Nairobi is much more than just a place to change flights, finds Katie McGonagle
I’m not a big fan of animals. The best I could muster by way of childhood pets was a budgie called Max, plus I always edge towards the back of the crowd when it comes to visiting zoos and farms.
So when the animal handler at Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre pressed a handful of food into my palm and pointed me towards the prime feeding spot, I was a little reluctant. I’d admired the majestic creatures from a distance, but feeding them? Up close? I wasn’t convinced.
As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more mistaken. While they are mighty impressive from far away, when I came face-to-face with those jutting-out ears and pouting lips, it felt like they had me eating out of their hands instead of the other way round.
Nairobi is the main entry point for travellers to Kenya, and given its excellent flight connections, is often a convenient stop for those flying on to other African and Indian Ocean destinations. So make sure you know how much there is to do, where to stay and how to sell it.
09.00: Start at Nairobi National Museum. It’s a great introduction to the country, weaving Kenya’s history, pre and post-colonial, into exhibitions on wildlife and culture. Leave time to browse the excellent art gallery too.
11.00: It’s bath time for the elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, so go to see the calves playing and bathing in mud. The orphanage, which was set up in memory of conservationist and anti-poaching campaigner David Sheldrick, looks after baby elephants from all over the country and teaches visitors about conservation. It is open to the public between 11am and noon each day.
12.30: Head to Ranger’s Restaurant in the grounds of Nairobi National Park and you can look out for rhinos, leopards, cheetahs and buffaloes in between courses of African and British cuisine.
13.30: Hire a driver and spend the afternoon spotting lions, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest and more than 400 species of birdlife. At less than 29,000 acres, the park (pictured below) is small by Kenyan standards, but home to a surprisingly varied range of wildlife and best known for its black rhino population. It doesn’t quite compare to the country’s other game reserves, but if clients are stopping in Nairobi on the way to a beach holiday, it would be a crime to miss going to a safari park.
20.00: After freshening up back at the hotel, head out to Nairobi’s most famous eatery, Carnivore. It does exactly what it says on the tin: every type of meat from lamb, pork and beef to ostrich, crocodile and camel is skewered on Masai swords and cooked over a huge charcoal pit, before being served on cast-iron plates that get refilled until diners can’t eat any more. If they’re still going strong, suggest nightclub Simba Saloon next door for music and local Tusker beer.
10.00: Take a leisurely visit to Karen Blixen Museum, a former farmhouse at the foot of the Ngong Hills. It was home to Danish author Karen Blixen, whose memoir Out of Africa was turned into an iconic film starring Meryl Streep, and whose influence was so strong they named the area Karen. From oil paintings and furniture in the dining rooms, to bookcases filled with original volumes and a kitchen packed with old-fashioned utensils, it’s like stepping through a portal to the past.
12.30: The Karen Blixen Coffee House serves up a tasty selection of dishes from around the world. The shady gardens are supremely relaxing, but if it’s too hot, retreat inside the historic hunting lodge.
14.00: Drive a couple of minutes to Kazuri Beads Factory, set up in 1975 to offer work to struggling single mothers in Karen. The word ‘kazuri’ is said to mean ‘small and beautiful’ in Swahili, which proves apt as you follow the bead-making process, from moulding the raw clay to glazing, firing, decorating and threading the beads onto beautiful necklaces and earrings. Chat to the ladies at work before buying souvenirs made all the more enchanting by seeing how they are made and who benefits from their sale.
15.30: Last but not least comes the Giraffe Centre – my personal highlight in Nairobi. Climb the stairs to the raised viewing platform then hold out your hand and wait for them to come to you. It’s a family favourite so you’ll see youngsters and groups of Kenyan school children too.
19.30: Carnivore isn’t the only restaurant in town – Ethiopian food is popular, with restaurants such as Mesob and Motherland Inn offering authentic and reasonably-priced dishes. Or opt for one of many bistro-style restaurants for familiar European food in a delightfully exotic setting.
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