What is it? If you ever wanted to know what it feels like to stay in the home of a wealthy plantation owner, book a suite at Hemingways Nairobi. The 45-room boutique hotel opened in April, in the upmarket Nairobi suburb of Karen. Staying here is a grand way to begin or end a Kenyan safari.
Isn't Nairobi dangerous now, given what happened in the Westgate mall? No more so, arguably, than New York, London or Bali. "Westgate was an act of terror and [they] can happen anywhere in the world," says Anne Murungi, sales and marketing man-ager at Hemingways Collection (the group operates three hotels in Kenya). "As for Hemingways Nairobi, all guests coming to the hotel must pre-book, may it be for dinner or a massage. We therefore know who is coming in. There is a thorough screening at the gate. We have intensive training for our staff members on what to look out for, how to identify a suspicious character, and what to do in case of a scare. We also get intelligence reports from accredited institutions and government bodies so we know what could be happening."
OK, on with the review, then - it's a boutique hotel, you say? Well, you might call it "boutique" but it's by no means small. The expanse of manicured estate gardens and sprawling buildings is deceiving; at first glance, the hotel looks like it could house hundreds of rooms.
Contemporary or old world? A bit of both. The main entrance (right) makes a statement, with its lavishly decorated high-ceilinged vestibule, marble columns and sweeping staircase straight out of Gone with the Wind. Common areas are decorated with contemporary furniture designed with the old world in mind, such as leather-trimmed sideboards, a silver globe, plantation fans, winged-back wicker chairs on the verandahs and a replica of the Sao Gabriel, the ship commanded by Vasco da Gama on his first voyage from Europe to India .
And what are the rooms like? The most impressive thing first; each has a balcony and views of the distant Ngong Hills. The suites are named either Hemingway or Blixen (American author Ernest Hemingway was known for his travels in the country and Karen Blixen was the Dane who wrote Out of Africa, a memoir about her life in Kenya). Suites have high ceilings and exposed beams. They are contemporary in design and decorated in muted colours and textured fabrics, with touches of brass, mahogany and leather. The result is classic-chic elegance reminiscent of a colonial East African safari lodge. The en-suite Italian marble bathrooms are massive. In their four-poster bed, guests lie back and watch a 40-inch LED television that electronically pops up out of a console designed to resemble an elegant old-style trunk.
What about the service? It's almost over the top. Each room comes with a butler, whose job is to ensure guests receive personalised service. Check-in is done in the guest's room and butlers make it their business to know where you are and what you are doing at all times - at least mine did. He made my dinner reservations, unpacked my bag and organised my laundry. He'd be waiting outside my suite with a buggy at meal times, to give me a lift to the dining room. He brought me coffee in the morning, hot chocolate after dinner and organised visits to local sights. As I said, almost over the top.
And the food? The Brasserie has a Western menu with an African twist and, according to the website, has "aspirations of being the first Michelin-starred venue in Nairobi". Free-range produce is sourced directly from Kenyan farms. The steak menu is extensive and features beef especially reared for Hemingways. The meat is cooked in a josper oven, an indoor barbecue that imparts a distinctive char-grilled flavour.
What is there to do? Nearby, housed in the Danish writer's former farmhouse, is the Karen Blixen Museum, which became famous as a setting in the film adaptation of Out of Africa. Nairobi National Park offers game drives and is home to the Giraffe Centre, an organisation set up to save the Rothschild giraffe. Visitors to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which hand-rears orphaned elephants and rhinos, can watch elephant calves suckle from huge bottles.
What's the bottom line? Rack rates start from US$555 a night for a deluxe room and US$2,000 for a Hemingway Suite.
For more information, go to www.hemingways-nairobi.com