African Lodging Trends

7 luxury game changers now give that exotic fairy tale called the African safari a dramatic new look. You'll roar with approval.

By Paul Rubio

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1. ULTRACHIC CAMP
Every fairy tale has its castle - and in the original African tale, that castle took shape as a supersized canvas tent in remote wilderness that mixed myriad creature comforts with a welcome touch of "roughing it." But the new incarnations of safari abodes have shifted more toward permanent structures with design-savvy interiors and resort-style amenities such as air conditioning, rain showerheads, and infinity pools. 

In the early '90s, Singita's inaugural lodge exposed a fledgling blueprint of wilderness swank. Flash forward to present day and the brand's latest endeavor, the Singita Serengeti House, which embraces entirely the apex of high design in the African bush. Singita has made the suites bigger, employed big-name designers, and showed us that remote African settings need not compromise style, sophistication, or consumer demands. 

At Segera Retreat, Wilderness Safaris transformed the private Kenyan estate of renowned German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz into a larger-than-life African playground that's at once a celebration of African art and a true luxuriant ranch inclusive of a full spa; sprawling, lounger-lined swimming pool; and a stocked wine tower for oenophiles. Six raised villas unfold over vast acreage in the Laikipia Plateau, separated by mazes of sculpture gardens, cactus gardens, and eclectic, freestanding statues. Horse stables have been reinvented as a library, bar, and art gallery, with each stable now a revolving showcase of contemporary works. 

In Botswana, andBeyond Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge is scheduled to debut a fresh face in July with 15 elevated, cocoonlike suites in the forest canopy, each with a private plunge pool and fireplace, and prime views of the game-rich Santantadibe channel. Also in July, andBeyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp in Kenya's Maasai Mara will literally raise the camp to give superlative bird's-eye views of the Mara. In South Africa, at the andBeyond Ngala Tented Camp, rebuilt in late 2012, the whimsical design of the suites and common areas channels Philippe Starck with stylish bird's-nest chandeliers, mint-hued mega throw pillows, and intricate snow-flaked patterned partitions.

2.SUB-SAHARAN EXPANSION
Beyond the mainstream circuit, Africa's lesser-known parks and sights now trend as gripping alternatives to the more predictable safari experience.

In the Republic of Congo, Wilderness Safaris has unveiled two of its Wilderness Collection camps, the Odzala Camps, in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, which boasts the world's highest density of western lowland gorillas.

In landlocked Zimbabwe, the seven-villa Singita Pamushana Lodge handsomely rewards those venturing down the road less traveled with the extreme natural splendor of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve and an unexpected immersion into Zimbabwean cultural heritage. With Zimbabwe's political turmoil finally subsiding, Pamushana and other national lodges are enjoying some long overdue attention. Even Africa's original safari destinations have been revisited as more than savanna-strewn animal kingdoms.

In Tanzania, One of the world's most exclusive hotels, the 130-acre Lupita Island, rises from Lake Tanganyika's placid waters as a private island paradise in the country's far western side. All 11 open-sided, 1,800-square-foot thatched-roof cottages and two 2,500-square-foot family cottages dole out gobsmacking vistas of the world's second-deepest lake, with islands, sandy beaches, and crystalline waters rivaling French Polynesia.

Time at Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge, on the Wami River, feels like a joyous ride on Disney's Jungle Cruise. On daily boat safaris, eye hippos, crocs aplenty, Pied Kingfishers, and the odd elephant crash through the forest to see what all the fuss is about. With a mere 18 units cast along a mile of footbridges, privacy reigns supreme. Each of the thatched-roof, stilted megasuites commands a remarkable river view, plus expansive outdoor terraces, alfresco showers, and claw-foot bathtubs for embracing the romantic surrounds. 

3. RISE OF THE TRUSTED BRAND
History books tell us of the "imperialist Scramble for Africa" from the 1880s to 1914, when European nations fought for a slice of the African pie. Now, in a new "scramble," in a much lighter context, the world's best-known hoteliers and hotel brands are claiming their stake in the African economy's rapid growth. 

Who's moving in?

Four Seasons: The Toronto-based luxury chain opened its first sub-Saharan outpost in late 2012 with the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti after the success of its showstopping resorts on the African islands of Seychelles and Mauritius. The Serengeti lodge dutifully marries Four Seasons distinction with classic safari grandeur. Think exquisitely appointed, safari-chic accommodations; a sumptuous infinity pool cascading over a watering hole teeming with elephants; and rare safari amenities such as a full-scale gym and functioning Wi-Fi.

St. Regis: This Starwood luxury brand made its African debut last March with the St. Regis Mauritius Resort.

Virgin Limited Edition: The British business venture juggernaut opened its first East Africa property last summer with Mahali Mzuri, building on the success of the brand's global fame and its other Africa lodge in Sabi Sand, South Africa. Located on a private conservancy on the outskirts of Kenya's Masai Mara, the Richard Branson-backed camp features 12 big-top suites decked out in Space Age style and riveting game drives around the Mara. 

On deck: Four Seasons has three properties in the works: a hotel in Johannesburg slated for summer 2014,  a tented safari camp in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 2015, and a beach resort on Zanzibar with no set opening. Ritz-Carlton plans to come on the scene in 2015, on Mauritius. Hilton has 19 hotels in the pipeline, many business-centric; ditto for Marriott with 23.

4. BESPOKE WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS
Growing evermore explicit and savvy about their wildlife encounters, Africa-bound jet-setters now home in on optimal locales for snapping brag-worthy, big-cat photos, witnessing predator and prey face-offs, or coming in close contact with one of the world's last white rhinos. Luxury lodges have responded to this new paradigm in species-specific safaris, tailoring activities to concentrate on their most iconic residents. 

What to see where?

Rhinos and elephants: In Namibia, rare scenes of desert-adapted rhinos and elephants in real time are the main draw for venturing to Wilderness Safaris' Desert Rhino Camp and Damaraland Camp, respectively. Separated from their eastern counterparts centuries ago, the unlikely desert animals roam the ethereal landscapes, where they've learned to live off the imposing, desolate terrain. Expect twice-daily game drives in pursuit of these prime examples of natural selection.

The struggle to save Africa's remaining black and white rhinos is a hot topic at all six lodges within andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa - arguably the continent's ultimate stronghold of these endangered species. On half-day, ranger-led walking safaris, trail through the bush in search of these prehistoric-looking giants, with excellent chances of meeting at close range. As part of the rhino research program, experience true conservation in action as you work alongside veterinarians and researchers to dart the rhinos and collect pertinent data for species longevity. Phinda also sits on prime cheetah real estate, garnering major attention from those seeking prize photos of these master sprinters.

Leopards: For paramount leopard sightings, head north toward South Africa's Sabi Sand Game Reserve to andBeyond Leadwood Lodge - where you'll discover it's a leopard's world and we're all just living in it. Fleeting encounters are typically the norm with these elusive apex predators, but extended leopard spotting is hardly uncommon on twice-daily big-cat-centric game drives at Sabi Sand.

5. URBAN GROWTH
Since the birth of safari, realizing the African dream first required an overnight stay in one of Africa's dire capital cities. But some long overdue investment in gateway cities has softened the blow of Africa's "capital" punishment, and - dare we say - fostered sophisticated pockets now deserving of an extended layover. 

Nairobi: Near the city center, the new Villa Rosa Kempinski Nairobi teems with bold, cosmopolitan flavor, including an Arabian-inspired, cabana-lined rooftop lounge, high-design rooms epitomizing modern luxury, and expat dining hot spots 88 and Italian Bistro Lucca.

The opening of Hemingways Nairobi last spring endowed Kenya's capital with its first true boutique hotel. Far from the urban grit, the low-rise, 45-room enclave overlooks the Ngong Hills in Nairobi's most coveted suburb and is proximately located to the city's star attractions - the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust orphanage, the Karen Blixen museum, the Giraffe Manor wildlife sanctuary, and Nairobi National Park. 

Namibia: In Windhoek, South African photographer Micky Hoyle captures his eclectic vision of the country's diversity with photos that hang in seven original suites at the Olive Exclusive All-Suite Hotel, marking the city's pioneering instance of Namibian swagger.

Rwanda: Scheduled to open at the end of 2014, the Kigali Marriott Hotel will be the latest up-market entry in Rwanda's burgeoning capital. Though the chain's fare is predictable, its host city is anything but. Modern-day Kigali is pristine and inviting, with many museums, restaurants, and lounges; serene hiking trails; and myriad cultural centers. In less than 20 years, Kigali has managed to shed the scars of its tragic history and fast-forwarded to a fledgling metropolis. 

Tanzania: The larger metro-buzz has yet to hit East Africa's other safari gateway, Dar es Salaam, but the Southern Sun Dar Es Salaam has just enough creature comforts to ensure a smooth transition through the former capital.

6. DIVERSIFICATION OF THE ACTIVITIES PORTFOLIO
Back-to-back game drives can grow a bit monotonous, so top-tier lodges now spice up daily agendas with educational, conservation, and enhanced leisure components. 

Community outreach: At Segera Retreat in Kenya's Laikipia Plateau, game drives share the spotlight with community interaction and conservation experiences. You'll spend as much time visiting local schools and villages to witness how communities have united to surmount human-wildlife conflicts as you will observing endangered Grevy's zebra.

Leisurely pursuits: At andBeyond Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp in Botswana, float through the Okavango Delta's water lilies in a mokoro (a traditional dug-out canoe, above) or fish the crystal-clear waters for tigerfish and tilapia. At sister property andBeyond Chobe Under Canvas in Botswana's northern reaches, bask in the splash of bathing elephants as you get close and personal on your river cruise. 

At andBeyond Lake Manyara Tree Lodge, pass by sunbathing giraffes and approach the flamingo-filled lake by bicycle; at Singita's four lodges in Tanzania's Grumeti reserve, explore the Serengeti on horseback.

For families: Singita properties offer a full roster of activities to keep kiddos entertained. At its latest endeavor, the Singita Serengeti House, the savanna transforms into a fun house with children's activities that include archery, baking, and a Mini Rangers course, where they identify wildlife tracks and study butterflies.

7. INDIAN OCEAN ADD-ON
From Mauritius' palm-laced beaches to the Mozambique and Tanzania coasts, this turquoise beauty has become as much a part of the safari circuit as the wildlife-rich plains.

Mauritius: The Four Seasons Resort Mauritius at Anahita, which just marked its fifth anniversary, ushered in a new luxury dimension to the island nation.

The St. Regis Mauritius Resort, Starwood's first African property, debuted last March on a prime beachfront locale. Its 172 rooms deliver dreamy ocean vistas, with many opening directly onto shallow lagoons. At the central pool, palm trees and other native flora in oversize planters rise through the water, creating both a swimming and colossal reflection pool.

Eastern Seaboard: On Mozambique's unspoiled southeast coast, the White Pearl Resorts, Ponta Mamoli provides idyllic fodder for Robinson Crusoe fantasies in its beachfront and hillside suites, each equipped with a plunge pool.

At Tanzania's Sanctuary Saadani Safari Lodge, mix your post-safari beachside detox with a final elephant encounter in Saadani National Park, the lodge's home. It's not as luxurious as you might expect from this brand, but the locale easily makes up for that.

Lodging Essentials

Note: Rates often include more than just your room, so do inquire.

andBeyond lodges: From $310 per person, double occupancy. 011-27-11-809-4300; andbeyond.com

Four Seasons Resort Mauritius at Anahita: From $840. 800-819-5053; fourseasons.com/mauritius

Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti: From $445 per person, double occupancy. 800-819-5053; fourseasons.com/serengeti

Hemingways Nairobi: From $555 per room. 011-254-20-229-5011; hemingways-nairobi.com

Kigali Marriott Hotel: 800-228-9290; marriott.com

Lupita Island: From $1,225 per person, double occupancy. 800-524-7979; tanzaniafirelightsafaris.com

Mahali Mzuri: From $590 per person, double occupancy. 877-577-8777; mahalimzuri.virgin.com

Olive Exclusive All-Suite Hotel:
From $198. 011-264-61-239-199; theolive-namibia.com

Sanctuary lodges: From $367 per person, double occupancy. 011-44-554-7016; sanctuaryretreats.com

Singita lodges: From $1,095 per person, double occupancy. 011-27-21-683-3424; singita.com

Southern Sun Dar es Salaam Hotel: From $274. 011-27-11-461-9744; tsogosunhotels.com

St. Regis Mauritius Resort: From $765. 877-787-3447; stregismauritius.com

Villa Rosa Kempinski Nairobi: From $207. 011-254-203-603-000; kempinski.com/en/nairobi

White Pearl Resorts, Ponta Mamoli: From $294 per person, double occupancy. 011-27-11-026-7178; www.whitepearlresorts.com

Wilderness Safaris retreats and camps: From $450 per person, double occupancy. 866-988-7575; wilderness-safaris.com

For the Adventurous

Are you an adrenaline junkie? One of the continent's leading trendsetters, luxury outfitter Micato Safaris, has expanded its roster of "active" safaris for true adventure seekers. Two new options:

• The "Elephant Back South Africa Sojourn," in which you'll explore the bush for 10 days, several of those atop an elephant. From $14,275.

• An eight-day Mount Kilimanjaro climb. This nontechnical trek requires no mountain-climbing experience, but you should be in good physical condition and hardy. From $4,750.

Or opt for ...
Micato's new "Private Invitation Safari" ventures to Africa's boutique camps and lodges, where often you'll dine and tour with the proprietors, straying far off the beaten path. From $16,960. 800-642-2861; micato.com 

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