Onsite Review: Kenya, Wildly Appealing

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 Sunrise balloon safari, piloted by Hot Air Safaris. (Carla Hunt)
Sunrise balloon safari, piloted by Hot Air Safaris. (Carla Hunt)

Kenya cares. And had you joined our press trip last November, you would have learned that an extensive private-public sector commitment is underway to conserve Kenya’s wild heritage and enhance the well-being of this country’s local communities.

Our visit showcased this concept in two different experiences: one, a safari at the luxury, eco-friendly Karen Blixen Camp, a pioneer in the establishment of the Mara North Conservancy that forms a protective wildlife zone along the border of the Maasai Mara National Reserve; and two, a seaside stay at the elegant new Medina Palms, fashioned in the style of a Moroccan kasbah and committed to efforts supporting the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve just off its white-sand beach.

According to Dr. Mohanjeet Brar, chairman of Ecotourism Kenya, “through joint business ventures, sharing of tourism revenues, and corporate social responsibility programs by tour operators, hotels and lodges, we aim to preserve the environmental integrity of tourist attractions while providing tangible social and economic benefits for local people as the custodians of our conservation values.”

Whew. That seems like a tall order, but it’s happening. For instance, the Karen Blixen Camp offers an authentic yesteryear safari experience, immortalized by legendary personalities such as Hemingway and Karen Blixen herself. Her novel, “Out of Africa,” is set in Kenya and it portrays the romance, thrill and excitement of the country, reflected in her namesake tented camp.

Spread along the Mara River banks are 22 luxury tents built on wooden platforms with spacious verandahs. They are roomy and smartly furnished with a large comfortable bed and Persian rugs. The heart of the camp is an open-plan area with a lounge, bar and dining room; tasty meals are served here, under the stars, or in the bush.

Daily, we head out across the savannahs on early-morning and late-afternoon game drives along Conservancy tracks and into the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and en-route we see lions, cheetahs, elephants, buffalo, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, and the occasional endangered black rhino. We do miss the leopards on our 2-day stay, but we could always count on seeing the resident pod of hippos at constant waterplay in the Mara River in front of the camp.

Of course, there’ll always be favorite experiences, including the sunrise balloon safari, piloted by Hot Air Safaris, offering panoramic views of masses of megafauna, topped off with a bush breakfast feast. We also visited a Maasai village that included a full-dress welcome by the chief, singing and dancing by colorfully costumed ladies, a join-in jumping ceremony, a house tour, and a craft bazaar laid out in a grand circle on a field. Karen Blixen Camp’s general manager Tina Frisk assures me that, “no matter how many guests we bring, the villagers put on this show and mix easily with visitors; they understand the value of cultural tourism.”

Fresh from sightings of (almost) all the Mara’s “Big Five,” we fly on to learn about their equivalents, the “Marine Big Five”: whales, dolphins, whale sharks, billfish and sea turtles living in and around the Watamu Marine Reserve. We deplane in Malindi and our destination is Watamu, a small village on the palm-fringed Indian Ocean coast, home to Medina Palms, a spectacular resort positioned above beach-fringed Turtle Bay.

Its elegant accommodations include garden- and sea-view suites, tree-top penthouses, and beach villas, which appeal to groups of friends, honeymooners, and families (an excellent kids club here). All are decorated in a mix of modern design and locally carved wooden furnishings, and appointed with WiFi, satellite TV and small kitchen. A series of infinity pools cascades through the property, linking guest quarters, public areas, a spa and tropical gardens to the beach. Guests dine on Mediterranean, Moroccan and African dishes—al fresco in the Coffee Garden, or informally but elegantly in the Amandina Restaurant.

Active guests can go snorkeling, diving, kite-surfing, paddleboarding, or deep-sea fishing with a tag and release program. The hotel arranges trips to the fascinating Gede ruins, a nearby well-preserved 12th century Swahili village, and to championship golf an hour away. They can also plan a safari in Tsavo East National Park (two hours away).

Medina Palms is a member of the Watamu Marine Association, a nonprofit whose members come from the community, tourism and environmental sectors, working together to protect the environment and promote quality tourism. WMA staffers lead guests on snorkeling trips in Wamatu Marine Reserve; on dolphin spotting excursions—there are whales out there, too; or drifting through the mangrove forests of Mida Creek.

Must-see is one particularly neat WMA effort—the Community Waste Management Project, whose beach cleanup duties are part of a new community industry that focuses on recycling beach rubbish of plastic waste and flip-flops for arts and crafts production. Even art has a conservation message in Kenya.

Contact Information
Karen Blixen Camp: karenblixencamp.com
Kenya Tourist Board: magicalkenya.com
Medina Palms: medinapalms.com