The beginning of all beauty—Nakusontelon—is what the Masai once called the wildlife-strewn plains where Kenya’s capital now exists. Strangely, instead of using this word, the British named it after a swampy stream in the midst of it: Nairobi, which means “cool waters.” It was founded in 1899 as a railroad workshop for the Lunatic Express, which was being built to link the Indian Ocean with the Nile in Uganda. In the early years, Nairobi had to be burned down to drive out the bubonic plague; it was beset by malaria and gunfights. By Out of Africa writer Karen Blixen’s arrival in 1914, it was taking shape: “Here you could buy things, hear news, lunch or dine at the hotels and dance at the Club. And it was a live place, in movement like running water, and in growth like a young thing.”
Today Nairobi is still growing mega-fast, three million plus and doubling in population each decade in an Africa that is, economy-wise, the Next Big Thing. The grid of downtown avenues was designed a century ago to be wide enough to turn around a wagon with several span of oxen, but in the last few decades, the city has metastasized outward into 300 square miles of suburbs. While it grows, it’s no pretty thing, but between the traffic jams uncoiling like iron snakes down the Chinese-built highways, there is youth, energy and a sense that Africa’s time has come at last. Travelers to eastern Africa will likely pass through—you may not wish to stay long, but it’s worth a glimpse. I was born in Nairobi in the 1960s, when it was still known as the Green City in the Sun. For me it’s a sanctuary after long journeys. Given the traffic, my advice is to curb your expectations of “seeing” the city. Be happy to reach where you are and explore nearby. For this reason, I direct people to the western suburbs.
Hemingways (rooms, from $555; Mbagathi Ridge; 254-711/032-000; hemingways-nairobi.com), a new 45-suite hotel, is well situated in Karen. Most of its bright rooms offer dramatic views of the Ngong Hills. There’s a spacious gym and a spa with Anne Semonin treatments to prepare for or come down from safari. It also has a decent wine list (rare in this part of the world) and an able staff that can help with logistics, including chartering a helicopter from and to the airport. But the biggest appeal is the intimate, club-like feel. The design is contemporary, but the rooms have traditional colonial touches—wood-framed photos, exposed beams—that set the scene firmly in Africa.
In the Central Business District, Tamarind (National Bank bldg. off Harambee Ave.; 254-20/225-1811; tamarind.co.ke) is famous for the fresh fish it flies up daily from the Indian Ocean. Its most exciting dishes mix regional delicacies, like whole red Mangrove crabs with ostrich liver and oysters.
The atelier of Anna Trzebinski (94 Kikeni Ln.), in the Langata neighborhood, showcases the Kenyan designer’s exquisite clothing and collectibles. Her signature pieces are safari-style jackets and knee-length coats with Masai beading, feather-trimmed pashminas, beaded sandals and exotic leather bags decorated with jewels.
The place where Blixen danced was the Muthaiga Country Club (Muthaiga Rd.; 254-20/232-6651; mcc.co.ke), founded by wealthy English settlers in 1913 and since then the scene of some of Kenya’s wildest parties. It has colonial-era charm and a mixed membership of up-country ranchers, global travelers and Kenyan cognoscenti. Muthaiga is private but has reciprocal relationships with many U.S. country clubs (like the Yale and Princeton clubs, to name two), and some safari operators (such as Extraordinary Journeys’ Marcia Gordon) are members and bring their VIP clients as guests to lunch or dinner.
Nairobi may be a modern African city, but there are corners of history. My favorite is the Karen Blixen House ($ Karen Rd. southwest of Nairobi; museums.or.ke), in the eponymous suburb near Hemingways that was her coffee farm in the early 1900s. And I always take visitors to two innovative conservation sanctuaries. Giraffe Center (Duma Rd.; giraffecenter.org), just around the corner from Trzebinski’s studio, run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, has a platform that is just the right level for popping nuts on the 18-inch tongues of Rothschild’s giraffes, which were on the brink of extinction until the organization set out to rescue them. The Elephant Orphanage (Animal Orphanage Rd.; sheldrickwildlifetrust.org), on the southern edge of Nairobi game park, is the only place in the world where you can see lions or rhinos in the foreground and skyscrapers on the horizon. Its focus is on baby elephants who have lost their mothers in the ivory-poaching crisis; found in far-flung corners of the bush, they are airlifted here. The orphanage nurses them back to health and raises them until they can be returned to the wild.
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