Plenty of amazing wildlife destinations exist on the continent, but few can combine endless plains studded with umbrella-shape acacia trees and herds so vast they appear as ants; dormant volcanoes carpeted with dense, lush jungle; clouds of butterflies and gemlike birds that flit in their wake; salt-lined soda lakes that tinge the feathers of flamingoes that feed and breed there a deep pink; rivers in which huge pods of hippo wallow, indifferent to the baleful glare of crocodiles on their banks -- all lapped by an ocean that hides a treasure trove of color just beneath the surface. This is East Africa's promise, and Kenya has the oldest, best-developed tourism infrastructure in it.
Aside from the huge number of professional tourism operators, best browsed on www.katokenya.org or www.tatotz.org, which list operators according to the activities they specialize in and provide annual turnovers to indicates their size and success (though not necessarily the quality), Kenya also has a huge choice of accommodations catering to varied budgets. Relative to Tanzania, however, parks such as the Masai Mara can feel pretty crowded, so if you're looking for a more exclusive experience, you'd do well to focus your time in the lesser-known and relatively underutilized Kenyan reserves or splash out on a semi-permanent camp in the Masai Mara's southern neighbor, the borderless Serengeti, in Tanzania.
Tanzania contains some of the world's greatest natural wonders, but due to a socialist government that more or less shunned contact with the outside world, much of it remained relatively inaccessible until the 1980s, when major reforms to its foreign tourism policies were finally implemented. Since then, Tanzania has played an impressive game of catch-up with Kenya, though it has consciously pursued a low-density, high-quality tourism policy, making it a far more exclusive (and pricey) destination than its northern neighbor. This means that Tanzania, with the exception of Zanzibar and the coast, is not a budget destination, and from park fees to lodgings, you'll need to prepare yourself for a relatively hefty price tag. It's also worth being forewarned that unless you are traveling at the very top end of the market (which companies such as &Beyond and Singita typify), the facilities, infrastructure, and service levels seldom measure up to the rates charged (then again, the untouched beauty of Tanzania's landscapes, the most awe-inspiring on the continent, more than make up for this).
The most popular safari destinations in Tanzania are located in the north, on what is commonly referred to as the Northern Circuit. From Arusha, the country's "safari capital" and a short hop by plane or bus from Nairobi, the famous parks of Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti beckon, and there are numerous operators who cater to the ever-increasing number of visitors keen to explore this spectacular region. Regular visitors to Tanzania shun this well-trod circuit for the wilder Southern Circuit, which is best reached from Dar es Salaam, though there are also direct air connections from Arusha. Certainly, the first-time visitor will -- and should -- make a beeline for the Northern Circuit, but time and budget allowing, a sojourn in the south is recommended as an add-on or as an alternative on a repeat visit. Active travelers may choose to conquer Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa but one of the most accessible ascents in the world. Depending on the route, you'll need to allow 5 to 7 days for this.
Having spent 3 to 5 days on safari, most visitors head for some downtime on the beach. Aside from an undulating coastline of white sands, lined with family-friendly resorts, Kenya offers the little-known Lamu archipelago, a stunning string of isles with chic lodgings that global island-hoppers in the know have tried in vain to keep a secret. Alternatively, there's Zanzibar and Pemba off the coast of Tanzania, both relatively easy to access from Kenya and offering a greater variety of lodgings than the Kenyan coast. Zanzibar, the largest and most atmospheric, is understandably the most popular, with a plethora of accommodations options as a result, but if you're looking for a castaway fantasy come true, head for little-known Mafia Island, which offers some of the best snorkeling and diving sites on the African coast.
The main potential obstacle to your trip is getting around on a budget, as the infrastructure is not designed to make completely independent travel a viable option for vacationers. If you have relatively unlimited time -- assuming you're up for a serious adventure -- it's possible to piece together a holiday without the aid of a ground operator and use local transport between destinations, but you are likely to miss out on the real safari experience, surely the main reason to travel here. Self-drive holidays are also not recommended, except for the hardiest adventurers (roads are rough, routes are unpredictable and often poorly marked, and local drivers can be quite dangerous). Even with a driver, you'll have to endure long, dusty, and bumpy rides in Land Rovers, which is why travelers with limited time prefer to fly between destinations. Kenyan and Tanzanian parks are well connected by light aircraft companies, which link the parks and reserves, as well as the coast and cities, on daily scheduled flights; although these can be pricey, they are well worth budgeting for, as you save so much time (and the views from the air can be pretty spectacular). You'll need to weigh costs and plan accordingly, but it's crucial to have your holiday properly mapped and booked in advance of your arrival.
The sensible way of organizing a hassle-free holiday is to arrange everything through a reputable, reliable operator. Aside from the peace of mind this brings, the advantage of such thorough planning is that your operator will be able to tell you the entire cost of your trip in advance. The best international agents have direct relationships with ground operators; some foreign agents travel here regularly to familiarize themselves with the destination (www.africatravelresource.com and www.expertafrica.com are good examples), but many rely completely on their local operator, and you can save a lot money dealing direct with a local operator. Note, however, that many operators, foreign and local, tend to stick with lodgings where they have negotiated the best commissions; when it comes to accommodations, the independent advice you receive in this guide will prove invaluable, and you should use these to set your own lodging itinerary.
The only other major considerations will be getting yourself immunized against tropical diseases and taking malaria prophylactics. If you are traveling via a country where yellow fever is present, you will need to produce a certificate proving that you have been inoculated or have it done at the border ($50); this is the only legal requirement, but there are a few other inoculations we recommend.
Finally, it's worth noting that, for some, Africa requires some amount of emotional preparation; even if you spend the majority of your time in luxurious safari camps, you will encounter human poverty, as well as ways of life that you might never have imagined still exist. Prepare to have your reality turned on its head -- for many, Africa represents an unforgettable shift of consciousness.
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.