Norfolk, I checked into Ngong House, located 20 minutes’ drive from the city center and owned by a Belgian ex-diplomat, Paul Verleysen. Originally a private home belonging to a professional hunter, the property is set on 10 acres of well-tended grounds with a view of the Ngong Hills, just minutes from Karen Blixen’s former coffee farm, familiar to readers of her classic memoir “Out of Africa,” as well as to fans of the 1985 hit movie. As my room was still being prepared, I was escorted to a pleasing book-lined lounge by a friendly receptionist and presented with a complimentary glass of tropical fruit juice. Without exception, the room’s occupants were transfixed by the screens of their laptops and wore expressions midway between apprehension and panic, having clearly been on safari and out of email range for several days at least.
Ngong House accommodates up to 24 people in six tree houses, a suite, a log cabin and a cottage facing the outdoor swimming pool. I had been assigned to a tree house, which turned out to be accessed by a tight spiral staircase. Encumbered by a camera bag, I only just made it to the top. There, 15 feet above the surrounding vegetation, I slumped down onto a sofa and reflected that the poolside cottage would probably have been a better idea. Although the interior of the tree house was spacious, the bed was comfortable and the shower worked reasonably well, the style was a little alternative for my taste. Overall, the place seemed to summon up the spirit of the 1970s, a decade that has never numbered among my favorites. Also, I was slightly unnerved by the constant creak of the floorboards, having once had a tree house collapse beneath me in Nepal.
Lunch was served on the lawn, and after an excellent fillet of lake fish in a lemony sauce and an indulgent glass of white wine, I began to acquire a more benign view of my surroundings. Perhaps in the cottage or the log cabin I might have been reasonably content. But the tree houses cannot be recommended, and overall, Ngong House falls somewhat short of the standards demanded by a majority of Andrew Harper members.
An alternative is provided by nearby Giraffe Manor, a 1930s ivy-covered stone mansion modeled on a Scottish hunting lodge. The property is now owned by the Carr-Hartley family, members of which have been involved in the Kenyan safari and wildlife business for more than a century. In March 2009, the property was purchased by Mikey and Tanya Carr- Hartley, and it is now part of their Tamimi hotel group, which includes Sasaab in Samburu.
Giraffe Manor originally attracted widespread attention as a result of the conservation work of the redoubtable American journalist Betty Leslie-Melville, who made it her mission to save the endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe from extinction. She and her husband, Jock, also founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, an organization supported by Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando, after whom one of the giraffes was named. (Cronkite, a pet warthog, owed his moniker to another family friend.) Leslie- Melville wrote a book about her experiences called “Raising Daisy Rothschild.”
Today, a small herd of endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe still roams the 12- acre estate, inquisitive members of which routinely thrust their heads in through upstairs windows, or join guests for breakfast in the sunroom. Giraffe Manor offers six sizeable accommodations with four-poster beds, antique furniture and expansive baths, plus the new Karen Blixen Suite. Public areas include a two-story entrance hall with an imposing staircase, and a peaceful sitting room furnished in period ’30s style.
Although we did not stay at Giraffe Manor on this trip, it comes highly recommended by Kenyan friends, who seem unanimous that since its acquisition and refurbishment by the Carr-Hartleys, it is now the preferred refuge from the urban wilderness that is Nairobi.
GIRAFFE MANOR 89 Superior Room, $460 per person, including all meals, house wines and airport transfers. Tel. (254) 20-251-3166.