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A 1960s club for the A-list is among the grand old Kenyan addresses recapturing past glories, writes Travel+Leisure's Paul Chai.
If you wander into the bar at the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club these days you will not see Ernest Hemingway telling tall tales from a day's big-game hunting. Neither will you see Ava Gardner downing gimlets in an attempt to forget her failed marriage to Frank Sinatra; nor will you have to fight pet leopards for a seat.
But in the club's heyday in the 1960s all these things were commonplace, when Hollywood heartthrob William Holden (Bridge Over The River Kwai, Network) and his partners, oil billionaire Ray Ryan and Swiss financier Carl Hirschmann, ran the place as the most elite private members' club in the world. Membership was by invitation only and members included Bing Crosby, David Lean, Charlie Chaplin, Steve McQueen, Conrad Hilton, Winston Churchill and the Maharaja of Jaipur. Stefanie Powers and John Hurt still keep houses adjoining the club.
Holden, who fell in love with Kenya on hunting safaris in the '50s (he died in LA in 1981), was known for his practical joking in the bar, such as snakes hidden in the bottom of a peanut tin. He was also a very hands-on manager, keeping an eye on the bar and its goings-on via telescope from his private villa.
But there is more to this idyll in northern Kenya, once the private home of jet-set couple the Prudhommes, than just the Hollywood magic dust left behind by years of raucous carousing. It is the sheer beauty of this stretch of land that sits at the base of Africa's second-highest mountain.
"Bill Holden said, when he saw the place: 'This is the most beautiful place in the world'," recalls expatriate American Don Hunt, Holden's close friend and chairman of the Mount Kenya Game Ranch, a conservation project set up next door to the club. "I agree and I think that every time I drive into my front gate."
The club's beauty includes sweeping highland forest that leads into dense thickets of bamboo, while rich clusters of birdlife and herds of waterbuck roam nearby.
I have come to the club with a friend to see first-hand how new owner, Canadian-based hotel group Fairmont, has transformed the one-time Hollywood haunt since it took over the property four years ago. The 200-kilometre journey from Nairobi is nowhere near as challenging as it used to be when Ray Ryan built an airstrip so A-list guests could avoid the trek. It's still a long haul, however, past makeshift shops, roadside towns and hectares of the country's famed coffee plantations.
There is still little to give away the beauty that awaits when we turn right past an electricity substation on a dust-choked road from the nearest township, Nanyuki, with only a family of warthogs trotting alongside us for company. A few minutes later, however, at the imposing iron gates embroidered with the Mount Kenya Safari Club logo of two elephant heads, we can see what captivated Holden and Hunt.
Manicured lawns sweep down to a pool, past flower-filled ponds and then on to the slopes, where they climb for kilometres to the snow-dusted peak, known locally as Kirinyaga.
The club is built directly on the equator its line cutting straight through the main bar, following the curve of the national park before running straight along the seventh hole of the club's petite nine-hole golf course. Alas, I later discover, this global feng shui does little to improve my game.
Having been greeted in the northern hemisphere by the hotel's general manager, Philippe Cauviere a gregarious Frenchman with "hospitality in his blood" we're shown to our rooms on the southern side of the equator.
The club's 120 rooms are imposing and royally decorated, many with gargantuan fireplaces lit each evening to stave off the crisp mountain cold.
Cauviere's stated aim is "to bring back the passion and the glamour to the club as well as the tradition". And he is sparing no detail in his quest. "My dream is to bring back the white peacocks that used to roam the grounds," he says later over coffee. "As well as the zebras and even the cheetahs."
He also aims to restore the spirit of the club not only as a destination but also as a place that supports its staff. He believes the Kenyan people have a "natural hospitality". We see this day in, day out; not only at the resort but on our entire trip.
Our trip started at another historic Kenyan address, the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, where the history is more White Mischief than Mogambo. In fact, scenes from White Mischief were filmed in the hotel and much of the real mischief took place inside its walls. Now, the walls are adorned with paintings of another African epic by Irish artist Timothy Brooke, made from sketches of his time as an extra on Sydney Pollack's Oscar-scooping Out Of Africa.
The Norfolk is Nairobi's oldest hotel. Opened in 1904, it is one of the few buildings to survive the razing of Colonial-era buildings in the '60s that followed the overthrow of British rule. This venerable abode, along with Mount Kenya and the Mara Safari Club, were purchased by Fairmont in 2005 from investment group Lonrho. A $50-million refurbishment commenced and it would have been completed last year but for the political upset surrounding the 2007 Kenyan elections. Violence erupted in parts of Nairobi, amid accusations of election tampering. However, since this time a political power-sharing agreement and a taste of what such random violence can do to tourism means another such flare-up is unlikely.
The Norfolk has seen the bulk of Fairmont's investment, with Mount Kenya a close second, and it is evident as soon as you enter. The colonial-style, column-framed entrance, hewn by local stonemasons, opens into a bright lobby hung with Brooke's daubs and black-and-white pictures of the country's colourful railway history. To the right is the hotel's new fine diner, Tatu. Elsewhere, the 165 cosy rooms have had a soft-fittings refurbishment.
The most controversial change was to remove the terrace bar, which was once peopled with Nairobi's hard-drinking set, and is now the elegant Lord Delamere Terrace, where light seasonal bites replace heavy spirits and customers are more likely to be sporting a laptop than a force-10 hangover. That said, it is still a delightful place for a Tusker, the national brew taken warm by locals, and to watch Nairobi's comings and goings amid tall palms and slowly twirling bamboo fans.
Kenyans are passionate about their local tipple and more Tuskers were imbibed chasing away the Masai Mara dust at Fairmont's other Kenyan address, the Mara Safari Camp. Leased from a Masai chief, the Mara is located on an oxbow lake beside the Mara River, where your wake-up call for the early morning safari is likely to be the boisterous bellow of a hippopotamus bathing beneath your tent. And I use the word "tent" advisedly. This is luxe camping with a toilet and concrete rear wall.
The high-ceilinged main area with restaurant, bar and library is the social focus of the club where safari stories are swapped and thirsts quenched.
But the Mara is really all about the animals. Daily safaris to view wildlife mean little time is spent in the tents. But, if this is camping, call me the outdoors type.
Still, for me, the Mount Kenya Safari Club even has a unique luxe take on wildlife spotting. On our first day at the club, a surprise call from the front desk suggested we take the following morning's breakfast at the base of the mountain. Three choices of transport were provided: car, foot and horse. And, damn it, if the spirit of the place didn't get the better of me and we found ourselves bouncing around on the back of amiable horses, striding across the grounds where William Holden used to career around on his motorbike with his two pet gibbons, Rudi and Margot, clinging to the bike for dear life.
After reaching the airstrip we trotted to our table, a lavish affair set with silverware. There we sat, dwarfed by the mountain, as armed rangers watched over us and club staff Peter and Joyce whipped up a multi-course extravaganza of bircher muesli, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and sweet, plump, locally grown pineapples, topped off with a Kenyan coffee.
On the return journey, as we rode past Holden's villa, I was sure that if he were watching through his telescope now, he would be pleased with how his pet project had turned out.
Emirates flies from Sydney and Brisbane via Dubai. Kenya Airways flies to Nairobi and beyond in partnership with Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways.
WHEN TO GO
November and March-May are the country's rainy seasons and unsealed roads can be closed.
Wildlife Safari, Emirates and Fairmont Hotels have a package designed to view the new properties. The Fairmont Safari is a 10-day Kenyan trip. Phone 1800 998 558 (Australia only), see www.wildlifesafari.com.au.
Mount Kenya Safari Club, Nanyuki, Kenya, phone +254 20 2216940, see fairmont.com/kenyasafariclub. Norfolk Hotel, Harry Thuku Road, Nairobi; +254 20 2216940; fairmont.com/norfolkhotel. Mara Safari Club, Masai Mara, Kenya; phone +254 20 2216940; fairmont.com/marasafariclub. For further information see smarttraveller.gov.au.
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