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Nairobi Hotel Update

February 2, 2011

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).

The Norfolk

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.

Ngong House

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.  

Giraffe Manor

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.

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who they are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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