Laikipia has the greatest concentration of intimate, luxury lodges in Kenya. Privately owned and managed, they come with a sense of style, inimitable charm, and personal reward that is likely to provide you with some of your favorite memories of Kenya. Each of the lodges reviewed below has individual character and a superb location that sets it apart from the next, and while you could quite easily make one of these your home for your entire visit, it'll be worth your while to mix and match your choices to create an itinerary that takes you to different parts of the Laikipia Plateau and enables you to meet the different personalities who operate each of the properties -- engage them at the dinner table, and you'll hear mind-blowing tales. One thing is certain: Each of the Laikipia lodges is remote and very private; no matter where you are, you'll have a sense of being somewhere very special, a place that's far, far away from the crowds. Most of these places offer a wide assortment of game-viewing possibilities over and above the usual vehicle safari, so you can strike out on foot (with a guide who knows what he's doing) or explore the terrain on horseback or with camels.
Lewa, home of the world-famous Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which first spearheaded the conversion of cattle ranches into wildlife sanctuaries, is one of Laikipia's best-known destinations, with an assortment of accommodations options, including exclusive-hire lodges, a tented camp, and the excellent Lewa Wilderness, where you're made to feel like a part of the family. Lewa and neighboring Borana occupy the eastern part of Laikipia and provide a buffer between the farming areas to the south and the wild rangelands farther north. Immediately north of here are two attractive community-owned properties, Il N'gwesi and Tassia, both staggeringly situated on mountain bluffs. Tassia is possibly my top choice as one of the most exciting places to stay in Kenya.
In many respects, northern Laikipia is even more wild and exciting than down south. Ranch fences (and cattle) have largely been removed, so not only does wildlife flourish, but animals are starting to follow old migration patterns once more. Loisaba (reviewed below) is among the more famed of the north Laikipia lodges; previously known as Colcecchio, it's one of the ranches that features in Kuki Gallman's memoir, I Dreamed of Africa. Loisaba is a sprawling property where cattle and wildlife commingle, and -- like Lewa -- it has a variety of accommodation types to choose from. Many lodges in the north tend to take advantage of the Ewaso Nyiro, which serves as the region's principal game corridor. Some, like Sabuk, afford stunning views over the river, with bedrooms built fabulously close to the water.
And then there are impeccably remote and secluded spots on Laikipia's northernmost frontiers. Visitors to Ol Malo are welcomed as personal guests into the gorgeous home of Colin and Rocky Francombe (who also get a mention in Gallman's book), while the far-flung Sanctuary at Ol Lentille is a fabulous oasislike luxury boutique-style resort bounded by spectacular vistas of the arid north. More a retreat for all the senses, Ol Lentille doesn't yet see the kind of game numbers you might expect, but it is nonetheless Kenya's most fabulous inland lodging option, with utterly chic accommodations and personally assigned Maasai guides. Both Ol Malo and Ol Lentille are reviewed here.
Exclusively Yours: Lewa's Glam-Pad Hideaways
In addition to its Safari Camp, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has two lodges designed for unabashed privacy and more suitable for anyone who's disinclined toward bedding down in a canvas tent, no matter how stylish it may be. Both of these can be rented only on an exclusive basis, so they're not suitable if you actually wish to fraternize with strangers.
The shameless choice of celebrities, visiting royalty, and Lewa's well-to-do patrons (many of whom are aristocrats and Hollywood stars) is Kifaru (meaning Rhinoceros), a six-banda property with views stretching all the way to Mount Kenya. Of the two lodges, it's the more contemporary and emphasizes full-blown luxury. Accommodations are massive, with timber floors, big four-poster beds, colonial-style furniture, huge tiled bathrooms, and elegant, sweeping roofs made from swamp reeds. There's a pool (with superb views), beautiful lounge and dining areas, and fine-tuned gardens, not to mention a choice of just about any imaginable game-viewing activity, including horse riding.
No less exclusive, but with a less-ostentatious atmosphere and a touch more charm, Lewa House has six double rooms, a dedicated staff, and facilities for your use only. Between game drives and bush walks, you can watch weaver birds noisily construct their nests, laze around the pool, or learn about the intricacies of Maasai culture from your personal guide. Accommodations are also stone-wall cottages with heavily sloping thatch roofs, but the decor is a little more in keeping with the bush safari experience.
Each of the "houses" costs a minimum of $2,400 to $3,700 per night (for up to six guests). Additional guests pay $400 to $610 per night ($200-$305 per child), with a maximum of 12 guests. Rates include all meals, most drinks, game-viewing activities, local airstrip transfers, horseback riding, camel treks, cultural excursions, conservation fees, and laundry. Reservations can be made through U.S.-based Uncharted Outposts (9 Village Lane, Santa Fe, NM 87505, USA; tel. 888/995-0909 or 505/795-7710; fax 505/795-7714; www.unchartedoutposts.com).
Still Dreaming of Africa?
There's a good chance that if it's a book that's inspired you to come to Africa -- to Kenya, specifically -- then your heart was led here by a phrase, a paragraph, or a chapter in Kuki Gallman's bestselling memoir, I Dreamed of Africa (which was made into a movie with Kim Basinger in 2000). In it, the Italian-born writer recalls her intimate relationship with the continent that became her home; many of her heart-stopping memories were created on the northwestern fringes of Laikipia, where she famously created a home for herself and her family on Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch. Mukutan Retreat (tel. 020/52-0799; www.gallmannkenya.org) is Gallman's lodge, where guests have a choice of just three stone-and-papyrus cottages, each with a fireplace and private veranda overlooking the Mukutan Gorge. Here, from the edge of the Great Rift Valley, you not only have access to Laikipia's abundant, well-managed wildlife, but also magnificent views of two of the Rift's prominent lakes, Baringo and Bogoria. While you'll enjoy all the luxurious comforts associated with Laikipia's best lodges, there's a good chance you'll get to meet Gallman herself, always a highlight for anyone who takes the time to visit this unique part of the country.
Rites of Passage
An inspired and inspiring pairing is the marriage of Nairobi-based fashion designer Anna Trzebinski and her Samburu husband, Loyapan Lemarti. While their union has all the earmarks of a silver screen romance -- they met on safari where he was her guide -- their relationship has also resulted in a remarkable business venture. In 2007, they opened their own dream camp, a synthesis of beautiful location and stunning design. Not far from the Laikipia Plateau, in an oasis of palm and fig trees, their camp is a very personal enterprise. Anna personally stitches the tents using locally loomed cotton in the same workshop where she creates beaded tunics and accessories inspired by indigenous Kenyan designs. The couple run Lemarti's Camp (tel. 20/894325; www.lemartiscamp.com) personally, and either Anna or Loyapan is always on hand to host you.
Set on platforms above a river bend, the camp's tents are furnished with tables and beds built with wood from disused dhows and decorated with locally found objects: crocodile skulls, elephant shoulder blades, beaded walking sticks, and traditional clubs. Anna's preference is for tents that don't intrude on your interaction with the bush, more like a veiled than a walled space in which you can still smell, hear, and sense the wilds outside. Add to that a comfortable bed and sufficient comfort to justify the hefty price-tag ($1,360 double, including everything except champagne), and you have one of Kenya's finest, most authentic tented camps.
They've also developed two less-permanent (but no less lovely) nearby camps. Nomadic Camp is pitched seasonally, and the romantic Stargazing Camp is by a river. And if you're the braver, more adventurous sort, you should take Loyapan up on his fabulous Rites of Passage safari -- it's an unstinting (and, for some, unnerving) interaction with the wilderness, during which you head out into the bush on foot with a Samburu warrior to guide you (and only his traditional weapons to protect you, should danger arise). The aim is to give you a sense of how these tribespeople attune with the environment and hopefully give you some pointers. To reserve your stay at Lemarti's (or either of the satellite camps), contact U.S.-based Uncharted Outposts (tel. 888/995-0909; www.unchartedoutposts.com).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.