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Safaris and beyond at Fairmont's Kenya properties

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At the Fairmont Mara Safari Club on the banks of the Mara River, accommodations are platform tents.
At the Fairmont Mara Safari Club on the banks of the Mara River, accommodations are platform tents. Photo Credit: Susan Portnoy

Kenya is almost synonymous with safari, a trip that always conjures notions of adventure.

A Swahili word, safari actually means journey, and for Americans, it is always a long one and can be quite complicated.

But it doesn't have to be.

Kenya Airways launched the first nonstop flight between the U.S. and Kenya in late October, significantly cutting the number of hours needed to get to East Africa.

Many tour operators make a Kenyan adventure as seamless as possible. And there is a reason that many of them work with Fairmont's three properties in the country.

Fairmont is the only major international brand with hotels in three premier Kenyan locations: Nairobi, near Mount Kenya and the Masai Mara. The properties work together to offer guests an easy way to enjoy three distinct experiences.

I was hosted by the Fairmont properties on a visit in November. The hotels are featured on itineraries with Micato, Abercrombie & Kent and Tauck, among others, which offer anywhere from one hotel to the three-property circuit.

The Fairmont Norfolk in Nairobi and the Mount Kenya Safari Club are among Africa's most historical properties, and in the wildlife department, the hotels offer singular experiences.

Luxury, wildlife and culture at Fairmont's Kenya properties

Hemingway drank here

Anyone looking for an "Out of Africa" experience in Nairobi should look no further than the Fairmont Norfolk. The hotel is almost as old as Kenya itself: It opened in 1904, less than 10 years after the country was founded as a British colony. The Norfolk became the gathering point for Western Big Five hunters, including Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway (who is said to have spent many hours at the hotel bar), before setting out for the bush.

Nowadays, the hotel still gets its share of A-list travelers, generally en route to safari. The hotel is dated, but that's part of its charm. Its gardens still offer a respite from the bustling city outside, and its bar feels like it hasn't changed much since Hemingway sat there. I'd like to think he also drank dawas, which means medicine in Swahili, and is Kenya's national cocktail. The Norfolk adds a refreshing twist to the vodka, sugar, lime and honey concoction: basil.

The best way to get around Kenya is on small airplanes, and Fairmont will arrange flights to and from its properties. A huge bonus of staying at the Mount Kenya Safari Club is that the property recently opened a private airstrip so guests can land only minutes from the front desk.

Founded by the 1950s film star William Holden, the 100-acre, 120-room property faces the slopes of Kenya's highest mountain, its snowy peak best visible at sunrise.

A visit to the property starts with a ceremony marking its position on the equator: Golf enthusiasts enjoy Fairmont's pitch that its nine-hole golf course is the only one in the world bisected by latitude 0.

Holden was a hunter turned conservationist, and he opened the on-site Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, now home to orphaned, injured or endangered animals and the only place to visit the endangered mountain bongo.

I enjoyed the various ways to experience wildlife here. An early morning horseback ride to and from a "slope breakfast" with views of Mount Kenya led to up-close elephant and zebra sightings. My mountain bike adventure through the property's trails held out the possibility of spotting an albino zebra. Rain made the trail too muddy, but I still enjoyed the ride to a nearby village.

My spacious cottage had two bedrooms and a shared common area with a stone fireplace that the staff had roaring upon my return from dinner.

There is also lots to do outside the property, including a must-visit to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, home to the last two northern white rhinos in the world, Najin and Fatu, who are guarded round the clock.

Also not to be missed is the Nanyuki Weavers and Spinners, a cooperative of single mothers taught to spin and weave beautiful textiles in a compound with a school where their children are educated while they work. I don't think anyone in our group walked away without a purchase.

The Fairmont Mara Safari Club offers what travelers consider to be the quintessential African safari. The Mara is home to the Great Migration, and its acacia-dotted plains offer up-close sightings of the Big Five: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo. The Fairmont property is situated atop the banks of the Mara River, and hippos bellowing may wake you a few times at night. Accommodations are platform tents beautifully decorated with the red plaid designs associated with the Masai people.

Fairmont is the only property that offers up-close encounters with the only two southern white rhinos in the Mara, Kofi Annan and Queen Elizabeth. Every day ends with sundowner drinks in the bush, and a bush dinner might include a surprise visit from Masai dancers. No trip to the Mara is complete without a visit to a Masai village, where one can see tribe members' homes, speak with elders and watch dance performances.

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