Bestriding the equator, this region is not only the geographic heartland of the country, but the great twin-peaked mountain at the center of it all -- the arresting Mount Kenya massif -- is for many a spiritual place, believed to be where God himself resides. Even if you don't feel the call of heaven from its jagged summits, you're sure to be struck by the sheer, undeniable, majestic beauty of it, standing sentinel amid the steady encroachment of cultivated lands and sprawling communities on its foothills.
The Highlands incorporate a massive sweep of territory, ranged between the southern fringe of the Northern Frontier District and the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley. Besides the hulking silhouette of Mount Kenya, which dominates the region like an ancient heavenward-surging rock temple, the Highlands' other important mountains are the Aberdares, a range that forms the spine of the thickly wooded Aberdare National Park, famous as the place where Elizabeth II became Queen of the British Empire.
The Highlands were for some time known as the "White Highlands," when most of the country's most fertile land was apportioned off to colonial settlers who established major coffee, wheat, pineapple, and livestock farms and turned this into yet another locus of Imperial wealth. The Highlands' main town, Nanyuki, was founded in 1907 by white colonial settlers and remains a hub for the region -- not to mention a jumping-off point for the great ranches and wildlife preserves of the Laikipia Plateau. Among other things, Nanyuki, at the foot of Mount Kenya, is famous as the home of the Mount Kenya Safari Club, started by Hollywood heartthrob William Holden and once graced by such illustrious figures as Winston Churchill and Bing Crosby.
But that era of apartheid-style white sovereignty was not to last, and given the extent of the foreign takeover here, it's little wonder that this was also the heart of the Mau Mau resistance, which took flame under the Kikuyu and kicked off the overwhelming changes that would lead directly to Kenya's independence. Kenya's largest and most economically (and politically) successful tribe, the Kikuyu -- following their robust and violent campaign against colonial landowners -- became the dominant group in the Highlands, their farms standing cheek-by-jowl with a number of large game sanctuaries and preserves. One of the best among these is Ol Pejeta, a wildlife conservancy where you're not only assured of spotting rhino -- either on foot or on a game drive -- but you also can visit the country's only chimpanzee sanctuary.
For a complete change of pace and scenery, head for Meru National Park, once the home of Born Free authoress Joy Adamson. Here, some distance east of Mount Kenya and quite a bit off the beaten track, is a beautifully untamed wilderness finally recovering from a prolonged period of siege by AK-47-wielding Somali poachers. Now restocked with wildlife that was virtually decimated by ruthless bandits, Meru benefits from an overwhelming lack of visitors, meaning it's an ideal place to escape the crowds. Its isolation has also ensured that it remains one of Kenya's most physically enchanting protected areas.