It’s no secret that for most leisure travelers to Kenya, its capital city Nairobi is a necessary stop on the way to and out of the African bush. Our press group would stay longer, as guests of the Kenya Tourism Board and attendees of the Africa Travel Association (ATA), whose 40th annual meeting was held in the state-of-the-art Kenyatta International Conference Center, a spiffy circular building with an architectural blend of modern and traditional African styles.
The conference center shares an enormous fountained square with Law Courts and the Holy Family Basilica, and its downtown business center location boasts fine hotels such as the InterContinental Nairobi, the Hilton Nairobi and the still-charming and newly luxurious Sarova Stanley Hotel—a Nairobi classic built in 1902 as the Stanley Hotel, whose long-past guests included Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and also decades ago, yours truly.
There are also plenty of celebrities still coming to Nairobi: President Barak Obama was there last July, and during our stay, the capital was excitedly preparing to welcome Pope Francis. Certainly for the visit, city planners would at least temporarily solve the problem of horrendous traffic, and most certainly, the Pope found a warm welcome from the vibrant and outgoing Kenyans. Our group did, and adding on a couple of days, I found at least 9 ½ reasons to have stayed awhile longer:
1. The Nairobi National Museum tops everyone’s list of cultural recommendations, and is also of special interest to understand Kenya’s place as a cradle of civilization and the story of human evolution. Many of the paleontology finds of the Leakey family are housed here, part of one of the most important fossil collections in the world. Other excellent exhibits focus on birds, mammals and ethnographical artifacts from Kenya’s various tribes. A sleeper not to miss is the Nairobi National Gallery, occupying a landmark stone building whose six gallery interiors display an extraordinary African collection of ancient sculpture, paintings and artifacts of daily use from all over the continent. One room is reserved for exhibits of local and continental artists, whose fine works are for sale.
2. Another only-in-Africa attraction is Bomas of Kenya, a culture center near the National Park where the government has built a complex of replicas of tribal villages, each constructed in the style of Kenya’s major ethnic groups. Come to enjoy performances of music and traditional dances in full regalia of all the major tribes—the Kikuyu form the majority in Nairobi, the well-known Maasai and the less-familiar Mijikenda from the Indian Ocean coast.
3. Nairobi is simply a wonderland for shopping in boutique galleries or outdoor markets: extraordinary beadwork from statement-making jewelry to bowls and handbags to designer-quality sandals; baskets, wood carvings, metal work, wonderful fabrics by the piece or fashioned into tribal-chic dresses, everything from accessories to sculptures made from recycled flip-flops and bottle tops. The accent seems to be on authentic African design among the artisans who have shops in the Village Market, and the source for real bargains (after hard bargaining) is the itinerant Maasai Market, which sets up shop in different locations on set days.
4. Nairobi dining seems centered around grilled meat—called nyama choma in the local Kiswahili language. And the most celebrated, if slightly kitschy, upscale emporium for a protein banquet is the open-air Carnivore restaurant. Expert carvers in zebra-striped uniforms patrol the dining room with Maasai swords skewered with beef, pork, goat and lamb, as well as farmed camel, ostrich and crocodile. It’s an eat-all-the-meat-you-want place. (Friends in Nairobi praised the barbecue at the low-on-frills Herisquare). Of course, in the capital, you’ll find good restaurants serving up spicy curries and fresh seafood from the Indian Ocean coast. The Tamarind Restaurant was one recommendation in my notes; I didn’t eat there.
5. Who knew you barely have to leave the capital to go on safari. With city skyscrapers forming an incongruous backdrop, you’re up and out at 5:30 a.m. taking a game drive through the Nairobi National Park, at 28,963 acres, one of Africa’s smallest. But there’s plenty of wildlife at home here, including lions and cheetahs, harder to see than zebra, giraffe, impala, gazelle, buffalo, warthogs and ostrich. The most celebrated species is the black rhinoceros, and the park serves as a sanctuary for the densest rhino population in the world. Additionally, wetland areas sustain some 400 bird species.
6. Perhaps the greatest show in town is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit organization that rescues baby elephants whose parents have been killed by poachers or felled by disease. Elephant caretakers have a special relationship with their long-trunked wards: they sleep with them in the stalls until they get big, then accompany them to holding areas in the wild and stay with them for several more months until they are ready to live on their own. Visitors are welcome daily at the orphanage from 11 a.m. to noon, the time to watch the keepers referee the daily milk-bottle feeding and mud bath.
7. Another of Kenya’s good news conservation stories is the Giraffe Center, which gives shelter to the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Visitors get up-close and personal with these gangly, gorgeous creatures when they hand-feed them from an elevated observation post. It’s also selfie photo time, for giraffes tolerate a hug around the neck and a kiss or two. For clients really into giraffes, right next-door is Giraffe Manor, once a colonial-era home, now an elegant little hotel where you can feed the animals from your second-floor guestroom.
8. It’s fun to see how Karen Blixen—author (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) of “Out of Africa”—lived from 1917 to 1931. Her house and garden is now the Karen Blixen Museum, furnished with original furniture or similar pieces from the period. Much of the Oscar-winning movie adaption of the book was shot on the grounds.
9. Nairobi is by no means short on hotel comforts. In fact, the luxury Radisson Blu opened while we were in Nairobi—with little time for hotel inspections. We stayed at the four-star Sarova Panafric, an easy walk to the business district and recently totally refurbished. While lacking any decorative personality, rooms and baths are comfortable and spacious; the Flame Tree Restaurant lays out an excellent breakfast, the pool in its garden setting is welcoming, and the hotel staff is sensational. The great personality property visited was the Tribe Hotel, a new member of the Design Hotels. It has sleek contemporary interiors—granite, slate, marble—public areas, as well as 137 smart, chic guestrooms and suites (many with split-level lofts) appointed with a wonderful assemblage of African sculptures, arts and textiles. The exterior enjoys gardens and waterfalls framing the pool, and amenities include a full-service spa, and a Moroccan-inspired rooftop lounge.
9 ½. One of the nice things about leaving Nairobi to travel about the country is departing from its domestic Wilson Airport (WIL): a bright, well-run, welcoming place, as were other domestic airports—Malindi and Lamu—we touched down in. Like my hometown LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in New York City, Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) could use an upgrade, starting with better lighting throughout and someplace to eat.