“I’ve always wanted to go on safari!” you say to yourself as you catch a glimpse of a wildlife documentary or marvel at a friend’s Kenya pictures. It’s true that hurtling across the African savanna in view of actual elephants, watching several stately giraffes nibble a tree and set off ambling toward a river, or turning to see a flock of ostriches come running right at you are all thrilling beyond belief! It’s also true that there are many, many different kinds of trips that call themselves African safaris, yet which ones are the very best? What’s an award-winning safari like? And which one is right for you?
There are trips where people crowd into mini busses and stay at large dorm-like hotels. You might be the traveler in a middle seat and have to do some difficult yoga to get a good shot of that baboon. For some people this is fine, yet I wouldn’t recommend these trips, as one of the most impactful and astonishing aspects of visiting East or Southern Africa is experiencing the vast amount of space and peace. Choose a trip where you travel the savanna in a small group or just with your own party, and travel so your vehicle is all alone on the open plain watching that pride of lions or marveling at a cheetah’s speed. It will make all the difference.
Yet what about safaris that have won countless awards? What makes them different from perfectly good safaris with comfortable vehicles and small groups? Safaris win awards because their operators go the extra mile in every single aspect of the trip. The service standards, the wildlife viewing, the guides, the vehicles, the stunning accommodations, their sustainability measures, their relations with the local community–everything, everything, EVERYTHING is head and shoulders above the other operators. These safaris, in addition to offering perfection in all standard safari aspects, offer a kind of slow gracious living and a level of pleasure that many of us rarely get to experience in our busy lives.
Let’s take my 2014 East African safari as an example. I traveled with the operator Travel & Leisure has called the “World’s Best Safari Outfitter”--for the last 10 years! When I arrived at the busy Nairobi airport, there was a very long line for checking passports.”Ms. Martinello?” someone asked behind me, and before I knew it I was being escorted away from the line to a white counter where my passport was quickly stamped and I was escorted to a waiting vehicle. The process took about 15 minutes.
The personalized service continued. Sadly my suitcase had gone missing during my flight, yet while I was enjoying the Nairobi sights and my stay at Hemingway’s hotel, the trip’s concierge called the airport every hour and updated me three times per day until my suitcase was found. My flying day had been my birthday yet how surprised I was when, at the welcome luncheon held in the owner of the company’s lovely Nairobi home, a band of colorfully clad singers and drummers emerged to dance around the room and sing happy birthday to me in 6-part harmonies!
The amazingness went on and on and on. Cocktails and other delicious snacks were served on safari and at many other times during the day. My favorite gatherings were the sundowners which included tables and blankets set up in the wilderness with gin and tonics (or anything else you liked) served around the fire as we watched the day’s end. We had a lazy yet elegant brunch on a grassy plain as well. The hotel properties this trip included were spectacular and ranged from the most luxurious tented camps to beautiful lodges decorated with Turkish rugs and antique furnishings. One of my favorites, Ol Donyo Lodge in the Chyulu Hills, offered me a huge, gorgeous four poster bedded room with its own plunge pool and a view of elephants at a watering hole below. My room had a sky bed on the roof and I slept one night under the blazing stars.
I also must mention the pillow gifts that arrived in my room each evening while I was at dinner. Gifts from jewelry to napkin rings to salad tongs to head wraps, all made by local people, all appeared in my room each night. One night as we sat in the great room by the fire, our expert main guide who stayed with us during our entire trip spoke frankly about his life and his hopes for a reformed Kenya. His sincerity, kindness and insight moved me greatly.
It would not be an overstatement to say this was the most stylish, gracious, and perfectly executed trip of my life and I’ve traveled all over the world with countless 5-star operators. The extraordinary feeling of being in the presence of lions, elephants, warthogs, hippos, giraffes and leopards was exhilarating and unforgettable in itself. Yet add to that the service and perfection of an award-winning safari outfitter and you’ll have one of the two greatest trips of your life. (My clients who have traveled with award-winning operators tell me Africa and Antarctica were their two favorite trips of all time.)
I invite you to explore these award-winning trips on our Wild Nectar Immersive Travel website: The Grand Safari and The Heart of Kenya and Tanzania are offered by the operator I traveled with in this article. The Great Migration in Style and Uganda: Gorillas and Beyond are offered by the World Travel Awards' “Leading Luxury Safari Company.” Secluded Botswana is, by far, the most immersive and expertly planned visit to Botswana on offer, designed in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund. And the Kenya Walking Safari is offered by a Condé Nast "Readers Choice Award"-winning operator.
It’s important to have an advocate like me unaffiliated with the operators who can help you select among the options and help to protect your travel investment. If you are considering an African safari, contact us and we’ll make sure you’re traveling with the operator and style that’s just right for you. All trips to all regions of Africa will burn themselves into your mind as one of your great adventures yet if you have the means and the time to take an extraordinary trip to Africa, I urge you not to hesitate to travel with an award-winning operator.