Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club
Mawingo Road, Nanyuki, Kenya; 1-800-441-1414; fairmont.com; from $329 a night. No eco-rating.
In the early days when Hollywood legend Bill Holden was chilling at his private cottage at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, he always kept a telescope trained on the main bar in the hunting lodge. At 2,187 metres (7,000 feet), alcohol packs a bigger punch, and with a guest list that at times included Charlie Chaplin, David Niven and the Aga Khan, Holden got a kick out of watching his celebrity friends get looped.
The wild drinking parties of the swinging sixties are over, but the Mount Kenya Safari Club, now part of Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, is still East Africa's top address for decompressing from a bush safari. The biggest difference today is that instead of Hollywood celebrities you'll find maribou storks the size of George Burns roaming the grounds.
When Holden acquired the Mount Kenya Safari Club in 1959 with Texas millionaire Ray Ryan and Swiss banker Carl Hirschmann, it was a hunting lodge. Over the decades, the property, set on more than 100 acres of the Rift Valley, has been expanded to 120 guest rooms, suites and cottages. Fairmont completed an extensive renovation this summer costing about $10-million, adding balconies and terraces to open up the property to Kenya's central highlands. (At this altitude, there is no risk of malarial mosquitoes.) Other additions include an elegant conference centre and a heated swimming pool. The main lodge retains its original Cape Dutch style, along with old hunting trophies and photographs from the glory days. A pair of elephant tusks standing taller than a Masai warrior frame the entryway to Zebar, which serves potent Bombay martinis.
Every room at the main lodge has a view of Mount Kenya, the country's highest mountain at 5,199 metres. Dallas-based Wilson Associates was hired to redesign rooms, blending the opulence of 1940s Hollywood with the grandeur of colonial Africa. The main features are a four-post mahogany bed with Egyptian-cotton sheets, and sitting area next to a sprawling fireplace. There is also a heavy emphasis on Kenyan marble quarried in the Rift Valley, which has been incorporated into the coffee table, fireplace mantel and bathroom counters. Suites have a separate bath and rainwater-style shower with glass casing. Heavy tapestry-style curtains are a chore to open to use the balcony. The equator slices clean through the main lodge, which means that in some rooms a guest's top half sleeps in the Northern Hemisphere while his bottom half sleeps in the Southern Hemisphere.
There's a new elegant swimming pool, nine-hole golf course, lawn bowling and tennis court, plus a video lounge for watching DVDs. But this is Africa, and guests are encouraged to explore the private grounds. The William Holden Animal Orphanage is probably the property's most popular attraction, located a short walk from the reception area. The highlight is a small herd of mountain bongo, an endangered species of antelope with magnificent spiralling horns and mahogany-coloured hides.
You can also arrange to ride on horseback through a purple forest of cedar, fig and fever trees to a champagne breakfast in the open air. The only downside is an English saddle, which fortunately becomes more comfortable after a few glasses of champers.
Another great option is hiring a jeep at the front desk and driving over to the Solio Ranch, located 15 kilometres away near the country town of Nanyuki. Over 5,000 hectares, this game reserve has Kenya's largest concentration of white rhinos.
Some evenings Masai, Kikuyu and Embu natives from nearby villages perform traditional dances on the terrace at Zebar. And, in case you're missing your own dog, the resort has two amiable golden retrievers – Ducia and Volga – which guests are welcome to walk around the grounds.
When I called room service for a whisky nightcap around midnight, a waiter arrived minutes later bearing a tray with a bottle of Glenfiddich single malt and tumbler. He offered to make a fire before leaving, which was a nice touch because at more than 2,000 metres (similar to the altitude at Whistler-Blackcomb) nights are cool. In less than 10 minutes, I was able to settle back into Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa – with the added benefit of warmth.
Eating à la carte at Tusks Restaurant is good if somewhat predictable, including French-style classics such as biftek and poulet frites. The nearby town of Nanyuki is in the heart of Kenya's sport-fishing country, so the trout in almond sauce is outstanding. Nearly all the food on the menu is sourced from central Kenyan farmers, providing not only much-needed employment, but organically grown fruits and vegetables for the kitchen. The lunch and dinner buffets need work and are not up to Fairmont standards. Indian-style veg dishes such as green lentil curry were watery and breaded Nile perch was overdone.
Soak up the atmosphere at this luxury property in the middle of the African bush. It offers just the right combination of comfort and adventure, the way Bill Holden liked it.
Special to The Globe and Mail