Written and Photographed by Tony Bailey
The notion that one could become dinner en route to dinner is not a thought that ever crossed my mind…until my first night at Angama Mara, a luxury safari resort located just a few degrees south of the Equator in the heart of Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve. As a professional photographer, what obviously drew me to Angama Mara were the animals, but what ultimately endeared me to the place was its people, who added an earnest dimension of authenticity to an unparalleled experience.
It would be easy for the Fitzgerald family, who opened the resort in 2015, to let the all-inclusive property's picturesque positioning—the very site where some of the most romantic scenes from Out of Africa were filmed—do all of the heavy lifting, but they don't. Beginning with an early morning tray of tea and biscuits delivered to my suite with a smile as warm as dawn's first light, to helping identify constellations and animal calls that ripple the blanket of night, there are certainly no cookie-cutter experiences to be had.
With a name inspired by the Swahili word for 'suspended in mid-air,' Angama Mara is cited on a bluff some 1,000 feet over the Maasai Mara, high enough for the two camps of tented guest suites to be at eye level with hot air balloons as they float past at daybreak. A far cry from any tent I've camped in, each suite boasts a 30-foot wide, floor-to-ceiling glass wall offering unimpeded "pinch me" views in every direction. Keeping you continuously connected with nature, everything in the spacious studio-style suite is oriented to the aforementioned glass wall, including a soaking tub that promises an indulgent afternoon of ogling.
A whistle hanging outside the entrance to each tent serves as a poignant reminder that we are all part of the food chain in this wild place. From dusk to dawn it is used to summon a member of the Maasai tribe who will accompany you as you traverse the property. Connecting the two camps is The Pavilion, which includes a zero edge swimming pool, a well-equipped fitness room, a safari shop, and a Maasai design studio.
Angama Mara staff attended to our group's every need from the moment we deplaned in Nairobi. Following a Kenya Air flight in business class that allowed us to arrive well-rested, we made our way to nearby Wilson Airport for a short and exhilarating AirKenya flight to Angama Mara's private airfield, where a herd of zebras lining the runway served as unofficial greeters. From here, you can opt for a 15-minute walk into camp, or get there a bit quicker via Land Cruiser.
As a small lodge, itineraries at Angama Mara are agile and custom-tailored to the interests and abilities of each guest. Daily' Big Five' safaris take place in the acclaimed Mara triangle. Excellent for game viewing year-round, there is an uptick in activity during the great migration, which takes place from July to October. Wilderness walks along the Great Rift Valley are proudly led by members of the Maasai tribe, who share aspects of their ancient and fascinating culture. On select evenings, guests are treated to an energizing pre-dinner demonstration of traditional Maasai dancing.
To gain a greater appreciation for the vastness of the landscape and the sheer number of animals who call it home, head up in a hot air balloon. Angama Mara partners with Governors' Balloon Safaris, who has been flying over the Maasai Mara since 1972. The colorful family members who operate the company boast an immense knowledge of the area along with nerves of steel, which were put on display when, at the end of our hour-long adventure, a charging elephant scuttled our intended landing site. The ensuing maneuvers to ensure the safety of both man and beast provided a jolt of adrenaline and a well-deserved champagne toast to our pilot after returning to terra firma.
Before setting out on any safari, guests are encouraged to visit the Angama Mara photo studio for expert photography advice and the opportunity to rent additional camera equipment. For those itching to see their images on something other than a screen, the studio also offers photo printing services.
During safari days, lunch is safely staged at a photogenic spot that varies from day-to-day. On more than one occasion curious creatures, including a hyena, expressed an interest in accepting (or commandeering) handouts and were swiftly shooed away without incident. Dinner, which is simply sensational, sometimes spicy, and inspired by what camp chefs might have prepared in the early days of being on safari, can be had in the guest area, under the stars, in the bush or in your tent. Our bush barbeque under the stars was an experience I won't soon forget, as was a lavish champagne brunch at the Kopje, where you can recreate your own Out of Africa moment.
Angama Mara grows a fair amount of fruit and vegetables in their one-acre Shamba, or kitchen garden, and the popular Shamba lunch program allows interested guests the opportunity to pick their own ingredients. It is interesting to note that one-third of the menus are designed with vegetarian guests in mind, and their Kenyan chefs can accommodate dietary preferences and restrictions.
"Every day, our staff ensure that guest delight is everyone's business, and that kindness, warmth, and love are brought to each one of our guest's stays," said Kate Fitzgerald Boyd. To give back to the community that has given so much to them, the Fitzgerald family established the Angama Foundation, which focuses on three areas of impact: education, healthcare, and conservation. It comes as little surprise that Angama Mara was named #1 Safari Lodge in the World by Condé Nast Traveler's Readers' Choice Awards 2018.
Standing as a silent and solemn testament to the mutual admiration of the hotelier and its guests is a 100-seat chapel erected in memory of co-founder Steve Fitzgerald that opened in December 2018 on what would have been Steve's 65th birthday. The chapel was built in part using donations that poured in from guests hailing from all corners of the globe as word spread of his untimely passing. Steve's daughter Kate, who runs the lodge with her mother Nicky, says that her father was the heart of Angama Mara. "There is no doubt in my, or anyone else's, mind that Angama Mara simply would not exist without my father having a crazy dream and the courage to see it through almost four years ago," she said.
In 2018 Kenya Airways began offering direct flights from JFK to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, using the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft, sparing travelers an arduous layover in Europe or the Middle East. At present, Kenya Airways is the only carrier offering a direct flight between East Africa and the United States (Kenya-airways.com) AirKenya was the first scheduled air operator into the Maasai Mara more than four decades ago, and they remain the only commercial airline that flies to that region. Outside of their scheduled itinerary, the company also offers charter and scenic helicopter flights from their home base at Kenya's Wilson Airport airkenya.com.
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