Accommodations in Kenya and Tanzania range from high-end luxury safari lodges or tented camps and beach resorts with a full range of facilities and entertainment to flea-ridden $10-a-night local town hotels with simple beds and a shared bathroom. Camping is also popular in the parks and brings down the price of an organized safari considerably. Kenya and Tanzania do operate a star grading system for accommodations, although it is below par to what you would expect from the U.S. or Europe. Generally, you can assume four- and five-star hotels are of a good standard. There are also a clutch of world-class, luxurious, and intimate settings in the parks or on the coast.
Hotels -- Nairobi has a good selection of international chain hotels and cheaper three- and four-star individual establishments. The coast leans toward places where vacationers rarely venture out of the confines of their resort except to go on a short safari to one of the closer parks, such as Tsavo. There are a few individual hotels that have a lot of either history or character. For example, the Norfolk in Nairobi has been a Kenyan institution since the colonial days. If you stick to three stars or higher, you can expect clean rooms, a private bathroom with a shower, a swimming pool, and one or more decent restaurants. At the lower end of the scale, the towns offer basic lodgings in one- or two-star hotels that are predominantly used by locals. Budget travelers should look at a room to ensure that the sheets are clean and the plumbing works before committing.
Zanzibar has places on the beach where vacationers rarely venture out of the confines of their resort, but also has some wonderful hotels in Stone Town housed in historic Arabian-style buildings that feature unique Zanzibar-style four-poster beds, Persian rugs, and antique furniture, even at the cheaper end of the scale.
Safari Accommodations -- For all budgets, entrance fees to the parks are the same, and you can expect to have the same sort of game-viewing experience. But what you pay for an organized safari depends on the standard of accommodations and whether you choose to get to the parks by road or air. Generally, accommodations in the parks fall into three categories: top-end luxury tented camps, midrange large lodges, and campsites. Intimate tented camps usually comprise a dozen or so spacious tents under a thatched or wooden roof with their own terrace and sometimes extras such as a private plunge pool or outside shower. Cuisine and service are excellent, and game drives and other activities are all-inclusive. The benefit of these is that you are sleeping in the wild with animals close by, and you'll have the personal service of knowledgeable guides. The large safari lodges in the parks also offer good service and are mostly in scenic locations, but with a large number of rooms in either hotel-like blocks or individual chalets, they can feel a little impersonal. Nevertheless, they offer reasonable value and have a full range of facilities such as restaurants, bars, and swimming pools. Camping safaris offer the best value but are the least comfortable, with cold showers, primitive toilets, and hard ground to sleep on. But the advantage is sleeping in unfenced campsites where you may hear the roar of a lion at night. Camping safaris usually have a cook who prepares meals over an open fire.
Generally, you get what you pay for, and if you avoid peak seasons, you'll score fantastic deals. Another source for discounted stays (sometimes in top accommodations) is the online booking service www.kenyalastminute.com. Kenya has several reputable hotel and safari accommodation chains; some of these deal in large, good-value lodging, with a focus on packing in as many guests as possible, whereas the better ventures are boutique companies that are not so much chains as associations of smaller, intimate, and personalized operations that are marketed under a particular banner.
When it comes to safari destinations, we favor Bush and Beyond (www.bush-and-beyond.com and www.bush-homes.co.ke), which has an assortment of excellent lodges and camps on its books (the majority of which are in the game-rich Masai Mara and on private concessions on the Laikipia Plateau), and Cheli & Peacock (www.chelipeacock.com), which also has a substantial portfolio of similarly lovely properties. Both companies will arrange all accommodations, ground and air transport, and pick-ups and transfers, and will tailor your experience according to your preferences. Of the two companies, Bush and Beyond offers greater flexibility and is better equipped to customizing your holiday. They work closely with U.S.-based travel operator Uncharted Outposts (www.unchartedoutposts.com), which specializes in top-drawer accommodations that are intimate, sustainable, often family- or community-owned, and as untouristy as possible. U.K. travel agency Carrier (www.carrier.co.uk) also works with a highly commendable selection of camps and lodges, with an emphasis on exclusivity and hassle-free comfort.
The main "luxury" hotel chain in East Africa is Serena (www.serenahotels.com), which has a mix of upmarket city hotels, fine beach resorts, and safari lodges that range from comfortable-but-unattractive to decent-yet-affordable. The biggest problem with their safari properties, however, is their size. A high number of bedrooms means that they are able to keep rates down, but that also takes away from the level of exclusivity, and you'll see plenty of package groups taking up large tables. Serena's service standards are, however, fairly high, and the accommodation standards are the best in the chain resort category, thereby offering the best value despite the slightly higher price tag (in comparison to, say, Sopa). Serena's main competitor, although often with properties in areas not challenged by Serena, is Sarova (www.sarovahotels.com), although we don't recommend them unless there really is nowhere else to stay. Even less to our taste is Sopa (www.sopalodges.com), a frankly outdated chain that draws chiefly groups arranged by operators attracted to the hefty commissions Sopa offers them. If you're exploring these two options because of a tight budget, try Wildlife Lodges (www.hotelsandlodges-tanzania.com), which offers similar or lower rates but often in better locations.
Still owned by the family of one of Kenya's former presidents, Heritage Hotels (www.heritage-eastafrica.com) runs eight Kenyan safari lodges and camps (the smaller ones are good, the large properties much less so) under three marginally distinct brands, namely Explorer, Intrepids, and Voyager -- of the three, the Explorer properties tend to offer greater exclusivity. One advantage of the Heritage properties is that some offer kids clubs both on safari and at the beach, so they appeal to families. Heritage is represented in the U.S. by Sarah Fazendin's The Fazendin Portfolio tel. 303/993-7906; www.FazendinPortfolio.com), worth contacting to find out about any special deals on Heritage packages.
Tented camps, particularly the so-called mobile camps (those that move to two to three locations depending on animals' movement), are ideal for those who want to be in the midst of the Migration or simply want to experience the thrilling experience of sleeping in the wild with animals close by while enjoying luxuries such as quality linen and en suite toilets. For both of these options, you'll have the personal service of knowledgeable guides. Tanzania's Nomad (www.nomad-tanzania.com) is highly recommended in this category.
Kenya also has a growing number of boutique "chains" comprising personally managed smaller properties. Porini (www.porini.com) comprises four different safari camps and focuses on providing eco-friendly lodgings. Offbeat Safaris (www.offbeatsafaris.com) grew out of a slick horseback safari operation and now has four different lodging options in prime game-viewing areas. Governors (www.governorscamp.com) is a family-run operation based in the Masai Mara; they have a growing number of camps, lodges, and resorts, including their new Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda, which is set to become a prime base for gorilla trekking safaris. Governors also has the best hot-air ballooning operation in Kenya and has its own air service. One more operation to consider if you're seeing Southern Kenya and the coast is Southern Cross Safaris (www.southerncrosssafaris.com), which handles bookings for a small number of camps in Tsavo and represents many resorts on the beach.
Major international players that have set their sights on Kenya include Fairmont (www.fairmont.com), which has recently taken over several prestigious hotels and lodges and is steadily transforming them into ultra-luxurious destinations for the well-heeled. Unfortunately, while they generally provide quality accommodations and efficient service, their properties suffer from a lack of local community involvement, and you'll often find that they employ city-based personnel at their safari destinations. Best of the international players for wildlife enthusiasts is South African-based &Beyond (formerly CC Africa; www.andbeyond.com), which has the added advantage of a better spread of properties in East Africa (including one in the Masai Mara and one on Pemba), and their guides are among the very best in the business.
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.