You know you have arrived at someplace special when a charter plane drops you at a private airstrip where champagne and a rousing song and dance welcome awaits you. A short drive away is a sprawling estate wrapped around with lush greenery, ducks bobbing on mirror-like ponds and jagged peaks of Mount Kenya peeping from every angle. Even a romance novelist couldn’t have conjured a more idyllic setting than the place I am in — Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki, Kenya.
For a long time, hotels in Kenya tended to be geared toward the Big Five. But at Mount Kenya Safari Club there are llamas grazing on the lawns, golden zebras loitering around and colobus monkeys peeping from tree tops. The incredible Mount Kenya in the background is a constant reminder that you are at some place special. This 120-acre luxurious Club is all about falling in love with nature. Just like Hollywood heartthrob William Holden who built this property did when he first saw it!
Blast from the past
Mount Kenya Safari Club has had an incredible past. In the 1950s, American actor William Holden (The Sunset Boulevard and Bridge Over The River Kwai celebrity) was on a hunting safari near the town of Nanyuki when he came across this plot of land. He and two partners purchased it in the 1960s, and the Mount Kenya Game Ranch was born. It started off as a private member’s club. But this was no ordinary club.
This is where the glitterati of the 1950s and 1960s came to hide in and hibernate. Ernest Hemingway was often found in the hotel bar regaling everyone with his hunting adventures while Ava Gardner downed quite a few gimlets here. Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten were regular visitors, smoking cigars under the watchful eyes of the mounted lion. Legend has it that Holden would often spy on his guests from the comfort of his cottage through a telescope! Black-and-white photographs of Holden with Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby, Ernest Hemingway and Steve McQueen still adorn the walls here. Movies such as Paris When it Sizzles (1964) with Audrey Hepburn, The Wild Bunch (1969), The Network (1976) and handful of other Hollywood blockbusters were filmed here.
Chasing mountain bongos and riding horses
In the evening, the staff lights the fireplace. I sneak in a hot water bag under my duvet. A collectable elephant is plonked on my bed. As for the wake up call next morning, mine's the raucous marabou stork landing on the roof. I am up at 5 in the morning to track Mountain bongos — the most beautiful antelopes of Kenya in the forest. Bongos are a critically endangered antelope that are currently being nurtured and rewilded at the Mount Kenya Animal Conservancy. Though I manage just a glimpse of a mother bongo and her two calves in the wild I am able to enjoy an al fresco breakfast alongside this beautiful animal. The other half of the day is reserved for horse riding in the hills and then a visit to the animal orphanage within the estate. Baby monkeys scramble over my shoulder while ostriches run wild. The orphanage has some of the last pygmy hippos in Kenya (which were given to the first president, Jomo Kenyatta) as well as a rescued leopard and cheetahs (hiding in the trees).
Meals with million dollar views
Meals are an elegant affair at the Safari Club. During my three day stay, I had a champagne breakfast by the slopes of Mount Kenya, an idyllic lunch in a rose garden and a bush dinner illuminated by lamps and lanterns on the banks of River Likii. Other meals at Tusks, the signature restaurant, were equally stunning with views of the sprawling gardens all the way up to Mount Kenya. Interestingly the property sits directly on the equator. The line cuts through some of the rooms and at the Zebar where the server will have to cross from the southern to the northern hemisphere to retrieve your order!
Everywhere you turn from the ornate ponds, enchanted forests, towering mountains, to the peacocks strutting around, there is a photograph begging to be taken.
As I return to the Club after a day of exploring, the sky suddenly turns a dramatic orange before changing to a mellow pink and exploding like fireworks behind the mountains. At that moment I know what Holden may have seen. It had to be love at first sight!
Things to remember
The best time to go is the dry season from late June to October when the wildlife viewing is at its best. The wildebeest migration usually reaches the Maasai Mara in August and remains until October when they move back to the Serengeti in Tanzania.
It’s not always hot. Early morning safaris can be chilly, so it’s wise to pack layers for a trip to Kenya. Similarly, temperatures can drop at night, so fleeces and jackets are recommended.
Kenya banned single-use plastics in 2017. Single-use plastic bottles and straws are banned in national parks — bring a reusable water bottle from home.
Greet people with “jambo”, the best-known greeting in Kenya and say “asante” for thank you. But if you want to show off your sheng (a Swahili and English combo originating among Nairobi’s younger population), try greeting people with “mambo vipi”, you will be greeted with a “poa”.
In local markets feel free to bargain and meet in the middle.