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Away Night In Kenya
The countryside of Africa reawaken an old love (like the scent of real back bacon under the grill, or the sunsets of your youth)
By: Mary Gostelow
It was still dark when my alarm went off at Fairmont The Norfolk, Nairobi, on my first morning back in Kenya. I had got in just before midnight and collapsed into bed. In the morning it was still dark. But by the time I had done my floor exercises and put on my workout gear to go to the gym, dawn was breaking.
I went down into the low-ceiling, marble-and-polish lobby and a lovely man with a moon-shaped smile showed me the way, which involved walking across a garden. The lawns were well swept, the paths were terracotta brick with terracotta dust around. Oh that color, that dry terracotta. We walked towards a building well labelled 1937, not for its height or street position but its vintage. It walls were creamy terracotta, its roof the same dark terracotta tiles used for this entire sprawling resort.
The gym, with good Technogym equipment, was open from six, as was the outdoor pool, which I am sure was heated as it was a perfect temperature. Then we joined the colonials - in the form of tourists in safari gear pretending they were Happy Valleyists of bygone years - for breakfast on the Lord Delamere Terrace, open-sided to the street. Waiter Patrick, in a green shirt, asked repeatedly if there was anything more he could do. KENYA coffee, he stressed, pushing down the plunger in the big glass jug.
The name Delamere is forever linked with Kenya. Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere KCMG 1870-1931, was arguably the most influential British settler in Kenya. After hunting lion in Somaliland, and coining the phrase 'white hunter', he and his retinue - which included a doctor, taxidermist and 200 camels - arrived in what is now central Kenya in 1897. Not only did he persuade many of his aristocratic friends to join the good life of Kenya: he set up enormous agricultural projects and stirred up action generally. After his death, his second wife, formerly Lady Charles Markham, became first female mayor of Nairobi.
It was Lord Delamere, indeed, who helped Abraham Block set up his hotel empire, which at one time included what is now Fairmont The Norfolk. Abraham Block had arrived from South Africa in 1903 when the lands of the Great Rift Valley from Naivasha to the Mau Escarpment were proposed as a projected colony in Africa for Jewish settlement. He found when he reached here that Kenya was not to be the new Canaan after all. With very little money he befriended Lord Delamere, became a farmer and a cattle transporter, and over the years was involved in every sort of activity, usually profitably. In 1927 Abraham Block exchanged a plot of land on what was then Delamere Avenue (now Kenyatta Avenue) for the Norfolk Hotel, gave up his butchery business and with the Norfolk Hotel as his baseline, founded the Block Hotels dynasty, which was later to be bought up by Lonrho. In 2005 what is now a 165-room central city luxury resort became part of Prince al-Waleed's Kingdom Holdings.
We were staying upstairs in a two-floor block, in suite 15, Sarah, named not for the Old Testament heroine but Sarah Block, 1893-1980, the German-born wife of Abraham Block. Sarah's suite has two same-sized rooms, both with full-wall French windows leading to a semi-private, terrace overlooking the above-mentioned inner garden. As well as a sketch of Sarah Block and details of her life, wall decorations include black and white art photo close-ups of Masai decorations, and engravings of African bush foliage. All so suitable. This is Africa, at its best.
The ideal East Africa trip with Fairmont Hotels & Resorts would take about nine or ten days - and they can arrange it all. On the second day you would fly north to Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, and after two nights there take another hour's flight west to the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, perhaps to coincide with the annual migration. From there, one more night back in Nairobi and then another hour-long flight for your final three nights at Fairmont Zanzibar. Sadly we only had time on this trip for one step of the tour.
We took a Cessna 206 from Nairobi's Wilson airport for the 45-minute flight direct to Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, landing on a grassy strip half a mile from the main 100-acre estate. Flying low over it, we saw the immaculate grounds, the highly-productive vegetable garden, the kidney-shaped blue pool and what looked like a massive maze. As we landed, Philippe Cauviere, who runs Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, came up to meet us. (This is heaven for this Lyonnais, who comes from a family of butchers, bakers and chefs - one cousin, for instance, is Michelin multi-starred Georges Blanc who practically runs hospitality in Vonnas, www.georgesblanc.com I had missed meeting Philippe Cauviere in Sochi, when he was setting up Grand Hotel Rodina for that one-time incredibly important oligarch Oleg Deripaska, so we had a lot to talk about.)
First on the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club tour of inspection was the animal orphanage, started by local residents Don and Iris Hunt. Among the orphans we met today were lots of Colobus monkeys, black with long white freeflowing strands of hair, and bush pigs and bongo, who are afraid of bush pigs. There were African Caracal lynx, and cheetah, and baby cheetah, and peacock and big porcupine and so much more. Each breed had its own play area, with suitable sleeping and trees and so on, and they were all in the care of several wardens, in bright green uniforms and black wellington boots. A list of donors who support the orphanage is set up on the outside of the orphanage office, with such names as Stephanie Powers, who still lives part of the year on the estate.
Then we walked through the vegetable garden and in a back entrance to the main club area, along a brick pathway that reminded me of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Here, the unique feature is that the path is right on the Equator (was this once part of the 100,000-acre estate that Lord Delamere had leased, as Equator Ranch?). You are shown a trick, with water swirling on both sides of the path, in bowls set only 20 feet apart. Ever wonder which way your water swirls out of the bathtub? Here, put in little leaves and you have the answer. The leaf in the bowl to the north of the Equator supposedly swirls anti-clockwise, while the leaf in the bowl oh-so-near it but on the south of the Equator swirls clockwise.
We walk past an acacia tree to the main two-floor manor house, the setting for so many love stories, in the past as today. The house was built about 80 years ago by a rich widow from San Francisco, Myra Wheeler, who was engaged to a swashbuckling hunter, Col E.S.Percy Smith. When he died, she agreed to sell to another pair of romantics, Frenchman Gabriel Prudhomme and his American lady, Rhoda Lewinsohn (15 years his senior and already married to a millionaire but love always has overcome a lot of challenges). Gabriel Prudhomme conveniently scattered the colonel's ashes over nearby Mount Kenya, and Rhoda Lewinsohn bought the house, then called Mawingo (clouds), which she stupidly gave to Gabriel Prudhomme when they later married. So, briefly, after the war the Prudhommes divorced, but he kept the house, which his heirs later sold to the above-featured hotelier Abraham Block who sold it on to actor William Holden and a couple of friends, a Swiss financier, Carl Hirschmann, and an eccentric American, Ray Ryan, who in 1959 started the Mount Kenya Safari Club. It subsequently passed in 1975 to Adnan Khashoggi, in 1986 to Tiny Rowland and Lonrho and in 2005 to Kingdom Holdings. It reopened in 2007 as a 120-room resort, managed by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.
Stay here and stress evaporates faster than ice-cream at the Equator. We looked at the presidential suite, the Equator Suite, one of four up 33 shallow steps to the upper floor of the main manor house (you are right above the zebra-themed Z Bar but it is doubtful if guests here at Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club are going to be all-night ravers, even though they could be drinking beweled martinis, with traditional olives replaced by real Garnet, Tanzanite, Topaz or Tsavorite gems from the club's jewelry partner, JIT Gems). Yes, the Equator goes straight through the bathroom. Wake up here in the morning, in your solid wood bed, turn to your left and you look straight out, over your private balcony, to snow-capped Mount Kenya, in the distance. Does this make you want to climb it? Well, it is 17,057 feet above sea level and apparently takes four to five days and is, they say, much more taxing than Kilimanjaro, six hours' drive south across the border with Tanzania. No, think instead of a champagne breakfast ride. The three-house excursion, with grooms and guides, takes you into the mountain's foothills, and the meal also includes fresh-smoked salmon.
I think, were I staying, I might opt for William Holden cottage 12, one of eight set in a curved line slightly away from the main manor. They are identical, but WH himself liked 12, furthest away. All have two bedrooms flanking a parlor with, like all bedrooms in the entire resort, a real-log working fire. Yes, you might need this at night. You are at 7,000 feet above sea level here, and hot water bottles are put in your bed at night turndown. Wake up in one of the cottages, and you look out over rolling green lawns, and towards the maze. On another visit, I would opt for one of the Garden Suites, detached one-bedroom cottages with two-way fireplaces, facing both back into the bedroom and forward to the parlor area, which extends out to a smaller patio overlooking a rare tea and coffee garden, with dozens of different bushes.
Oh I could be so busy here. There are Trek mountain bikes, and three tennis courts, and nine holes of golf, and swimming and hiking, and drive or walk safaris. You can take the two resident golden labradors, Ducia and Volga, for long walks. There is also that Millennium Maze, opened to celebrate the year 2000. Well, we went in with Philippe Cauviere, GM of Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, and you would think he knew the route... we picked up a couple of lost souls as we used our brains, trying to get in.
It was definitely time for lunch, out on the terrace of the all-purpose restaurant, formerly reserved exclusively for club members but now the main eating venue for all resort guests, too. Every lunch is buffet, fabulous fresh produce from the estate, and eggs from a local cooperative run by young people (the resort gives left over greenery to feed the chickens, and then buys the eggs). There were international dishes, and local dishes, and curries that delighted the large component of Indian guests, a combination of Nairobi-based regulars and their UK-based family visitors, and Indians from India itself who come here because of the resort's Bollywood connections. The chef might also use ugali, a local version of corn grits, to produce a pasta-like wrapping for local mushrooms, and proceed to a plate of mango.
It is so fabulous seeing hotels and resorts helping the local community, and we talked about the Eldon family, who have helped east Africa so much for the last three decades. As a teenager Dan Eldon had set up a t-shirt workshop for underprivileged youngsters and today, 16 years after his tragic death in Somalia, his mother Kathy Eldon and sister Amy Eldon Turteltaub, both based in Los Angeles, run Creative Activist, which they set up in his memory - the cause is helped by such advisors as Nion McEvoy, Chairman of Chronicle Books, publishers of Kiwi Collection's much admired Overnight Sensations series. Also on the list of helpers are Kathy Eldon's husband, Michael Bedner, of top designers Hirsch Bedner, and Arianna Huffington. (Creative Activist produces such evenings as A Cause for Comedy, held August 27th, 2009, Among those performing live were Ben Morrison, Punk'd, AC4C; Ben Gleib, Chelsea Lately; Erin Foley, Last Comic Standing; Eric Schwartz AKA Smooth-E, YouTube; Hugh Moore, Live at Gotham; and Adam Richmond, Carson Daly.)
We were taking a friend back down to Nairobi and he is, as he admits, somewhat fond of his food. Would our little Cessna get off the ground? Add to this the fact a sudden downpour had made the grass landing strip decidedly squashy. Ken the pilot was obviously worried, called back down to base to ask for help. I think I said a little prayer and if so it was answered. We were up, flying low and then high over Mount Kenya Safari Club and its wildlife.
The day was far from over. We later met up with other friends in Fairmont The Norfolk's lovely Cin-Cin, the indoor-outdoor bar where local business people congregate at sundowner time. Drink beer, say White Cap, if you want to be one of the boys. Our drinks came with martini glasses of fritto miso, lovely, but at this rate we will soon all be denied boarding in tiny planes... now it was time for dinner, at the new and lovely Tatu, which means three, for Ambience, Good food, Good service. Ambience certainly wins hands-down here. You enter Tatu past a display of valuable Kenyan carvings into an ice-like interior space that is atrium for the theater of the stone-fronted kitchen, across the entire far end. Here a cast of identically-clad chefs in crispest whites, with tall toques atop, perform as if in a ballet. Yes, they live up to the anticipated second Tatu requirement, Good food (try the roasted beet salad with goat cheese and arugula; iced Mombasa king prawns with tomato, horseradish and lemon herb mayo, or what they call Tatu Wagyu (ha ha, actually it is Australian, grade A6), with a good South African merlot, say Laborie 2007 from Paarl. And yes, Tatu lived up to its third expectation, Good service.
Well, this tasting of a multi-trip around Kenya, with a smidgen of Zanzibar as final spice, certainly beat expectations, we will be back - as we promised the doorman, outside Fairmont The Norfolk at six the following morning. 'We are glad you came', he said with a beaming smiling revealing teeth so white he looked like a photo negative. 'Please come back'.
Source: Kiwi Collection - - Oct 6, 200