Maasai Mara

Lion King lovers rejoice! The Maasai Mara is celebrated for its stunning grassland landscapes, the Big Five animals that traverse its more than 1500 kilometers, and its annual Great Migration of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles traveling from Tanzania’s Serengeti in the south. The Mara makes for an excellent safari holiday because it is fairly compact (as compared to the Serengeti’s 30,000 kilometers) and biodiverse, meaning you can generally see a lot of different animals within a few days. The Mara has all of the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and water buffalo), giraffe, zebra, various species of gazelle, crocodile, hippo, baboon, cheetah, hyena, wildebeest and more.

The best time to visit the Mara is during the Great Migration, which takes places between July and October. Note that July and August are winter in Kenya, and while the days will be warm (20s Celcius) the nights and early mornings will be cool. Also, be prepared to book in advance and pay high season rates!

Most safari camps and resorts will organize flights from Wilson Airport in Nairobi to the nearest airstrip in the Maasai Mara. Flights run back and forth daily between the Nairobi and the Mara, and should be included in a full board accommodation package.

The Maasai safari guides are amazing, and a good guide will make all the difference in a great and truly fantastic experience. Make sure to tip your guides well, this is their livelihood and most of them are sending money home.

Bring cash for tips! There are no money machines and it will likely be difficult for most camps to exchange foreign money. You may also have to pay a daily reserve fee per person in cash.

EAT

Full board will be included in most safari camp and resort packages, and will provide for three meals a day. Traditional Kenyan food has many Indian influences, and is fresh and healthy. A few things to definitely try:

Chapati Fried bread influenced by the Indian subcontinent. Eat it with everything.

Mandazi Another fried bread, this Kenyan treat is most similar to a doughnut.

Sukuma Wiki Delicious boiled greens. Similar to collards in the United States.

Ugali This starchy staple is common across Kenya and often the side dish to richer stews and curries. It is a mixture of finely-ground cornmeal and water.

DRINK

Try the local Kenyan beers. Our favorites are Tusker Lager (the most popular across East Africa) and White Cap Lager. Nothing beats an ice cold Tusker at the end of a long, dusty safari run.

PLAY

Safari This is the real reason for a trip to the Maasai Mara, and take advantage of the 2-3 safari trips that your camp will plan daily. Most will start off in the morning very early, from 5:30 or 6:00am, have breakfast on the road, and head back to camp by 11:00am for guests to have lunch and relax by the pool or in the shade during the midday heat. Go out again late afternoon for a magical experience at dusk, as the animals are generally most active during the cooler parts of the day.

Shopping The Maasai people create truly stunning handicrafts. Larger resorts and camps may have items for sale, but if not you can swing by the Maasai Market in Nairobi once back in town. Keep an eye out for beaded jewellery and wall hangings, the plaid and striped traditional shuka blankets, and woven baskets and wall hangings.

STAY

Our advice is to choose a camp that has a few amenities (pool, common area, etc.) to keep you busy during the quiet afternoon time between safari. We loved the four star Mara Intrepids camp, run by the Kenya Heritage Hotels group. Tent accommodations were luxurious, we enjoyed the pool during the day, and the staff were fantastic. We have also stayed at Virgin’s Mahali Mzuri camp, which was stunning and a true glamping experience, though it will cost you a pretty penny!

Friends have also recommended Kicheche Mara North, Mara Plains and Porini Lion camp.

LOCATIONS NEARBY

Big Sur

The mystical California coastline between Santa Barbara and Carmel-by-the-Sea is a blend of dreamy mountains, jagged clliffs, stunning vistas and zero cell phone service. Connected by Route 1, this is the road-trip of a lifetime.

Big Sur is book-ended by Santa Barbara and Carmel-by-the-Sea, both worth stopovers on their own. Santa Barbara has incredible wine bars and Carmel-by-the Sea is an adorable storybook town.

EAT

Brass Bear Brewing and Bistro Craft beers at a casual eatery in downtown Santa Barbara.

Deetjens Restaurant

Nepenthe Enjoy dramatic views over lunch.

DRINK

Dawn’s Dream Winery Family-owned winery in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Area 5.1 Cool winery in Santa Barbara.

PLAY

Bixby Bridge The emblem of Big Sur.

Elephant Seal Vista Point Just outside San Simeon, park and get out at this view point to observe elephant seals sleeping on the beach.

Esalen Institute Hot Springs This healing center offers public bathing in its hot springs between 1am and 3am every night. Reservations must be made day-of, and are released each morning on their website at 9am.

Hearst Castle Located in San Simeon, book a tour or admire from afar.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Home to redwood trees and good for hiking.

Pismo Beach Spend a morning here and admire the beautiful, monarch butterflies.

Point Lobos State National Reserve Spend a morning or afternoon at this wild reserve.

McWay Falls An 80-foot-tall waterfall flowing year-round into the Pacific Ocean.

Solveng This Danish-style town is a delightful stop along the way from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach. Visit any local pastry shop.

STAY

Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn Rustic, country-style inn and cabins. Recommended by a friend.

Ragged Point Inn Absolutely amazing views.

Treebones Restort Yurt-style glamping. Book way in advance. Recommended by a friend.

LOCATIONS NEARBY

Guanacaste

Guanacaste is the northwestern-most province in Costa Rica. The region is incredibly diverse, boasting volcanoes and green mountains, dense rain forests and airy deciduous forests, lush sugarcane fields and peaceful beaches.

Liberia Airport is the gateway to Guanacaste and offers daily direct flights from major US cities.

Costa Ricans are known for their kindness and laid back personalities. They live by the code of “pura vida” and love using this term in greeting and farewell.

A quarter of the roads in Costa Rica are paved, making long distance travel bumpy and occasionally painful. While many areas are accessible without four-wheel drive, if you are renting a car reserve a four-wheel drive vehicle.

All beaches in Costa Rica are public, meaning that locals and neighbors are welcome on the beach connected to your resort. This is a boon as you will get a better priced massage on the beach than the resort spa.

EAT

Soda Viquez Excellent, traditional Costa Rican food in La Fortuna.

DRINK

Imperial The most popular beer in Costa Rica, Imperial is a home grown, American-style lager. It claims to be the world’s first “water positive” beer, meaning that it conserves water throughout the brewing process.

PLAY

Arenal Volcano National Park While Arenal has been active since 1968, hiking along its base is safe and offers extraordinary views on a clear day.

Balsa River whitewater rafting Admire the magic of Arenal’s forests while white water rafting class II and III rapids in the Rio Balsa.

Buena Vista del Rincon An eco and wellness adventure park near Ricon de la Vieja National Park that offers canopy zip-lining, horseback riding, natural hot springs and mud baths.

STAY

We loved the Royal Corin Thermal Water Spa and Resort near Arenal. While a bit outside of La Fortuna town (10 minute cab ride), it had lovely views of the volcano and a heated thermal water pool.

In Guanacaste we stayed at Dreams Las Mareas, an all-inclusive beach-side resort a few miles from the Honduran border and 1.5 hours from Liberia airport. While the property and our room were lovely, the food was ok. There are many other beach resorts in Guanacaste, but if you are looking for a more authentic trip we heard excellent things about Tamarindo, a coastal town in southern Guanacaste.

Nairobi

The only capital city in the world to have its own national park and game reserve, Nairobi has established itself as one of the continent’s main economic hubs. It is also home to one of Africa’s largest slums. Explore the city for a few days and then head off to explore Kenya’s great wilderness.

If only entering Kenya once, apply for a visa on arrival via the Kenya eVisa site. Evidence of a yellow fever inoculation may be required at the border.

Traffic in Nairobi is notorious and it can take two hours to drive a few miles. Uber is an easy and cheap way to get around town.

If you are traveling from the US, Kenya Airways recently started a 14 hour direct service from JFK Airport to JKIA Airport in Nairobi.

Kenya is gorgeous and its true beauty lies beyond the capital city. Short, domestic flights leave daily from Wilson Airport in Nairobi for the Masaai Mara, Mombasa, the coast and beyond.

If it is your first time to Kenya or East Africa, we recommend adding the following books to your reading list to better understand the local history and context: Jacqueline Novogratz’s memoir The Blue Sweater, Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) Out of Africa and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. For other great books by African authors, check out Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, both about Nigeria. We also love Alexandra Fuller’s memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

EAT 

Artcaffe Tasty European bistro food in Yaya Centre. There are a few other locations around the city.

Habesha Restaurant on Argwings Kodhek Road The best Ethiopian in a cozy outdoor setting. Good for groups.

Hemingways Posh and relaxing restaurant in Karen. Stay for lunch or drinks by the pool.

Sierra Brasserie Chic spot for roof-top dining in Kilimani.

DRINK

Level 8 Lounge + Bar at the Fourpoints Sheraton in Hurlingham Rooftop bar with views of the city.

Java House A homegrown Kenyan cafe chain that can be found all over the city. Amazing coffee and ginger/lemon infusions.

PLAY

Giraffe Centre Learn about, hand feed and spent time with gentle, long-necked friends.

Nairobi National Park Nairobi is the only capital city in the world with its own national park. Take an early morning or late afternoon safari to see lions, rhinos, zebras, giraffes and more!

Maasai Market at Yaya Centre On Sundays this treasure trove features East African prints, jewelry, art work and wood carvings by local artisans and Maasai. Come prepared to haggle.

Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage Stop by this elephant rescue and rehabilitation center every day between 11am to 12pm to see the babies have their midday mud bath and feeding.

STAY

Fourpoints Sheraton in Hurlingham Central location within walking distance of Yaya Centre in Kilimani.

Ololo Safari Lodge Comfortable and quaint lodge on the outskirts of the Nairobi National Park with sweeping views.

Panari Hotel Budget option near the airport. Stay here if you have an early flight.

Villa Rosa Kempinski 5-star hotel in the Westlands with impeccable security.

Zehneria Portico Hotel Budget option for the business traveler in Westlands near the Westgate Mall.

LOCATIONS NEARBY

Kigali

The capital of Rwanda, Kigali is the gateway to the land of a thousand hills. While still recovering from the 1994 genocide and civil war, Rwandans have worked hard to establish peace and rebuild. Today this tiny East African nation is well-known as a safe and stable place to do business.

Many nationalities are able to apply for single-entry visas on arrival. You may need to show proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter Rwanda.

Plastic carrier bags are banned and airport security will scan your bags before you depart the airport. Leave them on the plane or throw them away before you exit the luggage carousel.

If you are deciding whether to go to Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see mountain gorillas, choose Rwanda. It’s safer, and while more expensive, the Rwandans truly treasure their gorillas (so much so that the government hosts a naming ceremony for the babies every September).

If you have only a few hours in Kigali, do visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The memorial and museum honor the one million Rwandans murdered in the 1994 genocide and are a powerful reminder of the triumph of the human spirit.

If it is your first time to Rwanda or East Africa, we highly recommend reading Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater to better understand the local context of the country and region. For other great books by African authors, check out Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, both about Nigeria. We also love Alexandra Fuller’s memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

EAT

Heaven Restaurant Open air restaurant known for its Rwandan and international cuisine. It is also a social enterprise with an artisan boutique on site.

DRINK

Cafe Neo Hip, rooftop cafe popular with the ex-pat community. Try delicious, Rwandan coffee and stock up on a few bags to bring home. Other good brands are Gorilla and Maraba.

Hotel des Mille Collines Take in one of the best panoramic views of Kigali with a drink from the pool bar. During the 1994 genocide, the manager of the Mille Collines famously sheltered and saved over one thousand Rwandans.

PLAY

Haute Baso A social enterprise sourcing high-quality apparel, accessories and home decor from local women artisans.

Kimironko Market One of Kigali’s busiest markets, pick up everything from your daily produce, cooking, hardware supplies and beautiful local crafts and baskets.

Volcanoes Safaris Plan a 4-7 day luxury retreat into the hills with the mountain gorillas.

STAY

5 Swiss Hotel Clean and bright boutique guesthouse. Location is close to everything and the staff are lovely.

Kigali Marriott Hotel Palatial and new, its down the street from the 5 Swiss and a bit cheaper than the Serena.

Kigali Serena Hotel Five star glam and celeb spotting, but hard to justify the cost.

LOCATIONS NEARBY