NAIROBI, Kenya – I know what you’re thinking. Spend 24 hours and $1,200 traveling in cramped coach-class seats, only to arrive in Nairobi of all places? Home of violent election riots, rock-throwing street fights and fiery carjackings? Right.
That Nairobi, the stuff of dramatic news stories published during the strife last year, existed mainly in shantytowns outside of the urban center. But travelers will be greeted by a completely different city, one that’s scenic, welcoming and far from the dark side exposed during the contested presidential elections. This is Kenya, after all — the crown jewel of East Africa with its breathtaking beauty and status as the region’s safest, most tourist-friendly country.
If you go to Kenya — and beware, you’re likely to come back smitten — you’ll want to venture away from Nairobi for a National Geographic-style safari trip and a beach vacation on a stunning island off the coast.
But don’t discount the capital, because there’s plenty to do in and around the city itself. And don’t be surprised to find palm trees and tropical flowers; cosmopolitan, laid-back natives; shopping malls (yes, malls); and swank lounges serving cocktails in Martini glasses.
5 … Morning, Sunshine
First things first. Immediately upon arrival in Nairobi, grab a cup of some of the rich coffee Kenya is famous for — fast.
Two café chains brew a whole manner of tasty drinks to jolt you out of your jetlagged haze. Java House and Dormans are nestled in shopping centers in the Westlands section of the city.
For 90 Kenyan shillings, or a buck thirty, you can have coffee at Java House in the ABC shopping complex off Waiyaki Way (www.nairobijavahouse.com). A creamy cappuccino costs $2.33.
Prices are comparable at Dormans (www.dorman.co.ke) in the Sarit Centre and Village Market malls, but Java has the edge on coffee taste-wise. Though both offer breakfast and lunch, Java is the winner there too. Try the toasted tomato and cheese sandwich ($5.66) or the burrito ($6.66).
On balmy days, linger at one of Java’s outdoor tables. While you’re not likely to see a lioness ambling by, it still somehow feels exotic. Drink in the diverse crowd and diesel-spouting traffic. All of this framed by palm fronds.
4 … Shopaholics and Health Nuts Unite!
Calm down caffeinated shoppers, you’ll get your fix. The aforementioned ABC Place (http://www.abc-place.com/; +254.20.445.2273/4), Sarit Centre (http://www.saritcentre.com/; +254.20.375.5418) and Village Market (http://www.villagemarket-kenya.com/home.php; +254.20.712.2068) are the major malls in Nairobi.
A great place to find native trinkets is Banana Box at Sarit Centre (http://www.bananaboxcrafts.com/contact.html). The fair trade retailer sells authentic souvenirs made by African artisans. Gifts range from elephant-shaped bottle openers fashioned from recycled car-engine aluminum to salad servers carved from olive wood.
An authentic Kenyan shopping experience is the Friday outdoor Maasai market at Village Market. About 350 aggressive local craftsmen harangue customers to buy beads, bowls and kikoi wraps. Pushy doesn’t begin to describe the zealous merchants, so prepare to be seriously hustled. Remember to haggle!
After binge-spending, do something virtuous — like exercise. The Village Market has a sleek spa frequented by U.N. types called The Wellness Club (http://www.thewellnessclub.co.ke/). Admission: $20.
After a calming treatment is a good time to get cultural and head to the center of town to sight-see. The National Museum and graceful buildings like Parliament House will give you a sense of Nairobi’s history.
3 … Day Tripping
Just outside Kenya’s capital, see baby elephants play at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage (www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org; +254.0.20.891.966); feed overbearingly gregarious giraffes at the Giraffe Center (www.giraffecenter.org; +254.2.891.658/890.952); and horseback ride (English saddle) through the rugged countryside at Karen Riding School (Marula Lane, off Karen Road; www.karenridingschool.com; +254.712.292.630).
David Sheldrick’s preserve takes in babies abandoned by their parents, caring for them until they can live on their own. Arrive at 11 a.m. sharp and pay $5 for an hour of watching the elephants squirt water, sit on each other and nudge staff with their trunks for a massage.
The Giraffe Center is on the grounds of the Giraffe Manor – where the statuesque animals poke their heads into overnight visitors’ rooms. Even if you’re not a guest, you can get up close and personal (and I mean really personal) with the beauties for $11.66. They’ll almost knock you over in their enthusiasm to lick the food pellets off your hand and “kiss you” if you let them (their saliva is an antiseptic, employees coax). If you’re like me, you’ll risk exposure to infection and pass.
Horse lovers should go to the Karen Riding School in Karen, an hour’s drive out of Nairobi. Though it’s technically challenging — with steep, rocky terrain — the picturesque two-hour trail ride is worth the $36.66. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you arrive back in one piece.
While you’re on Karen Road stop at the house of its namesake, Karen Blixen, who wrote “Out of Africa.”
2 … Nairobi Nightcap
A welcome end to the day is dinner at one of Nairobi’s eclectic restaurants. Three good bets: Le Rustique (General Mathenge Road, Westlands; http://www.lerustique.co.ke/index.php); Alan Bobbe’s Bistro, (Cianda House, Koinange Street, +254.20.224.945); and the legendary Carnivore (Langata Road, near the National Park Gate, +254.20.602.764, http://www.carnivore.co.ke).
Le Rustique serves breakfast, brunch and lunch Monday-Saturday and dinner on Wednesday. Set outside in a lush, elegant garden, the restaurant is charming and cozy. The evening menu changes weekly; the delicious Mediterranean-influenced dishes are home-cooked and made creatively with fresh ingredients. Crepes, soufflés and salads are among the daily offerings.
For excellent, gourmet French bistro fare, Alan Bobbe’s is the favorite. With its warm ambiance, gracious staff and consistent, impeccable food, it’s no wonder residents and visitors rave.
The most famous restaurant in Nairobi — and, arguably, all of Africa — is Carnivore, whose specialty is barbecued meat called nyama choma. Carnivores can choose old standbys like chicken, lamb and beef or more outlandish options like zebra, giraffe and crocodile while kicking back in black-and-white-striped chairs.
If you aren’t tired after all that decadence, head to Mercury Lounge (ABC Place, Waiyaki Way; 254-20-4451875) for after-dinner drinks — a hip tapas bar that could as easily be in Manhattan as Kenya’s capital. Order the crispy cheese-rolls with mango chutney and the Luv-in-ton, a lip-smacking concoction with fruit juice, amaretto and vodka.
Step back into Nairobi’s colonial past at the Norfolk Hotel’s Lord Delamere Terrace and Bar (Harry Thuku Road, 254-20-216940; www.fairmont.com/norfolkhotel). Try Tusker, the native beer, or the traditional Kenyan cocktail, dawa, made with vodka, sugar, honey and lime.
1 … Into the Wild
Though Nairobi has much to offer, a trip to Kenya isn’t complete without some mini-breaks. The two not-to-be-missed excursions are to Masai Mara — the quintessential African safari — and Lamu, an unusual blend of Islamic and island culture in the oldest East African village. At the Mara, stay at Intrepids Lodge; on Lamu, bunk at Banana House on the Shela Beach side of the island.
Going on safari — especially at the Mara, where you’ll drive through African grasses as lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes and antelope bound by your open jeep — is all it’s cracked up to be. Be prepared to have your breath taken away by the beauty and variety of the creatures and the other-wordly Joshua-tree-dotted landscape.
A trip to Lamu is the perfect end to your Kenyan vacation. As you sunbathe lazily in a hammock, take a dip in the turquoise water or sip a drink on the terrace of Pepponi’s (the only restaurant on the island that serves alcohol), you’ll wonder why you were ever afraid to come to Kenya. And you’ll know you’ll be back.