Your Go-To Guide for Kenya, where family-oriented tour operators combine rustic charms with natural treasures for safari-goers.
Kenya is a coastal country in East Africa. Its geography is spectacular, from snow-capped Mt. Kenya in the central highlands to the coast’s tropical beaches to the lakes and craters heading west, upcountry along the Great Rift Valley. Despite the U.S. State Department’s Kenya travel warning, U.S. citizens are not staying away. In fact, in 2004, U.S. tourists visiting Kenya increased by 44.4%. Many of these travelers are families looking for a memorable safari experience.
An Appropriate Safari Destination for Families
Arguably the birthplace of the safari, Kenya has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. It caters to safari-goers, as well as visitors seeking rock climbing, mountain biking and/or cultural experiences like a sleepover in a Masai village. Through your family’s safari itinerary, you can explore Lamu Island, where time has left Swahili culture alone, Masai Mara National Reserve, where majestic lions and graceful Masai tribal warriors live side by side, and many other interesting places.
The cost of a safari can be as low as US$3,000-$4,000 per person, excluding airfare. On average, prices run closer to US$6,000-$7,000, though it would be easy to spend a lot more to make this exotic trip extremely memorable.
Most tour operators can accommodate children of all ages on safari, even supplying cribs if necessary. However, the Kenya Tourist Board suggests that children eight years and older would most benefit from a safari experience.
Finding a Tour Operator
Kenyan tour operators include affordable companies specializing in small properties such as African Quest (254-20/2734868) and Outdoor Expedition Safari (254-20/313864). More luxurious tours are offered by Africa Expeditions (800/307-4466 ext. 309) specializing in mobile tented safaris, Ker & Downey catering to the educational market, and Abercrombie and Kent (800/554-7016), the pioneers of luxury safari travel.
A&K organizes custom-made family safaris or group safaris that families can join. Everything, and I mean everything, is taken care of, from baggage handling to all your tour-guiding needs. Their program also includes a stay at one or more of Heritage Hotels’ Adventurer’s Clubs (254-20/4446651), such as the Mara Intrepids or the Samburu Intrepids. The Adventurer’s Club experience combines education, luxury and fun. Membership for those 12 and under is free. At the Adventure Centre, experienced children’s guides will nurture your kids through a number of activities such as tribal excursions, a special children’s game viewing facility, a bush treasure hunt, planting a tree to help bring rain to the desert and building a mini Maasai tribal homestead.
Starting Off in Nairobi
Typically, a safari package begins in Nairobi for a day of recuperation from the long haul flights. Two of the nicest properties in Nairobi include the Nairobi Serena Hotel (254-20/2822000), a resort just 10 minutes from the city center, and The Norfolk Hotel (866/840-8208), a historic landmark built in 1904. In Nairobi sights to see include the National Museum, the downtown market and the Nairobi National Park.
If you are hungry and adventurous, The Carnivore Restaurant (254-20/6059337) is a must. The large eatery specializes in game meat and is popular with tourists and Kenyans alike. On the menu at Carnivore is zebra, ostrich, hartebeest, gazelle, wildebeest, waterbuck, eland, impala, giraffe, buffalo, crocodile, oryx and camel. Obviously, this restaurant isn’t suitable for the vegetarian family.
The Town of Karen: An Alternative Starting Spot
Some families prefer to stay out of the big city and closer to Wilson Airport, the domestic airport from which a number of safari groups leave. Newly-arrived families may choose to stay in the town of Karen in the Ngong Hills, about 45 minutes from downtown Nairobi and within 20 minutes of the airport. Karen is named for Karen Blixen, the pen name for Danish author Isak Dinesen. Dinesen and her husband, Baron Blixen, bought the Swedo African Coffee Company, built in the very early twentieth century, and renamed it The Karen Coffee Company. Her struggle was documented in the 1985 Meryl Streep/Robert Redford film, Out of Africa.
While in the area you can visit The Karen Blixen Museum (254-20/882779), housed in Blixen’s original home, The Giraffe Manor (254-20/891078), where endangered Rothschild giraffes roam the grounds, and The Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where parentless baby elephants receive special care.
Places to stay include The Karen Blixen Coffee Garden Restaurant & Cottages (254-20/882138), located in the Blixen Coffee Plantation’s farm manager’s former home. Also in the area are the “treehouse” accommodations at the all-inclusive Ngong House (254-20/891856). Most of the treehouse rooms are 15 feet high and you must climb a steep circular staircase, which can be especially difficult at night with only a flashlight to guide you. The Ngong House has one main houseroom and one treehouse with easier access–these are more suitable for smaller children and grandparents.
Masai Mara Reserve and Oloana Bush Camp
A Kenyan safari may include a number of destinations, the most popular being the Masai Mara wilderness, located about one hour’s flight south of Nairobi. The Masai Mara is believed to have the largest concentration of wildlife in the world. Game includes elephants, buffalos, zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, hyenas, warthogs, primates, antelopes and a rare species of black maned lions, although you might be hard pressed to spot one.
In the Masai Mara, I would highly suggest staying at the all-inclusive Olonana (254-20/6950002), a luxury bush camp that is part of Sanctuary Lodges. This property, owned by A&K, sits on the banks of the Mara River beside the Olooloolo Escarpment. There are 14 tented rooms–ask for tent number three, where actress Jane Seymour and her family once stayed. This tent has one of the best views of the hippos that call the Mara River home. Olonana also has a swimming pool, indoor and outdoor dining and a library. Laundry service is available–you can come home with almost as many clean clothes as when you left.
Activities at Olonana include game drives, walking safaris, bush meals and a visit to a neighboring Masai village. In the village, you can visit Masai mud huts, learn how to make a fire by rubbing wood, play with the tribal children and shop for beaded trinkets and woodcarvings.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
Heading just north of the equator, a 45-minute flight over Mt. Kenya will take you to Laikipia. The 45,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (254-67/31405), run by Iain Craig, is home to indigenous Black Rhino and Grevy Zebra. In part, the conservancy’s tourist facilities raise money for the environment and community projects like building schools. These facilities include the Lewa House, which is composed of stone cottages with thatched roofs that suit private groups from 4 to 12 people.
Exploring Lamu Island
Lamu Island is a 2 ½-hour plane ride east from Nairobi. It is a great beach spot to unwind after a safari. The Peponi Hotel (254-42/633421) is on a strip of beach in Shella. Once your plane arrives, you must board a boat to get to the hotel, since the only car on the entire island belongs to the government.
Activities at The Peponi include a sunset cruise. Tours to the old town of Lamu can be arranged. These tours typically last 3 hours, though in my opinion, 1 or 2 hours would be long enough to endure the sights, sounds and smells. With 3,000 donkeys walking the narrow streets in the heat of the day, the tour can be rough going for sensitive tummies.
Unwinding at Loldia House in the Great Rift Valley
Another option for winding down after a safari is in the Great Rift Valley, a 2-hour drive west from Kenya. A nice property is the Loldia House (254-20/2734000) on the shores of Lake Naivasha in the city of Naivasha overlooking Mt. Lognonot’s crater. The eight lava stone rooms and cottages surrounding the main house were built in 1943 by Italian prisoners of war for the Hopcraft family, formerly of England. The family still owns the property, now run by Governor’s Camp.
A smiling Peter Njoroge, the longtime house manager, greets guests as if they were long-lost relatives. He makes no bones about it–he introduces you first to his trusted assistant Oblix, a Black Labrador Retriever, and then to the rest of the staff. Activities at Loldia House include day and night game drives, boating, a tour to see flamingos and pelicans at Nakuru National Park and a visit to an area school that the resort financially supports. For your energetic older teenagers, Njoroge suggests a climb up Mt. Lognonot with a reward of breakfast at the foot of the crater after the climb down.
Kenya Travel Tips
by Kathryn Kates
Getting There: Kenya Airways flies from multiple cities in Europe. Another option is by Emirates via Dubai. The flight from Europe is just over eight hours. By enlarge, flight connections are not great and may entail booking a day or night stopover accommodations near the airport.
Climate: Kenya’s coastal climate is tropical, with the warm Indian Ocean and welcoming, cool sea breezes. The days inland are equatorial, with night bringing cooler temperatures especially in the highlands. Rainy season in Kenya stretches from April until the end of June.
Currency: The currency is in shillings – 100 Ksh is worth approximately US $1.60.
Electricity: Kenya’s electricity supply is 220/240v 50HZ. Plugs are three-point square.
Tipping: Tipping is not mandatory in Kenya, but around 10% is greatly appreciated.
More Information: To contact the Kenya Association of Tour Operators, visit www.katokenya.org.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.