While I am the self-proclaimed “27 Dresses” of destination weddings, visiting friends working abroad is also one of my specialties. Last March, I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya and spend time with a friend working there for a year as an Ex-Pat. With a 4 month old and 2 year old in our party, there were not so many high octane adventures but I still got to take in two areas of the country. Our home base was Nairobi and then we headed to Mount Kenya for a few nights.
Let me start by saying Kenya is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Even Nairobi, the biggest city in East Africa, is lush and green with it’s own game reserve. I was blessed with balmy, sunny days during my March visit – the perfect conditions for taking in the wide plains, rolling hills and of course, breath taking wild life. On that note, let me give a shout out to all of the stunning Kenyan birds that I imagine get overlooked by many tourists on the way to spotting the big 5 game. I bought a guineafowl sculpture to bring home, so birds, I see you!
While Kenya became an independent country in 1962, my IMHO the imprint of European colonialism is still quite tangible and present, at least in the areas I visited. This was evident in the food, markets, and interactions and cultural dynamics I observed. That said, I had a very expat-y experience – going to places and spaces frequented by westerners and tourists. The hospitality is excellent, but it’s…different. I would love to return and explore different regions, meet people and of course, eat more food. I really hope that’s sooner than later.
Kiambethu Tea Farm
When searching for things to do in and around Nairobi, I came across Kiambethu Tea Farm and moved it to the top of my list. I’ve wanted to tour a tea farm ever since we came close but ran out of time to visit one in New Zealand. I love tea and have no idea how it’s grown and processed so I was excited to learn in a country known for it’s quality teas.
The Kiambethu Tea Farm tour is offered daily at 11am and includes a morning tea service and a full lunch (with wine!). You’ll need to book your spot through their website in advance. It was about $35 USD per person, which I found to be a fair price for the wonderful experience we had.
To get there, we drove to Limuru a little outside of Nairobi and turned up a road through verdant rolling hills covered with tea plants and down a small drive to enter the farm. The tour begins in front of the farm house where the owner, Fiona Vernon grew up. She shared the story of how her grandfather came from England in the early 1900s and eventually established the first tea farm in Kenya. It’s a very interesting family story, so I won’t spoil it for you here.
We took tea and munched on elegant biscuits in the parlor while learning about how tea is made, processed and graded. It was fascinating. Our walking tour led us into a tea field, through a working garden and small dairy farm, and into the forest. A lavish lunch was served in the covered lawn and featured a diverse range of options, including fresh butter, cream and ice cream from their own cows! It was a lovely time.
About That Elephant
Visiting Kiambethu Farms my first encounter with a personal colonialist narrative and I want to address the elephant (ha!) in the room. Kenya was a British colony and 10’s of thousands of European farmers, like this family, settled there in the early 20th century building tea and coffee farms on land already inhabited by local people. Many of the local people living as itinerant farmers were displaced as they did not have “land claims” in the European sense. As you can imagine, an all too familiar colonialism story follows – laws enacted to protect the settlers and marginalize the ancestral inhabitants, accumulation of wealth and creation of poverty.
Travelling, especially as a Black woman, can be complicated for a myriad of race-related reasons. My appreciation of the beauty and charm of historic spaces cannot be separated by an underlying uneasiness knowing on who’s backs and to what expense the wealth was built. I found it somewhat troubling but not new as I am American and that story is everywhere in this country, even in NYC.
I want to be honest about my experience and what I was processing at the time and in reflection for this post. That said, I had a great time at Kiambethu Farms and recommend you check it out if you have the chance.
Beads & Lunch in Karen
Kazuri, is a bead and pottery factory in the Nairobi suburb, Karen that’s somewhat of a destination. We got a tour of the facilities and learned about how it was started as a social enterprise in 1975 to create jobs for primarily mothers in the local community. There’s a gift shop on site where you can buy jewelry and pottery at prices a bit lower than what you find at their retail locations in Nairobi. There were a lot of beautiful pieces, so I did some serious gift shopping here.
From Kazuri, we drove down the road to Hemingway’s Nairobi for lunch. Hemingways is a boutique luxury hotel with outdoor dining and gardens overlooking the Ngong Hills. We had a great – semi-relaxing (w/kids) lunch there. The menu here, like many places I visited is pretty continental; pastas, risottos, seafood and also East & South Asian inspired dishes. I chose a red snapper coconut curry which was delicious. The fish seemed to be lightly fried before simmering in the savory sauce, and came with sauteed greens. I need to figure out how to make this at home…
No, I didn’t climb Mount Kenya! This trip was all about relaxing and seeing wild life on a game drive, aka. safari.
We drove about 4 hours from Nairobi to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club located in Nanyuki, Kenya. It’s a resort surrounded by the Mount Kenya Game Ranch & Conservancy on land that was once owned by American Actor, William Holden. So random!
The grounds were pretty amazing. Bright flowers blossoming everywhere with peacocks clearly owning the place and strolling where they pleased. The main building of the resort sits on the top a hill overlooking an immaculately groomed main lawn that we soon learned was a gathering spot for the local animals. We stayed in one of the cottages along the perimeter of the lawn and had the pleasure of observing the birds, monkeys and even baboons gather every afternoon around 5pm. It felt like The Lion King meets Golden Girls, so amazing! In the distance you can see the peak of Mt. Kenya, the 2nd tallest peak in Africa.
Things were going great until we encountered the heard of Water Buffalo just chilling in the middle of the path. We stopped for a bit and my guide tried to shoo them away with my jacket. It didn’t work and I remembered that he trained in fitness, not wild life! We soon realized that they were coming towards us, so we went off the course and biked away through the plains as a timely detour. Real life adventure–check! We were able to avoid a stampede and headed back to the resort, but not before I snapped a few pics of the annoyed herd.
Ol Pejata Game Drive
There are several parks within a short driving distance to the resort. We chose to a half day trip to Ol Pejata Conservancy because it was kid friendly and we’d have the opportunity to see a lot of wildlife in one go. The resort concierge booked a private tour and our driver/ guide picked us up in one of those high clearance safari-style SUVs. Very exciting! Before we even left the property, our guide was already pointing out notable plants and wildlife, so I knew were in good hands.
Upon arriving, you pay per person to enter the conservancy and then carry-on in your vehicle to drive around the expansive park. We only saw 2 or 3 other cars during our time there. At first, we were ready to stop and take pictures of every bird or gazelle we spotted, but we soon realized that this literally was just the small stuff. Minutes later, we saw zebras, rhinos, and buffalo gathering together seemingly in the middle of a empty dusty field. This was the watering hole – clearly the place to be late morning. It was amazing to see of these creatures IRL just doing their thing. At times, I stood up in the truck and poked my head through the rooftop opening to get a better view. I mainly have some very shaky videos to show for it.
Further in, we came across groups of elephants chomping on branches for lunch and also talking mud baths. I loved seeing the babies with their parents. Be still my heart. We drove down several small paths looking for lions, but unfortunately we didn’t spot any. However, we did see hyena’s which are just as shady looking as Disney portrays them to be.
I’m someone who was never into zoo’s as a kid, and was only nominally interested in animals. But my interest in appreciation of wild life has definitely grown with age. Anyone else feel the same?
Eating in Nairobi
As I mentioned, I mainly ate at ex-pat friendly spots that served a range of cuisines, but nothing very “homestyle Kenyan”. Kenya has long been home to a large Indian population, there is a strong Indian influence in the cuisine. For example, samosas are eaten by all and considered a Kenyan dish and there were curries on every menu. I wish I got to tried Nyama Choma, Kenyan grilled meats as that seems to be one of the most popular local dishes. Truth is, my friend wasn’t really a fan of local food – too bland for her tastes, so I didn’t make an effort to seek it out. An opportunity for next time!
Java House was my first meal in Kenya. We went around the corner an outpost of this Kenyan restaurant chain that was a bit Panera meets Starbucks with a good sprinkle of Cheesecake Factory. They of course, have a full coffee menu but also a range of hot food, including fajitas (a surprising menu staple), fresh cakes and table service as well as take out. It was pretty good, even the fajitas and especially the cakes.
So there are many malls in Nairobi and they seemed to be thriving as dining and entertainment destinations as well. The malls here reminded me of some I visited in New Delhi and Lagos – lots of security check points, indoor/outdoor spaces and restaurants all geared to the upwardly mobile and already upward peeps. We had a great lunch at Village Market I think at CJ’s. That’s where I tried masala fries. Imagine french fries/chips coated in a slightly spice curry sauce. Yeah, delicious. I upgraded the fries that came with my…cheesesteak. LOL. Don’t judge me!
Great Gifts & Shopping in Nairobi
Grocery Store Finds
As a food lover, I always find that grocery stores are a great place to by interesting and often inexpensive souvenirs when I travel. There are several chains in Nairobi, but we went to the French owned Carrefour most often.
- Kenyan Tea – Kericho Gold is a popular brand and I bought many boxes of their #attitudeteas clearly marketed to millennials
- Salt – You can buy a 1lb of locally mined Kenyan salt for less than $1.
- Tea Masala – Masala means spice mix in Hindi. You can find bottles of ground spice mix to make Chai Masala at home
- Honey – You might need to check your customs on this, but local Kenyan honey is quite nice
- Local Biscuits (cookies) – There are lots of British-y tea biscuits and I got ginger ones
A fun thing to do is have a Kenyan tea when you return. I made a batch of chai masala, and served it with Kenyan biscuits to the ladies in my bible study when I got back home.
Masaai Market is a traveling open air market bringing Kenyan vendors selling a range of local crafts, souvenirs and goods. It’s a popular tourist destination and can be a bit overwhelming in size and number of people shopping. We went to the Friday market at Village Market mall and I was fortunate to be with my friend who is an excellent bargainer. I got a lot of great things (beaded jewelry, a straw bag, small sculptures) at prices I felt comfortable paying. Below are some tips for navigating the market.
Masaai Market Tips
- Walk around the market to see what’s there first before settling on a particular vendor. Some items are unique and others are at many stalls.
- Have your money in Kenyan shillings.
- Try to avoid speaking loudly and broadcasting you’re non-Kenyan accent. As expected, tourists often pay higher prices. I caught myself talking “American” loudly and had to rein it in. My friend had a vendor speaking Swahili to her and pretended to understand when we were negotiating a deal. At least this time, being ambiguously black was helpful here. Ha!
- Better yet, go with a local if you can.
- Always negotiate the price. It’s expected. But don’t be a jerk and low ball. It’s their livelihood.
- Bundling multiple pieces from one vendor almost always gets you a better price.
Fine Jewelry If You’re Feeling Spendy
Just like in the States, lots of malls means many mall jewelry shops. My friend and a few her ex-pat colleagues developed an interest in finding Tanzanite jewelry to commemorate their time in East Africa. Blue/purple Tanzanite is only found in a single Tanzania and while it is moderately priced today, it’s expected to increase in value over time due to it’s rarity. Oh, and it’s also very beautiful. I didn’t come home with any Tanzanite bling, but I did have a great experience shopping with friends at Joo & Co at Village Market . Confession – I went in intending to buy nothing and left with a new necklace. They are good! Definitely check it out if you’re in the area.
Until Next Time
I can’t wait to return and explore more of Kenya. It’s a fascinating country. If you have any recommendations or travel tips, I’d love to here it. You can leave a post below or message me at @letsgosho on Instagram.