At the turn of the 20th century, Nairobi was but a desolate, windswept swamp, filled with frogs and frequented by wildebeest.
The yet-to-be city’s tiny railway station consisted of no more than a wooden platform roofed with corrugated iron, just good enough to receive the twice-weekly train arrivals from Mombasa. From there, ambitious new settlers would begin their great Kenyan adventures, purchasing land over a drink in none other than The Norfolk Hotel.
If you’re after a bit of colonial history, or lots for that matter, you’d do well to check in at The Norfolk. Once the epicentre of a nascent Nairobi, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the entire city grew around The Norfolk. Impressive heritage hotel credentials by anyone’s standards. Built in 1904 some 16 years before Kenya as a country – named after its highest mountain – came into official existence, you can only even begin to imagine who might have stayed over the years. Eccentric Out of Africa types, uninhibited explorers, lords and the likes, all willing to voyage into the unknown. And those who visit today – you’ll see them around the lobby looking safari chic and super sophisticated – share much the same impulse for adventure. We can’t think of a more glamorous place to start an epic journey into the bush.
An urban oasis
While The Norfolk Hotel was once the place to see and be seen – and indeed you’ll remember it from Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa – in reality it’s now more of a business hotel than a socialite hangout. If you’re in town on leisure though, you’ll be happy to find something of an urban resort vibe within the hotel’s grounds. At the heart of the property are lush gardens that bring a sense of peacefulness to the place. And the calm is a special welcome antidote to the unreal Nairobi traffic. Despite The Norfolk’s excellent location, you should allow yourself a good few extra hours if you’re planning to get around by car. If you do get stuck on the roads, hit the pool, spa or fitness centre to decompress. That will do the trick.
Rooms with history
If the walls of The Norfolk could talk, boy would they tell an epic tale or two. As you might expect from a true heritage hotel with a long list of notable guests, there’s a real classic elegance to the 170 rooms and suites here. We only wish there were a few leather-bound books and dusty safari guides to transport us back to colonial times.
You’ll need to be careful with your room choice at The Norfolk – while all of them with their marble bathrooms are undeniably plush, they’re not all made equal. Some feel in need of some TLC and especially in the older wings you’ll have the standard plug socket proximity struggles. Try unplugging the TV when you need to blowdry!
Your best bet is to go all out for a suite. That’s if you want to be bedding down next door to heads of state, fancy politicians and movie royalty. Some of them are tastefully themed on influential personalities, paying homage to a handful of important Kenya figures – that’s the kind of historic charm we’re into.
Nairobi may not be on the map as a gastronomic destination, but Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel certainly should be. From dawn to dusk, guests can dine on pan African cuisine at the Lord Delamere Terrace, named after one of the first and most influential British settlers in Kenya, also the unofficial leader of the colony’s European community.
Come nightfall, Cin Cin Bar sets the mood with live piano and saxophone music, and serves up a tasty selection of Kenyan-style tapas (read: healthy portions!) Order in a few cocktails but don’t be enticed by the Tempting Marilyn – named after the iconic bombshell who stayed at The Norfolk between 1955-56 following her divorce from Joe DiMaggio, this signature gin-based concoction comes absolutely loaded with green chillies and all of the seeds. Ouch.
If you’re looking for a full-on five-course feast or post-safari treat, reserve a table at Tatu. Start with the crispy fried crocodile and embrace Kenya’s soup-loving culture with some divine lobster bisque. And remember to pack well – you’ll want to swap your savannah boots for something a little more sexy at Tatu. Dinners here are what dream Nairobi Nights are made of.
When to stay
Stay at The Norfolk for at least a night either side of your safari. It’s the perfect setting to ease yourself into the adventure and equally a great bridge from the bush back to civilisation. You’ll be glad to have a night to process what you’ve experienced in the wilderness before jetting off back home.
Want to discover more about Kenya? Look for your next adventure here.