Some places are instantly recognizable as being spectacularly gorgeous even before landing—the Maldives, for example, with its outrageous electric blue swell, unmissable from the air. Descending on Namibia is almost the opposite. From high above it appears like a lumpy brown papier-mâché globe, unforgiving, bare and dry—so dry. Roads are few and far between, buildings are scarce and cities seem nonexistent. But this seemingly inhospitable environment blossoms in a big way immediately after touchdown. Fine details come into focus, life begins to pulse audibly, and one notices the extreme beauty of extreme and exotic landscapes dotted with some of the most special wildlife on the planet—and very few humans to muck it all up.
Namibia, until 1990 called South West Africa, is one of the lesser visited African countries, but that’s certainly no reflection of its size (twice that of California) or rich diversity. In fact, anyone who’s explored even one portion of its sprawl would agree it’s take-your-breath-away epic. A few examples: the rust-orange sand dunes that peak and curve like a Frank Gehry museum include the world’s highest, at more than 1,000 feet tall. The largest population of free-roaming black rhinoceros ramble across its empty plains dotted with mirages, pink mountains, and smatterings of minuscule flowers that appear like doilies on the sandy surface. A handful of fresh debuts on the hospitality side, too, are providing outsized, yet intimate luxury experiences that signal a new chapter for the nation that toes an intoxicating line between peaceful and wild. Here, the supremely conceived standouts that open doors to uncharted areas for true safari chic adventures.
Omaanda—the newest Zannier Hotels property and first in Africa—provides a plush place to begin and conclude every Namibian adventure, thanks to its convenient location near the airport. Yet the private reserve feels sufficiently exotic: 10,000 hectares providing a surprisingly diverse array of flora (including threateningly thorny bushes and trees that seem covered in freshly popped popcorn) and fauna. Additionally, it serves as a re-entry release area for wildlife rehabilitated by Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary next door (think lionesses with their cubs, white rhinos). The 10 rounded huts—traditional Ovambo sandbag construction with thatched roofs— are appropriately camouflaged by their surroundings but inside offer five-star luxuries and memorable views of the waterhole from both the supremely soft bed and oversized bathtub. An open-air spa, infinity pool, and impeccable dining round out the safari exploits.
Just getting to Shipwreck Lodge—a scenic flight over otherworldly terrain followed by a drive over garnet pink-flecked sand dunes, whale skeletons, and the carnage of wrecked ships—is a journey for the books. The property itself comprises charming little shiplike cabins perched within view of the unforgiving Atlantic, and a living and dining area where meals and tea are taken. Everything seems to move in slow motion here, from the desert-adapted elephants zigzagging the empty riverbed between dunes and stony mountains as if in quicksand to the serene safari drives over sand in search of surprisingly vibrant signs of life. Surf fishing is another way to embed oneself into the harsh yet joyful realities of the inexplicably rich Skeleton Coast.
The second new Natural Selection lodge to open in 2018 offers as exceptional and contrasting an experience as its sister outpost, Shipwreck. Prince William was one of the first guests to overnight in its glamorous tents, complete with carved sculptures and ombre-dyed textiles. Tucked behind a mountain in an expansive valley brimming with wildlife—extended families of elephants, giraffe, zebra, and all sorts of antelope—it’s the place to gleefully observe animal behavior and, most of all, track black rhino, who are elusive but findable with the help of conservation-minded, click-language-speaking rangers who ensure an exciting treasure hunt of an adventure to witness the fantastic beasts in their natural environment. Stories traded over Namibian G&Ts around the bonfire each night become legend.
Far-flung yet totally worth the flight, Serra Cafema is Wilderness Safaris’ just reopened riverside lodge, blending in true Namibian style the ultimate scenic spectacles and wildlife experiences. Located in the far northwest of the country, near the Angolan border, the total redo comprises guest tents emblazoned with large-scale photography of locals, alongside supple textiles, wood cladding, outdoor showers, private decks, and plenty of glass by which to enjoy the peaceful panoramas. The environmentally sensitive rebuild on the Kunene River consciously supports local Himba villages and people as well as gives guests front row seats to its distinctive desert ecosystem.
Coming in 2019…
Close to Windhoek, on a massive reserve, is the future lodge built on a hillside with guest rooms along the ridge. True to Habitas DNA there are communal areas—a restaurant, fire pits, and several lounges—and diverse offerings: Animal tracking, education on tribes, and sessions with a local wellness practitioner.
From the Zannier folks comes a second unique concept: A tented luxury camp perched atop a grouping of boulders in the vast Namibian Desert, promotes, like Omaanda, a deep sense of peace and relaxation.