After our first evening game drive, we settled in at Mahali Mzuri’s, voted the world’s best hotel in 2021 by T+L readers, help-yourself bar. Another guest was making a batch of cocktails to share, and everyone was discussing their animal sightings of the day. “Did you see the cheetah with two cubs?” “No! We only saw a single cheetah. We’ll have to look for those.” By Samantha Lauriello
Shortly after, the general manager and a few other staffers joined us. They told us about life in Kenya and their most memorable animal encounters, some of which happened right on the property. It was one guest’s birthday, so we all raised our glasses for a toast before heading to dinner, where we pushed our tables together and ate family style.
Mahali Mzuri means “beautiful place” in Swahili, but here, the beauty goes beyond the landscape — it’s even more palpable in the people.
The property, part of Richard Branson‘s Virgin Limited Edition, was named not only the best safari lodge in Africa but the best hotel in the world by Travel + Leisure readers in the 2021 World’s Best Awards. Readers credited the picturesque view of the Kenyan bush and the luxurious tented suites, but for me, the hospitality was what made my stay truly unforgettable. Although, being able to spot elephants, hippos, and the occasional lion from my balcony certainly didn’t hurt.
An ‘abundance of wildlife’
When talking to other guests, I heard one remark over and over: “I just can’t believe the abundance of wildlife.” It’s true, in the private Olare Motorogi Conservancy, you don’t go searching for animals — the animals come to you. Within a three-minute drive from camp, you might see a herd of elephants, troop of baboons, or dazzle (yes, dazzle) of zebras.
The best part: You usually get the animals all to yourself. There’s no need for multiple safari trucks to crowd around at every sighting, as can happen at other safari camps. The majority of the time, it’s just you, your guide, and the animals.
That’s another standout element of the best hotel in the world: the guides. Our guide, Jackson, from a local Maasai village, grew up around the animals and seemed to know everything about them. He also knew everything about local life, making him a true expert of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.
Learning about the local community
Spending time with members of the Maasai community, both on and off property, was one of the most noteworthy parts of my stay. Jackson took us to visit a local village, and later, a school. We had the opportunity to join in a traditional song and dance, learn how to make fire using dried elephant dung, and, at the school, play some of the children’s favourite games.
More importantly, we were able to ask about the biggest challenges facing the community and the school’s most pressing needs. Like many guests, we left these experiences wanting to help, and the camp guided us through the most effective ways to do so.
World-class dining in the middle of the bush at the best hotel in the world
On that first night, when we and our fellow guests decided to eat family style, the chef asked us how we felt about forgetting the menu and instead having all traditional Kenyan dishes. There was no hesitation; everyone loved the idea.
We had ugali, a stiff maize flour porridge; sukuma wiki, or sautéed collard greens; pilau, a rice dish; and so much more. The chef talked us through each dish and later answered our questions about Kenyan cuisine, specifically how to make ugali, which was easily the group favourite.
Other evenings, we had things like fresh greens from the on-site garden, grilled fish and chicken, and fluffy cakes and pastries — dishes you might find in an upscale restaurant — but that first night holds a special place in my memory.
Cosying into bed after dinner was one of my favourite parts of each day at Mahali Mzuri. It might sound routine, but the camp found a way to make even the simplest of moments special.
That first night, when I crawled under the covers, I jumped — there was something warm at the foot of the bed. For a second, I thought it might be an animal, but it was actually a hot water bottle, placed under the covers to keep my feet warm. It was a small detail, but it was one I came to look forward to every night. I’ve even continued the tradition since returning home.
My partner calls those details “one-percenters,” and our tent (if you can really call it a tent) was full of them: binoculars to spot animals from the balcony, a clawfoot soaking tub overlooking the valley, furnishings made by the local Maasai people. Plus, there are just 12 tents on the property, making for a very secluded and exclusive feel. At times, it felt like it was just us, the staff, and, of course, the resident animals.
Mahali Mzuri embodies its name in a number of ways, but it taught me that by prioritising community and making the little things count, anywhere can be a beautiful place.
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com