“All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie listening, homesick for it already” (Ernest Hemingway)
We were in the heart of Kenya, following in the revered footsteps of famous author and explorer Ernest Hemingway, albeit with rather more luxurious lodgings. Having visited Kenya once before we understood Hemingway’s passion for the country, and as we touched down in Nairobi, with hot earth beneath our feet and blue skies above our heads, our blood raced at the thought of the adventures that lay ahead. We’d be staying at three properties from the Hemingways Collection, each boutique and beautiful in their own way.
After an exhilarating bush flight with Safarilink from Nairobi to the Naboisho Conservancy (which adjoins the Masai Mara) our first stop was Ol Seki, a private tented camp in some of the wildest landscapes of Kenya.
Ol Seki Tented Camp
I learnt to crawl in a tent. Camping was a regular part of family life growing up and we spent much of our holiday time under canvas all over the UK and in Europe. I loved everything about it, from the pitter-patter of rain drops on the fly sheet, making me feel safe and snug inside, to cooking sausages over an open fire and waking up each morning to the sounds of the countryside. Yet somewhere along the way this all changed. After tasting the sweet life of luxury travel as an adult, camping holidays became a distant memory. If it didn’t come with a four-poster bed, ensuite bathroom and 25-course tasting menus, I wasn’t interested.
So when I discovered we’d be camping on our safari holiday in Kenya, I was a little hesitant.
However circling above Ol Seki in our tiny bush plane as we came into land, I realised that this wasn’t camping as I knew it. The tents here were smart, enormous and thoughtfully spaced out to ensure guests had plenty of privacy to enjoy their own slice of bush life, so they could perhaps experience what Hemingway must have felt on his first trip to Kenya.
This was going to be far more than just okay!
Ol Seki is a small and intimate camp with just 10 luxury tents, a communal dining area and a lounge full of super-comfy leather sofas perfect for enjoying pre-dinner drinks and sharing safari stories with fellow guests. Yet the best part has to be the panoramic views out over the plains, seen from every part of the camp. It really is a superb setting, with the tents perched up on a ridge, and the savannah and its inhabitants down below.
We spent many hours on our private terrace just watching the wildlife trundling about the plains, and each day we spied elephants, impala, wildebeest, giraffe and warthog all going about their business. One day a troop of baboons came through camp right below our verandah, and took position in the trees around our tent. We didn’t even need to leave camp to be on safari!
Each time we arrived back after a game drive, we found piles of brightly-colour Agama lizards sunning themselves on our balcony, as well as the adorably cheeky rock hyraxes who used the wooden fencing to play hide and seek. At night we’d hear the latter running up and down the wooden walkway practising their acrobatics, whilst some of the more intrepid even scuttled over the roof of the tent. Falling asleep to the sounds of nature, knowing you’re safe inside your very own tented palace, is definitely up there with some of lifes ‘moments’.
We loved our tent, and the surprising level of luxury that it provided. The beds were comfy, there were chairs to recline on in the afternoons with a cold beer from the complimentary cool-box, and even an ensuite bathroom with hot shower and dressing area. The door and window panels had mosquito netting so we could still enjoy the cooling breeze and views of the plains whilst inside (we’d been warned to keep the door zipped to stop the pesky hyraxes making themselves at home!).
Dining at Ol Seki
Dining was communal, something we hate but accept that it’s all part of safari life. Sometimes it can be a disaster depending on who the others guests are, but during our stay at Ol Seki we actually enjoyed the company of our fellow adventurers and had fun chatting about safari sightings and getting ideas for our future travels.
We did ask for private dining one night, and returned from our evening safari to find a table set up in our tent. Very romantic, and it was good to have a break from the other guests. Yet it did actually feel a little odd, being zipped inside after each course had been delivered. I think we’d expected to be eating outside on our terrace, like we had on previous safaris, but it was dark and freezing outside so I guess it made sense.
The food was simple, tasty and beautifully presented – it’s really quite incredible to think that the staff can create such culinary delights out here in the bush. We loved that the portions weren’t overbearing (sometimes on safari it feels like you’re being force-fed!), and the whole dining affair was unpretentious and friendly. Camp host Debbie often came to sit with guests and we loved hearing her stories of growing up in Kenya, especially her various exotic pets.
We were a bit disappointed not to have any bush breakfasts during our stay at Ol Seki, but I’m sure this could have been arranged had we asked. However although eating out in the bush is great fun, it does mean you miss out on the full breakfast spread back at camp, and we found sitting out on deck tucking into a full English was equally enjoyable!
On Safari at Ol Seki
I’ve written about our safari in a separate post which you can read here, but in a nutshell we spent a couple of incredible days out in the bush with our Maasai warrior guide Patrick. We saw cheetah hunts, lion cubs learning life skills, hippos charging unexpectedly through the undergrowth, hyenas cackling through the early morning gloom, and so much more. We’d been to the Mara on safari before, so weren’t expecting to be wowed, yet we came away buzzing with excitement, memories and far too many photos.
Read More: A day out on safari at Ol Seki
All too soon it was time to leave, and Patrick drove us to the main Masai Mara airstrip inside the park itself. It was really interesting being in the Masai Mara, and although the landscapes here were vast and beautiful with more variety than in the conservancies, the wildlife sightings were harder, and often at a far greater distance than what we’d been used to in Naboisho. Plus vehicles have to stay on the designated tracks in the national park, which meant we couldn’t get as near to the animals, unlike in the conservancies where off-roading and close encounters are all part of the adventure.
The Masai Mara did have some pretty cool sausage trees though!
Our flight from the Masai Mara out to Malindi on the coast was in another small bush plane, this time with Mombasa Air. I’ve always thought of Kenya as quite a dry, brown land, but from high above it’s actually incredibly colourful, with lush green plains and even pink lakes like Magadi below!
Beach time at Hemingways Watamu
Did you know Hemingway was also a fisherman?
Neither did we, but after our safari it made sense to head to Hemingways Watamu over on the coast. Home of the marlin and other mildly alarming fish that frankly sounded more Jules Verne than Hemingway, the coastal village of Watamu is famous for its deep sea fishing, as well as having one of Kenya’s finest beaches.
Despite once surprising ourselves by landing a few enormous pollocks whilst sea fishing in Cornwall, we decided to be land-lubbers rather than mermaids and spent our days walking along the white sand beach, exploring ancient ruins, and enjoying the numerous pools and gardens.
I’ll admit that before leaving home I had visions of spending our days snorkelling, sailing and exploring, but safaris are tiring. The early starts, late nights and constant excitement out on the plains meant that I was actually looking forward to lounging by the pool. First time for everything! But I think that’s the joy of Hemingways Watamu, there really is something for everyone, from the adrenaline seekers who surf the waves on their kiteboards, and paddle up creeks in canoes, to those who prefer the chilled out vibes of the spa and the tropical gardens.
For us it was history that lured away from the pool. That, and a whale skeleton.
Visiting the Gede Ruins at Watamu
There’s not much information online about the nearby Gede ruins, and that’s what had us intrigued. Assuming it was just a small archaeological site that would keep us occupied for half an hour we hired a car and driver from Hemingways Watamu and headed out to Gede one morning. It was only about 5 minutes by car, but a whole world away from the beach.
I really don’t know why Gede isn’t well-known across the world, it’s simply fabulous, and possibly my favourite part of the entire trip!
Covering around no less than 45 acres, the origins of this Swahili village date back to the 12th Century. It was mysteriously abandoned in the early 17th century, and given Historical Monument status in 1927. Today it’s a peaceful site surrounded by indigenous forest which is a wildlife haven for deer, owls, and monkeys. In places the forest has overgrown around the buildings, and it reminded us of Angkor Wat, albeit on a much smaller scale and without the crowds. In fact we were the only visitors there!
There’s also a small museum displaying some of the finds from Gede Ruins, such as pots, porcelain, glass beads and coins. Oh, and an enormous humpback whale skeleton! Apparently it was found washed up on the shoreline some time ago, and is now a favourite attraction for local school children.
Dining at Hemingways Watamu
Back in the 21st century, our minds turned to food. Whilst Hemingway may have been rather handy with a fishing rod, we instead distinguished ourselves in the eating department. We tend to choose turf over surf when it comes to dining, but having it fresh from the sea just a few metres away made all the difference. Absolutely delicious. Crab tagliatelle, lobster rolls, salt and pepper quid, octopus salad, grilled fish of the day, and even tuna tartare. Our adventure was culinary as well as geographical.
Most evenings we started with drinks in the bar…
…before eating out on the restaurant terrace where a cool breeze was very welcome (it was still sweltering late at night!).
And when we wanted a break from the exquisite seafood, we turned to pizza.
We often revert to this old Italian favourite when we’ve had our fill of trying local cuisine on our travels, but never have we eaten it somewhere quite so atmospheric as the Gede Pizzeria at Hemingways. Modelled on the Gede ruins just around the corner, this little garden folly was a fun place to hang out in the evening for a casual Hawaiian and a cool beer.
It felt a little like an abandoned forest church, with creeping vines and pew-style tables, and since we’re British and always seem to eat before everyone else wherever we go in the world, we had the place to ourselves.
All accompanied by one of their signature cocktails of course…
Breakfasts were a bit of a feast too, with everything from cooked English options and continental platters, to warm cinnamon rolls and of course a pot of fresh Kenyan coffee. Just the ticket to set us up for the day.
Rooms at Hemingways Watamu
Rooms here are functional rather than fabulous, but actually that’s precisely what you need in a beach location, where you’re wandering about barefoot most of the time, leaving a trail of sand everywhere. Most importantly they were nice and cool with the air conditioning, something we were thankful for after returning from hot walks along the beach.
But it’s the views that you’re here for, and they don’t come better than this!
There are two accommodation levels at Hemingways Watamu, and we highly recommend the upper level (where we stayed), which has recently been refurbished. All these rooms have balconies and superb panoramas out over the ocean. Rooms on the ground floor have their own terraces that lead out onto a sandy area on top of the sea wall, but we didn’t feel these were very private as the path used by hotel guests runs right along here. There are also larger luxury apartments in a separate block overlooking the main pool, which would be great for those wanting a bit more space and their own kitchen. But why would you want to cook on holiday? Beats me.
Not really being ‘beach people’ we were surprised at how much we loved our time at Hemingways Watamu. It’s such an attractive boutique hotel, with incredible food and more than enough activities and sights to keep you occupied, and we truly felt that we could’ve stayed longer than 3 nights.
But it was time to move on again, this time to Nairobi for our final stop. We were driven a couple of hours down the coast to Mombasa where we hopped on a flight (with a much larger plane!) back to the capital.
Boutique Luxury in Nairobi
At each stage of this trip I found myself thinking, “never mind what we’ve just done, this has to be my favourite part”, and nowhere more so than Hemingways Nairobi. This luxurious yet laid back 5* boutique retreat is just 45 minutes from the airport yet feels a million miles away from the chaos of the city.
Tucked away in the rural suburbs, overlooking the Ngong Hills (made famous by Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’), the hotel is beautifully designed with sprawling tropical gardens and and modern interiors that give more than just a nod to the Africa of old.
For hot afternoons the pool with its elegant wisteria-drapsed decking and fragrant flowering borders is just the ticket, a relaxing spot for sipping cocktails and swimming a few lengths to help cool down.
The suites (all rooms are suites!) are spread throughout the grounds, ensuring privacy and achieving the exclusive feel that we feel eludes so many other hotels we’ve visited. Each suite is named delightfully after an explorer or famous icon, and boasts a large private balcony overlooking the gardens. We loved sitting out here with a cuppa first thing in the morning, listening to the birds starting to chirp away in the gardens, and enjoying the cool before the sun got well and truly going later in the day.
I of course loved the four poster bed, and the huge chest styled as a travelling trunk, out of the top of which a TV miraculously appeared when required. So cool.
The interior of the rooms was elegant old world charm with just the right amount of modern touches to make it classically comfortable as well as super stylish.
The bathroom was vast, with his and hers sinks, a separate dressing area and lots of lovely white marble everywhere.
Dining at Hemingways Nairobi
We’d come to expect great things from our meals at Hemingways during this trip, so were surprised (and thrilled) that the Nairobi hotel was the best of the bunch when it came to dining! We could have stayed a week just to eat our way through the menu. Breakfast was a hearty yet healthy spread, with fresh juices, pastries and continental platters, as well as hot options (which we didn’t investigate as we were full!).
The dining room had a subtle Hollywood theme, and we loved the Africa-related quotes painted on the far wall from some of the greats. Karen Blixen included, of course.
Their speciality here is the signature Josper oven, an indoor barbeque that conjures up succulent steaks. Hubbie gave it the thumbs up, whilst I tried the Nasi Goreng (satay chicken) – even better than the real thing in Indonesia!
Service here was super attentive (sometime a little overly so, with several waiters/waitress asking the same questions just seconds apart!), and we loved that each accommodation block had it’s own private butler. You know, in case of midnight munchies, or a little more milk for our tea!
Hemingways Nairobi isn’t a place for a quick overnight stop, it’s somewhere that needs to be savoured, so if you’re arriving late and planning on heading out on an early flight for your safari, you’ll feel that staying here is a waste. Instead, we urge you to book at least 2 nights, or do what we did and spend your final night here too, leaving you a full day to enjoy the hotel whilst you wait for your evening flight home.
There’s plenty to do in Nairobi if you want to get out and about, such as as visiting the Giraffe Centre, Elephant Orphanage or stop by the Karen Blixen Museum just down the road where you can explore the house where the famous writer lived. Yet don’t feel guilty if like us, you love the hotel so much you don’t venture out at all.
Hands down our new favourite city hotel!
We can’t thank Audley Travel and Hemingways Collection enough for putting on such an incredible show from start to finish. If you’re looking for the ultimate safari-beach holiday in Kenya then we reckon this is it! The balance of everything was just right, with plenty of activity but also enough down time to recharge after those early mornings!
As Hemingway himself once said…
It is good to have an end to journey toward but it is the journey that matters in end.
We couldn’t agree more.
Yet as we left Kenya, vowing to return once again someday, we still had one burning question. Why did the chairs in our safari tent at Ol Seki have lengthy extending sections beneath the arms? Was it for people with extra-long limbs?
Audley Travel offers tailor made trips to Kenya. A seven night trip including one night at Hemingways Nairobi, three nights at Ol Seki Hemingways Mara and three nights at Hemingways Watamu (all on a full board basis, with two game drives per day on safari) costs from £3,300 per person (based on two adults sharing). The price includes international (economy) and internal fights, transfers and park fees. For more information visit Audley Travel or call 01993 838510.