Is it time for my sundowner? It’s February 2012 in Kenya, and I’m flying into Hippo Point, the ultimate colonial-fantasy destination on Lake Naivasha, a quick 60 miles northwest of Nairobi. As the helicopter crests the purple hills of the Great Rift Valley, a vast, silvery lake appears and a rush of Pepsodent-pink confetti swirls in the air. Thousands of flamingos take flight at the sound of the blades. In the distance are greenhouses the size of airport hangars, flower farms that supply the world millions of roses a year. Just ahead is another wonder: a 120-foot tower—part pagoda, part Bavarian folly—that is the beacon to the mock-Tudor sprawl of Hippo Point, created by German-born Dodo Cunningham-Reid, who first saw Naivasha as a bride of 18. Upon our landing, a herd of gazelles moves slowly past. Here is safe passage for Naivasha’s peaceable kingdom now under siege—giraffes, eland and zebras wander by, as if stoned. We are warned: Don’t go out at night. Hundreds of hippos roam the grounds, mowing through bush. Guards prowl in olive uniforms carrying guns to scare off any and all poachers. Within moments, I am back in time and the tweets, noise and urgencies vanish into the mist.
Great hotels are social ideas, Joan Didion observed, but a retreat to a great Kenyan guesthouse that is run like a home—quixotic Internet service, cell pockets sometimes found only under the stars—is for those who live to daydream. Hippo Point is a modern echo of Howards End—the days of fancy dress parties between the wars, when debauched old Etonians carried pistols, swapped wives at night and from time to time murdered one another, a Happy Valley on the equator. Dodo’s timeless rooms are filled with African paintings, down sofas that could use a bit of refurbish, lamps that might need new bulbs. Just before he launched the iPhone, Steve Jobs brought his family to Hippo Point and spent hours desperately trying to connect to Cupertino. “You either get it or you don’t,” Dodo says. “The house is not for those who want bling-bling or five-star this and that.”
Imagine, if you will, a house party in a family’s grand hunting lodge (there are 14 bedrooms between the lodge and the tower) in the Kenya of another era. Safaris and private balloon tours can be organized. “We do not mix groups,” says Dodo. “Two people can rent it or 20. The ideal number is 16. But I am a bad businesswoman—if two people rent it for one week and we get a booking for 18 the same week, I turn down the larger group.”
On my first morning, I’m up before dawn. Is it the arpeggios of snorts of the nocturnal hippos returning to the lake for their morning snooze? Or the romance of living with monkeys and giraffes and solar lanterns in rooms with Art Deco stonework and original wood beams? I sink into my wood-paneled bathtub and stare at a trompe l’oeil mural of frolicking elephants and warthogs. Just outside my door, Swahili cooks sing in the kitchen, or is it the actress Liv Tyler, who is staying upstairs? I take a cup of coffee and wander through the masses of bougainvillea and daylilies, stare at thousands of butterflies and birds and the hundreds of trees Dodo has transplanted into what was once a broken-down, derelict fishing lodge. I try to log on to my iPad, then happily give up for the rest of my stay.
Dodo took over the property in 1985, haunted by the sadness and the beauty of what was lurking underneath. Where the grand living room is, a tin-roofed granary had been placed to store crops. “The romance and transcendence of what had once been the estate of Lord Delamere still lurked under the blackened beams and rooms within rooms—it was madness, but I decided I would try to bring back what I loved,” she says. Delamere, the first so-called viceroy of Kenya, had made a fortune among the Masai. Dodo, a Rita Hayworth look-alike with a personality that is both Auntie Mame and Margaret Thatcher, left one husband and married another—Delamere’s stepson, Michael Cunningham-Reid. Dodo’s daughter, designer Anna Trzebinski, and her son, war photographer Dominic, are both based in Kenya and have their own big-time careers. With his exquisite partner, Casilda, Dominic oversees Hippo Point from a Norwegian-style cedar cottage on the grounds.
Over long lunches and dinners set under the peppertrees in the garden, a table is covered in rose petals and bright Swahili-fabric napkins shaped into crowns. At one lunch, the guests include the Swiss ambassador to Kenya; John Githongo, an activist author and former anticorruption minister; a German prince; a visiting Hollywood star. That’s how it is at Hippo Point: a flop in the pool, a walk to see giraffes, a three-hour conversation with an expert on the murders and scandals of Naivasha, from Lord Erroll to naturalist Joan Root. To observe it all, Dodo placed her bedroom at the very top of the tower. From there she can gaze at the bright line of pink flamingos bordering the lake and the real art of Africa: some 500 species of birds, gazelles, giraffes, kudu, warthogs, moving slowly before her eyes, suspended in time.
$ Rooms start at $650 a person per night; Naivasha; 254-733/993-713; hippopointkenya.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.