Richly diverse Kenya has snow-capped mountains, hidden restaurants and unmatched safaris, says Briton Nico Heath, co-founder and director of Lightfoot Travel. He has lived in Singapore since 2009 with his wife Millie. They have a 2-year-old son, Orlando.
Why: It has a huge diversity of landscapes, wildlife and people. There are snow-capped mountain peaks, deserts, ancient forests, white sand beaches and lakes. It offers the ultimate safari experience with a charm and sense of freedom that you won’t find in other African countries.
Favourite places to stay: My absolute favourite is Borana Lodge, a family-owned eco-lodge on the Laikipia Plateau, because I spent a couple of great years there when I helped manage the property. The activities it offers are unique. While the private conservancy has an abundance of wildlife and safari tours where you can see Africa’s Big Five – the lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros – you can also go horseback riding, walking, mountain biking, camel riding and fishing.
The Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is a 10-room boutique hotel where rare Rothschild giraffes roam the grounds and regularly poke their heads through the hotel’s windows at breakfast.
For density of wildlife, you can’t beat Solio Lodge, the only private lodge located in a 18,210 ha private wildlife sanctuary directly north of Nairobi, in the valley between Mount Kenya and the Aberdare mountains, where the wildlife viewing is excellent.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve remains one of the best places in the world to see wildlife and there are still some places that will give you an experience away from the crowds, like Sala’s Camp near the Tanzanian border.
Favourite restaurant: The Talisman, in the Karen neighbourhood of Nairobi, has consistently been rated one of the best restaurants in the city. The gastrolounge serves a fusion of relatively simple, but delicious African, European and Pan-Asian cuisines. Its feta and coriander samosas (about $10 a dish) are something of an institution.
Typical breakfast mandazi, also known as the ‘Swahili bun’, is a cross between a pita bread and a doughnut. Most local coffee shops serve it and sometimes you’ll find it from hawkers by the side of the road. It is one of the signature foods of the Swahili people, inhabitants of the coast of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Another must-try is Sukuma wiki – African kale fried with tomatoes and onions – it’s a homey dish which is surprisingly good.
If you’re on the coast or eating seafood, the Swahili coconut milk- based fish dishes are fragrant and delicious. For more Swahili-inspired fish dishes, go to the famous Tamarind restaurant, one of Nairobi’s oldest eateries and the city’s leading seafood restaurant. A meal there will cost about S$100 a person.
Favourite cultural experience: The culture in Kenya is extremely diverse. There are more than 50 tribal dialects spoken there. For one of the most special and authentic cultural experiences, I like to return to Samburu National Reserve, where the colourful and vibrant Samburu people still live their lives in a relatively untouched way. They are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle, but also keep sheep, goats and camels.
Favourite neighbourhood: In Nairobi, head to the Karen neighbourhood, a leafy suburb with lots to do. There are craftwork shops, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage and Karen Blixen Museum. I would spend an hour with the baby elephants at the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage. It has the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation programme in the world. The baby elephants can be viewed from 11am to noon every day for a contribution of 500 Kenyan shillings (S$6.80) a person to the orphanage.
There is a cafe and shop called The Tin Roof at Langata Link Shops. The shop stocks locally made household accessories, clothes and gifts, and the cafe is a lovely place to stop for a juice.
Best sunset: Sundowner Rock at Sasaab lodge near Buffalo Springs National Reserve offers stunning 360-degree views of Africa.
Best hidden find: The Crab Shack in Watamu, a village on the Kenyan coast. The restaurant is housed in a little wooden hut on stilts over the mangroves and is run by a local fisherman. To get there, you walk along a 200m boardwalk through the mangroves. There is no electricity or fancy bathrooms. You bring your own drinks and they lay the most amazing dishes of crab, lobster and calamari on the table. The crab samosas are incredible. Reservations are necessary and must be made 24 hours in advance.
Best souvenirs: Honey-coated macadamia nuts, which cost about S$8 for a medium-sized packet, and coffee. Some of the best coffee in the world is grown in Kenya. A packet of locally roasted and ground Dormans coffee costs about S$15.
Ideal length of stay: Kenya is well set up for tourists. You can go for as short as five days and come away with an incredible experience, although I would suggest 10 to 14 days to get a deeper feel of the country.
After Nairobi, head north to the vast treeless plains in Laikipia and the northern frontier district to experience a mix of topography, then to the Maasai Mara National Reserve for a wildlife experience.
Best time to visit: The wildebeest migration in July and August is a highlight. For beautiful clear blue skies and hot weather, January and February are best.
Recommended reading: I recommend Out Of Africa by Karen Blixen and No Man’s Land: The Last Of White Africa by John Hemingway to learn about colonial and post-colonial Kenya, and The Long African Day by Norman Myers and Portraits In The Wild: Animal Behavior In East Africa by Cynthia Moss to learn about the region’s wildlife.
Traveller’s advice: Travel light. The small planes that fly within Kenya have strict luggage allowances. Pack an extra camera battery and memory card.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times.