Update Singita Grumeti

Frederic Lagrange

Seven years after it opened, a return visit to Africa’s first word in luxury.

On paper, Singita Grumeti, a 350,000-acre private concession on the western flank of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, doesn’t add up. If all the beds were occupied, its five lodges would accommodate a total of just 108 guests in an area that’s only 23,000 acres smaller than the Masai Mara National Reserve. It’s why people talk of Singita Grumeti as if it were its own country, says Melissa Biggs Bradley of travel agency Indagare. “You’ve got the Africa dream—Hemingway’s and Dinesen’s open plains—but the vision rendered for the 21st century in a way that only a Master of the Universe could ever pull off.” She refers to Singita Grumeti’s Paul Tudor Jones, the Tennessee-born hedge fund manager, philanthropist and environmentalist who in 2003 snapped up a 99-year lease of land in Grumeti Reserves with the intention of regenerating a wilderness “poached to hell and gone,” says Singita CEO Luke Bailes, who heads up the lodge and conservation management. “When we first opened, the naysayers said there was no game,” says Bailes. “Now we have evidence from our annual helicopter censuses of sharp upward curves. Take buffalo, for example: 5,000 now, 500 when we started.” To help achieve the turnaround, 120 locals were converted from poachers into game scouts in a model that’s sweeping through Africa.

Since departures first reviewed Singita Grumeti, when it opened in 2006, not only have wildlife densities improved but also new guest experiences have been developed. The lodge offerings have grown from two to five, with semi-mobile tented camps, a private villa and riding safaris now available. Underpinning all this change is a single principle: On Grumeti’s vast, acacia-dotted savannah, one simply won’t bump into another guest. Such an event would ruin that very particular sense of having Africa all to oneself, of cradling a glass of wine while looking out over a perfect tableau of bathing elephants. The question is which tableau will suit you best.

Singita Sasakwa Lodge

An Edwardian-style manse on a high escarpment overlooking the Sasakwa plain, the lodge is what Singita calls an East African manor. Even when it’s not migration season, Sasakwa’s views are breathtaking—clouds floating so low across the savannah, you feel like you can reach out and touch them. To some tastes, Sasakwa verges on being so grand, it’s out of place: a marble lion head by the entrance, two tennis courts, gilt mirrors, brass chandeliers and air-conditioning blowing chilly breezes into the suite before one has even had a chance to smell the earth. That said, Sasakwa is loaded with the colonial spirit many people come to Africa for: claw-footed baths, ostrich-feather lamps, a drawing room stuffed with wing-backs, zebra ottomans, silver ornaments and cut crystal, a dining room with damask walls, a wood-paneled billiards room, and a croquet lawn with Victorian cane furniture and mohair blankets to keep one warm.

The ten one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom cottages have woven silk curtains, fireplaces, fairy-tale-thick mattresses and billowing mosquito nets, while fresh flowers are flown in regularly. There’s a spa, a pool, a boutique, a gym, a yoga room and a games lounge with original artworks by Peter Beard. Dinners might include fresh tilapia from Lake Victoria, or beef carpaccio with truffle oil, along with elegant reductions and micro-herb salads artfully arranged on fine porcelain plates. In short, Sasakwa is the ultimate soft landing: a good choice for the nervous first-timer to Africa for whom sleeping under canvas is too big a leap of faith. Cottages start at $1,300 a person per night. For all Singita properties, contact 27-21/683-3424; or go to singita.com/sasakwa-lodge.

Singita Faru Faru Lodge

Though Faru Faru may be the most contemporary of Singita Grumeti’s lodges, it commands a rugged spot on a hill close to the fig- and yellow-fever-tree-lined banks of the Grumeti River. This context gives Faru Faru its remote, watery feel, making it attractive to couples and families with older children who want to sit around the pool after a morning’s game drive while taking in the local population of colobus monkeys. A particularly pronounced aspect of Faru Faru’s design is the golden river sand brought in to encourage a sort of barefoot sensibility redolent of Zanzibar. The interiors combine bleached-bone whites, pale bamboos, granites, sage greens and raw-edged linens with objets (telescopes, glass beakers) derived from 1950s botany tours. The elevated pool gets the best of the water-hole views, while the walls of windows in each of the nine suites (including one two-bed villa) serve to frame the big African skies but keep the AC in and the creepy-crawlies out. (Room 3 has one of the best views.) Next year there are plans to open another tented camp, Singita Bangwesi, upriver. Rooms start at $925 a person per night; singita.com/faru-faru-lodge.

Singita Sabora Tented Camp

Singita Sabora’s nine 1920s-style tents recall how Teddy Roosevelt did safari in the old days, when tables, chairs and baths—and even the family silver, Persian rugs and gramophones—were packed up in a suitcase, loaded onto the backs of men and carried across the savannah. To this extravagant tented tradition Singita has added air-conditioning, WiFi, hair dryers, phones, a spa, a gym, a pool and a lounge tent with satellite television. Iron bedsteads sit out under large parasols. The acacias are few and far between, the burned earth thrumming with the heat of the sun, and at night one can hear the whinnying of zebras echoing over the plain. Children under ten are not allowed; this is partly for their safety (in the open, fenceless terrain, gazelles wander freely though the camp every day) but also to mitigate the complaints of honeymooners, for whom Sabora is possibly the sexiest of the lot. Camps start at $925 a person per night; singita.com/sabora-tented-camp.

Singita Serengeti House

Opened last January, this private villa is perfectly symmetrical, with two double bedrooms on each side of a large, open-plan dining and sitting room. It also has two stand-alone one-bedroom guest cottages within a minute’s walk. The configuration suits families or four couples vacationing together who want a cozy holiday in the bush with a bit of tennis and wildlife thrown in. The design, by the South African firm Cécile & Boyd’s, is an elegant, muted palette of pigmented cement, sandblasted timbers, caramels, cashmeres and raffias rendered in possibly one too many over-plumped poufs and cushions that wouldn’t look out of place in a Cape Town beach house. The heart of the lodge, which is located a ten-minute drive from Sasakwa, is its long wooden terrace with a fire pit and an 80-foot-long infinity pool. Beyond that is a watering hole where up to a score of elephants gather for their daily bath. The villa starts at $6,800 a night for four guests; singita.com/serengeti-house.

Singita Explore

Launched in 2011, the semi-mobile tented-camp option opens up the nooks of the reserve in line with game movements and rainfall patterns. With a maximum of six tents, each camp is put up on request for private groups, moving between five predetermined sites that have plumbing systems for toilets and showers (there is a minimum two-night stay for any one location). It’s not a choice for purists seeking the true freedom of the African “fly-camp”, but then the polish is second to none, right down to the mess tent furnished with bookcases, spotting scopes and steel and leather trunks. Food is posh camping cuisine: salads, antipasti and warming end-of-the-day curries and stews, while breakfast and evening drinks are taken around a campfire, where one’s host entertains with stories of lion encounters and other adventures. Singita Explore will definitely attract second-timers—guests who have already found their confidence at Sasakwa Lodge but want to up their experience of the bush. Packages start at $975 a person per night; singita.com/explore-mobile-tented-camp.

Doing the Migration at Singita Grumeti

The migrating herds usually appear on the Grumeti plains sometime in June (in 2012 they appeared on June 19; this year they appeared two weeks earlier). To extend and improve the chances of catching the migration, Singita now has a new camp a 30-minute flight away. Singita Mara River Tented Camp catches the herds as they make their river crossings up to three months later than the lodges at Singita Grumeti.

Getting to Singita Grumeti

From Arusha, the domestic airport in Tanzania that handles the Serengeti area, it’s a one-hour flight to the Sasakwa airstrip with the Tanganyika Flying Co. If booking direct, Singita Grumeti will arrange transfers, which start at $660 a person round-trip. 255-732/978-992; flytfconline.com.