Review: Fairmont Norfolk Hotel, Nairobi


The first in three-part Kenyan travelogue, I head for Nairobi for a stay at the iconic Fairmont the Norfolk Hotel


Landing in Africa to be greeted by her life-affirming, body-warming sunshine is always a joy. Azure sky, red dust, lush vegetation and the ever-present buzz of traffic and people. Our car is waiting to take us to Nairobi’s most iconic hotel, the Fairmont Norfolk. Haunt of the Happy Valley set, Churchill, Hemingway, Roosevelt; princes and politicians… the original vision of hotel baron Abraham Block is now privately owned by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and managed by Fairmont.

Located directly opposite the University and Kenya National Theatre, the Fairmont Norfolk was Nairobi’s first luxury hotel (opened in 1904) and still stands a proud sentinel of a by-gone age. Well located in lush private gardens, the Norfolk’s 120 rooms and suites are well protected. Security is thorough. Massive grill gate slides across the driveway entrance; bags and bodies are scanned before we can reach the cool spaciousness of the veranda and reception inside.

The Cin Cin lounge bar just off the vast lobby area features a selection of paintings by local artist Coster Ojwang. Curated by William Ndwiga of Nairobi’s acclaimed Little Gallery, Coster’s landscapes and portraits are vivid with colour.

Walking past Lord Delamare Terrace, Tatu restaurant and the T Lounge, I’m soon in the quiet, shady courtyard garden with its palms and green grass. It’s hard to believe I’m in the centre of a city of more than 3.3 million. My room is a gorgeous Deluxe Veranda room in the two-storey 1937 wing that overlooks this peaceful green oasis. Spacious with a separate lounge area – and beautiful Kenyan roses, a lovely touch – and even a terrace for breakfast. Air-con is efficient, there’s a capacious power shower and the design is modern yet retains its 19th-century glamour and charm. For further luxury choose either the Karura or Signature Suites with elevated views of the courtyard.

We have massages booked for our group, so I happily doze on a sun lounger by the heated outdoor pool (warmest pool ever) before my aromatherapy session. There’s a well-equipped gym here at the Pambo Health Club, but I haven’t the energy!

Surrounded by high hedges and trees, the pool area is overlooked by adjacent buildings, but this doesn’t interfere with my relaxation. Hotel cat Regina appears for a cuddle, before vanishing into the foliage.

Exploring the hotel post massage bliss, I discover the T Lounge, serving traditional English High Tea and Snacks, and the Cin Cin bar – great staff and service – with its outdoor terrace.

We have lunch at Delamare Terrace. An all-day dining restaurant specialising in Pan-African cuisine with a strong Kenyan focus. There are myriad stations and super food. Breakfast is served here too. It’s a large space but very comfortable and relaxed.

Cin Cin served up superb G&Ts before dinner at the Norfolk’s award-winning Tatu restaurant. An inspired menu of local specialities and international favourites, I had a superb salmon ceviche in coconut milk, with avocado and red radish for starters. As well as a taster of crispy fried crocodile (surprisingly tasty). Meat features highly on the menu here, as you’d imagine, with superb choices from various steak cuts, lamb shank and ostrich burger. I opted for the ostrich burger for mains. Again, a surprisingly tender cut cooked in caramelised red onions. Our 2013 Catena Alta Malbec was a medium-bodied delicious accompaniment to the meat dishes. Book ahead for a fabulous chef’s table experience under the expert eye of its head chef.

Sleep that night was deep and very welcome. Heat and altitude – I’d forgotten Nairobi is at 1,795m – made me weary and the reminder to pace myself.

It’s a rosy-fingered dawn (I’m up early) the following day with a backdrop of excited birdsong and a subtle hint of the heat to come. A magical time to enjoy breakfast in my room. Coffee excellent. Huge fruit bowl, excellent scrambled eggs and delicious local jams with croissants.

Our itinerary for the next two days was extensive. And included a dream made maniest: a visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust adjacent to the Nairobi National Park. Founded in 1977 by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick D.B.E, in honour of the memory of her late husband, the founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park, David Sheldrick MBE, the Trust is the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. And carries out pioneering conversation work for wildlife and habitat protection across East Africa. To date, the Trust has successfully hand-raised more than 150 orphaned elephants and gradually re-integrated them into the wild, where many give birth to their own wild-born calves. The ever-present threat of poaching, deforestation and drought means that DSWT’s services are more important than ever.

I’m here to interview Angela, Dame Daphne’s daughter, but due to unforeseen circumstances this is not possible. Instead, I’m treated to an incredible behind-the-scenes walk with head keeper Edwin Lusichi to meet some of the orphans in an area not accessible to the public.

Originally called to the priesthood, Edwin found his true calling was looking after orphaned elephants. He’s dedicated his life to these beautiful beings – what an extraordinary man, as are all the keepers.

As he takes me past the babies’ blankets hung out in the warm sun, past their stables with date of birth and location, out on red earthed scrub towards the first group of orphans. he says: “I saw a lion when I was walking past here yesterday. Over there by that tree.” I follow his hand gesturing towards a thicket only a few hundred feet way. He’s kidding right?

Nope. And he hasn’t even got a rifle.

We meet one orphan who is barely a month old and so dehydrated he’s on a drip. His dedicated keeper by his side. It can take many months to recover from the trauma of seeing their mother’s death – usually by poachers. The keepers here look after their charges 24/7, even sleeping with them in their stalls.

This adorable baby touches me gently with her trunk and I stroke her face. She’s sucking on my hands and fingers like a pacifier. So adorable and so tragic. I’m moved to tears by these beautiful beings. Such a trauma losing their mothers at such a young age.

We meet other older babies who are far more robust. It’s actually quite overwhelming to be among these beautiful beings. I’m lost for words. They are so beautiful and great me like a lost friend. Trunks on hands and on my face and head. Their eyes hold such depths. Truly magnificent beings that show much greater compassion for each other and their herds than humans do about each other. We can learn a great deal from elephant behaviour.

The Trust relies on donations and have a special adoption programme. Follow them via sheldrickwildlifetrust.org. They also have a fabulous Instagram feed at @dswt where you can see daily video clips of the orphans. And they’re on Facebook too at @thedswt.

Afterwards I joined the public group session which meets around a circular enclosure where the elephants come to play in the mudbath – the red earth protecting them from the harsh African sun as well as insects.

Almost nothing could compare to my elephant orphan experience, but our next port of call to the Giraffe Centre in Lang’ata (around 5km from the centre of Nairobi) was superb on another level. Surely the most graceful of all African mammals, thanks to a high platform we were at eye level with these amazing creatures, and able to feed them with pellets.

The excitement of the wildlife and the hot Kenyan sun is surprisingly hungry-making. We stop for a bite to eat at Picazzo Restaurant at The Hub shopping mall in Karen, a wealthy suburb in the south west of Nairobi named after Out of Africa novelist Karen Blixen. Sitting out on the shady balcony overlooking the gardens was a welcome respite from the heat. The menu here combines local specialities (we had a mix of crispy fried crocodile, grilled octopus, beef and scallop for starters) followed by a delicious steak, rack of lamb and ostrich burger (surprisingly tender). Advance booking will get you a chef’s table experience here too.  The first taste of local Tusker beer and I’m hooked. This malt barely concoction is deliciously thirst-quenching.

We pass Karen Blixen’s former coffee farmhouse (now a museum) on our way back to the Fairmont Norfolk. It’s hard to imagine this farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills was once surrounded by farmland, such is Nairobi’s expansion.

We spent a morning looking around a few of Nairobi’s must-sees . Lunch at highly rated Talisman Restaurant at 320 Ngong Road in Karen. Terraces, gardens and an eclectic menu with veggies from their own organic farm and a substantial wine list. Eclectic menu from pork belly to Kung Pao Chicken, via Salmon Burger and fillet steak. Fusion of European, Pan-Asian and African cuisines.

Kenyan brewing is getting a resurgence, so we were keen to sample the offerings at Brew Bistro at 40 Piedmont Plaza on Ngong Road. Choose from the Nyatipa Pale Ale, the Simpils Pilsner, the Belgian-style Kifabock, the Temstout stout with coffee and xxx flavours, or my favourite, the Chuikolch, a refreshing pale blond malt that’s perfect for hot summer days.

Three must-see shops during your visit to Nairobi must include the Maasai market, the house of Treasures and the White Elephant Trading Company. The market is at a different location and sells mainly tourists wares such as sculptures, jewellery, soap, carvings and textiles. The House of Treasures really is as its name suggests. Located in Karen, at 70 Dagoretti Road, this is an Aladdin’s cave of indoor and outdoor furniture, architectural pieces, household designer décor, lighting, carpets and much more.

For more gift and home ideas, head to the incredible White Elephant Trading Company on No 18 Windy Lane, off Windy Ridge, Karen. This extraordinary place restores antiques and vintage furniture with a Kenyan edge. Kenyan craftsmen restore and reupholster vintage finds sourced in the UK and Europe. Superb.

That evening we dined off-piste and eschewing luxury five star, headed for where Kenyans grab bears and nosh after work or at the weekends. Accompanied by our fabulous host Njeri Chege from the Norfolk, she took us to Tulips Restaurant in Kileleshwa Estate. The selection of meats was nyama choma (roast goat meat), nyama ya kukarangwa (dry-fried meat) and kuku choma (roast chicken). Nyama Choma is the most popular meat and if you were to choose one, it would suffice for the entire meat-eating experience.

A peaceful and relaxing haven, the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel is superbly located and within easy reach of Nairobi’s international airport as well as its business and entertainment districts. We loved it as a recharge stop on our way to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club – our next destination. Great food and attentive service, combined with a warm welcome and super amenities ensure that I will return to the Norfolk on my next visit to Nairobi. Highly recommended for your pre- and post-safari stay in this vibrant Kenyan capital.

Where & How
Getting there: Gina flew with British Airways from London Heathrow to Jomo Kenyatta Airport Nairobi
Where: Harry Thuku Rd, Nairobi, Kenya
How: Please phone + 254 (0) 20 2265000, email kenya.reservations@fairmont.com or visit www.fairmont.com to make a booking.

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