As is the case in Tarangire, it is preferable to be based within the Serengeti National Park rather than in one of the game-controlled areas that adjoin it, where livestock is as predominant -- if not more so -- than game, and pressure on water resources and poaching keeps predator numbers low. The exceptions to this are &Beyond's Klein's Camp in the north and the Singita's camps in the west; these operate on what are effectively private game reserves bordering the Serengeti, with no human habitation allowed. They offer exclusive traversing rights for their clients, making these the most desirable destinations in Tanzania. At research time, the park had four large lodges catering to the package deal tourist, all reviewed below; the fifth, the 74-room Bilila Lodge Kempinski (tel. 0778/88-8888; fax 0778/77-8866; www.kempinski-bililalodge.com), opened in June 2009 and features an infinity pool, wine cellar, art gallery, bar, boma, restaurant, lobby lounge, and spa. Rooms are en suite, and rates are full board and range upward from $572.
While it is true that these lodges all enjoy superb locations -- mostly sprawled in the game-rich central plains, which are least affected by the vagaries of rainfall -- it would be a pity if this was your sole experience of Africa's most exhilarating game park. Unless you have a particular penchant for impersonal resorts that could, view aside, be anywhere, and don't mind seeing plenty of other vehicles on game drives, these options should be at the bottom of your list. Preferable by far is a smaller, more exclusive lodge located in a more remote area, such as Migration Camp in the north, Grumeti River Camp and Mbalageti in the west, or Kusini in the south, but be aware that, outside of the central Seronera, your choice in camp must ultimately be led by the Migration timing. There is no point in being in the Western Corridor if the animals are on the southern plains, or booking in the south when the animals are crossing the Mara in the north. That said, the unpredictability of the rains makes it impossible to guarantee that you'll be in the midst of the Migration, but with a good ground operator (and using common sense and rainfall guidelines), you should be within striking distance. Alternatively -- and here is my number-one recommendation -- book with one of the reputable companies that sets up small semi-permanent camps in locations that follow the seasonal migration of Serengeti's superherds. Or for unabridged luxury, book a few nights at Singita's Sabora Camp, the best tented camp in Africa. It's camping, but not as you have ever known it.
There is simply no better way to experience the Serengeti than to book a few nights in one of the small tented camps that move, following the general pattern of the Migration. Most of these camps are set up in the northern Serengeti from June and July to October and November, and move south to the short-grass plains around Ndutu from December to March, after which they close down for tent maintenance and upgrades during April and May. Nomad moves more frequently to ensure proximity, but -- as is the case with all semi-permanent camps -- never while guests are there. Aside from the exclusivity of the semi-permanent camps (there are only 4-10 tents per camp), you will enjoy the decadence of a beautifully furnished mess tent, replete with carpets, plush sofas, and small libraries with books, board games, and table lamps. Dining is a surreal experience, seated under the stars at a table with a crackling fire nearby, served with crystal and fine china in the midst of (or near) mass animal movement.
Lemala and Nomad offered the best value at press time, but it is worth checking with the following top operators for their fly-in deals and comparing these for the dates you have in mind (or asking your operator to do so). Serengeti Under Canvas has always been the priciest option, but bear in mind that booking more than one &Beyond camp (and they are all excellent) can offer significant savings. (Note that if you want a truly mobile tent experience, wherein the same camp moves to a new location every 2 days, Nomad is one of the best companies offering these traditional mobile tented camps.)
The Southern Plains (Ideal Time: Dec to March) -- Despite the fact that most vehicles enter through the south, this is -- due to the lack of game action for much of the year -- a seriously underdeveloped part of the park, much of it unvisited. But come the short rains in November and December, the herds are summoned back to their breeding ground. The plains teem with wildebeest, zebra, and antelope, followed by predators and tourists, the latter of whom can opt to stay in one of the exclusive semi-permanent camps or one of only two permanent options. Note that Serengeti Sopa is the most southern of the big lodges and could ostensibly fall under this region.
The Central Lodges (Ideal Time: Year-Round) -- With permanent water, the central plains support a stable population of wildlife, making this the most reliable year-round destination, though you should still not miss seeing the large numbers that only the Migration can provide. It's worth knowing that the Migration usually moves through this region on its way north from March to May, and possibly on the way south in September and October. However, given a truly central location, you could also (unless herds are in the far north) reach the Migration by vehicle, wherever it is, if you are prepared to spend a day traversing bumpy roads.
The first area to be developed in Serengeti, the central plains is busy, with three large lodges, all aimed at the mass market. Despite the hefty entry fee increases seen in the past few years, which raised hopes that TANAPA was moving in the direction of Botswana's high-end, low-impact tourism model, plans for another large lodge were approved in 2006, and the 74-room Kempinski Bilila Lodge duly opened in mid-2009 (possibly worth combining with a few nights in a tented camp such as Sayari).
The North (Ideal Time: July to Oct/Nov) -- The far north, particularly the remote northeastern area on the Mara River known as the Lemai Wedge, is beautiful and virtually untouched by tourists, despite the growth in semi-permanent camps. (Other than Asilia's now permanent Sayari Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas operates here in season, as does Nomad; the Thomson's camp here is in a bad state and best avoided). Note that many northern camps that advertise themselves as Serengeti camps are actually in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, which borders the Serengeti National Park on the east. Strictly speaking, this claim is not incorrect -- Loliondo is part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem and, depending on the arrival of the short rains, usually sees the Migration moving through here (and Lobo) around November as it moves south. However, Loliondo (like Ngorongoro Conservation Area) is home to the Maasai and their livestock, and game viewing is definitely not on par with that in the national park. This means that you have to travel 30 minutes or more before entering the park -- and travel many more hours if you want to get to the Mara. So unless you are making a last-minute booking and know that the Migration is currently moving through Loliondo, my advice is to stick to the camps within the park. The exception to this is Klein's, which is on a private concession that offers superb game-viewing opportunities, and Grumeti in the west.
The Western Corridor (Ideal Time; June to August; Grumeti, Year-Round) -- Time your stay with the Migration moving through the Corridor, particularly crossing the Grumeti, and you will have the safari of a lifetime, with the photographs to prove it. Aside from the options below, it's worth mentioning Ikoma Bush Camp (www.moivaro.com), located just outside the national park (a few minutes' drive from Ikoma Gate). It's a camp comprising 31 basic en suite East African tents, each with a private veranda and savannah views. It's not luxury and it's not in the park, but at $286 double full board in the peak months of July and August ($251 in high; $176 in low), it offers exceptional value.
If you're fortunate enough to have a rather cavalier attitude to budget constraints, make a beeline for the 138,000-hectare (340,860-acre) Grumeti Private Reserve, the concession that borders the Serengeti in the northwest, which has exceptional resident game throughout the year. An ardent conservationist, billionaire hedge-fund trader Paul Tudor Jones has invested enormously in his concession, paying the Tanzania government for every head of animal estimated to be on it, setting up an anti-poaching team, and reintroducing black rhino. He built his own "villa-lodge" Sasakwa and then teamed up with Singita (the group that set the bar with their South Africa camps, regular recipients of "Best Destination in the World" as voted by Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler readers). Located in the most stunning East African landscape, the Grumeti camps take the Singita experience to a whole other level. Not only are they exclusive (only a handful exploring an area that is not a great deal smaller than the entire Masai Mara), but guides are unparalleled, and as they are allowed to drive off-road, they can track and ensure that you enjoy up-close encounters all year.