I’m a planner. A researcher. The type of girl who doesn’t always do great with last minute decisions or spontaneity. People are usually surprised to find that out about me, but it’s the honest truth. I think something switched in me when I had a child. Suddenly, I needed to have structure and stability where before I could go wherever the wind would blow. And while I have learned to develop a healthy level of flexibility over the years, if I could have it my way I’d have most of the next month’s details scheduled and laid out well in advance. (Just typing that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside). I guess I just feel safer that way, and perhaps more in control. But sometimes, you can’t live life fully that way. Sometimes the best adventures are the ones you could never dream up or plan for yourself. That’s what happened with our first visit to Olerai House last July.
Since it’s Thursday, I thought it would be fun to do my own #TBT. Last year, we had the privilege of hosting some good friends who were visiting us here in Kenya. (Love you Gillentine Family!) They had visited nine years prior, so this wasn’t their first “Africa experience”. We spent three weeks traveling all over the country meeting with different Tin Roof Society partners and projects and it was amazing! We had so much fun and made some great memories. While we had planned on doing a safari at the end of their trip, they asked halfway through their visit if we could take them to see something different since they had done a safari nine years earlier. They wanted to see a side of Kenya that they hadn’t already seen before, which we were more than happy to show them!
We quickly decided to visit the nearby town of Naivasha. Naivasha is a popular tourist destination in Kenya because it’s a short two hour drive from the country’s capitol of Nairobi. It’s also home to Hell’s Gate National Park (I’ll share a little nugget for you… remember “Pride Rock” and “the Gorge” in the movie The Lion King? You can find the exact inspiration for them at Hell’s Gate!). The main industry in Naivasha is floriculture, and you can see hundreds of green houses growing all sorts of flowers, including many different types of roses, as you drive through the countryside. And one of the most well known landmarks in Naivasha is the large lake it is named after. Lake Naivasha is home to over 400 species of birds as well as a large population of hippos. (Sidenote: Don’t do the boat cruises on the lake unless you want to get dangerously close to hippos…)
Something else you should know about me- I’m a die hard TripAdvisor fan. I seriously can’t imagine traveling without TripAdvisor. It is my travel bible. I consult it for just about everything (you can read all of my reviews and tips on my profile). As we were planning this particular weekend getaway, I naturally got online to try to find somewhere to stay in budget for our group of ten, on somewhat of a last minute’s notice. And that’s when I stumbled across Olerai House.
The pictures were gorgeous… it looked like something out of a storybook! But while the reviews were all good, there weren’t a lot of them. At the time, Olerai House didn’t even rank in the top ten specialty lodges in Naivasha (it currently sits at number five), so I was hesitant to even consider it. I made a phone call to their main office and had a sudden change of heart when the very helpful sales manager told me she could accommodate our entire group on full board (all meals and drinks included) for roughly $150 a person. The price was right, and I knew to find a place this unique with that many rooms available on such short notice would be a bit of a miracle. So, I quickly signed up the group, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best!
A few days later, we headed out for our weekend adventure. We made our way down the Great Rift Valley (of course we took a quick pit stop at the scenic overlook and The Little Church on the Slopes).
Before we knew it, we were pulling into Naivasha town. The directions we were given told us to go past town, towards the end of the acacia tree forest, and then to turn left onto the North Lake Road until the tarmac ended. We were then supposed to take the “rough road” for another five miles before coming to the gate marked “Olerai”. Even though we followed the directions carefully, we started getting nervous as we got further and further down the “rough road”. Civilization was far off. We saw less houses, less people, and eventually no other vehicles.
We rounded a sharp corner and all of us caught our breath at the sight of two… four… six… no- eight! Eight wild giraffe were walking along the side of the road. Was this real life? We suddenly quit caring about if we were lost or not and just took in the beauty of the drive, with glimpses of the always beautiful Lake Naivasha in the distance. Eventually, we saw the promised sign for Olerai House. We had arrived! We turned in and took the dirt path towards the main house. Another graceful giraffe was standing there, almost as if he had been sent as our welcoming committee. We waited for him to cross the road and then pulled into the guesthouse.
First impressions are a big deal, and Olerai House got it right. We couldn’t have felt more welcomed and tended to in those first five minutes. Before we could unload our bags, the staff came out to welcome us with freshly squeezed mango and passion fruit juice. Everyone was wearing neatly pressed uniforms made from a local bright purple kanga fabric. They told us not to worry about our luggage but to instead to come, sit and relax from our bumpy and dusty drive. We walked through the gate and immediately realized we were somewhere truly special. It felt like a fairytale. A large table was beautifully set with a three course lunch waiting for us.
The food was exceptional. I had explained when booking our stay that my husband and I are both gluten intolerant. The kitchen staff went above and beyond to make sure we were taken care of. Everything was perfect. As we ate our meal, the manager explained that the ingredients were sourced locally and that much of it was grown on site in their organic garden. Shiloh, our toddler, was invited to stop by the garden later to pick some veggies and feed the chickens.
By the way- Olerai House (like so many places throughout East Africa…) is incredibly family friendly. We got the best of both worlds during our stay here- it felt a bit luxurious and completely relaxing, while at the same time being the perfect environment for a two year old to run wild! The staff were so kind to her and even played with her throughout our visit. They also set up a crib in our room for her to sleep in which meant I didn’t have to lug the pack and play along.
Towards the end of that first lunch, several giraffe appeared out of the nearby woods. They came closer and closer to us, until they were just a few feet away. We couldn’t believe how close they were. They didn’t seem to care about our presence as they ate leaves from the large trees that towered over us. Once again, we were all speechless! It was incredible to be so close to such beautiful animals in their own natural environment. Of course we all tried to snap a few giraffe selfies…
After lunch, we were taken to our rooms. Every room is different and uniquely decorated. They each seem to tell a different story and contain textiles and artwork that feel like someone’s private collection from years of travel. I loved that it didn’t feel like a predictable hotel, but more like someone’s house.
The grounds at Olerai are peaceful and serene. There are several sun beds scattered around the property that make the perfect spot to get cozy with a cup of tea and a good book. There is a small library that guests are welcome to located in the main house. I found several books on local wildlife and a history of Naivasha town to keep me company while Shawn pushed Shiloh on the big tire swing nearby.
The owners of Olerai House are an incredibly interesting pair of individuals who are legends in their own right. They are most well known for their organization Save the Elephants and their extensive research of the African Elephant. Their names are Ian and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, and they live just a short walk away from Olerai House. Oria happened to be at the guesthouse that weekend and came over to introduce herself on our first afternoon. She was so warm and friendly, and she shared very openly about her family’s romantic history in East Africa. I could have listened to her tell stories for days! She invited us to come get a tour of her home, which her parent’s built in the 1940’s. It’s called Sirocco House and has been recognized and featured in several magazines throughout the years, including Architectural Digest.
We took her up on the offer the following morning. One of the staff, a Samburu warrior named Francis, walked us to Sirocco House and pointed out many things along our walk. The large field we crossed is a grazing ground for the many hippo that come out of Lake Naivasha when the sun goes down. We came across several hippo skulls and bones. The same field also serves as a landing strip for the Douglas-Hamilton’s personal plane. He flys back and forth from their tented camp in Samburu.
The house was full of charm and relics from days gone by… Oria showed us some original Babar books which her mother’s cousin wrote in the 1930’s. I grew up on Babar cartoons, so I thought it was really special. We were deeply touched by the kindness and hospitality we received from the Douglas-Hamiltons and enjoyed our morning spent with them. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work they’re doing to preserve Kenya’s wildlife.
Perhaps my favorite part of our time at Olerai House was the evenings. As the sun began to set, we all gathered around the bonfire for pre-dinner drinks and laughs. Naivasha gets very chilly and we were all thankful for the warmth of the fire! A wire fence is put up along the perimeter of the guesthouse to keep the hippos away. Even though we couldn’t see them, we could hear them! At one point, one of the staff shined his flashlight out into the open field and we were met with the glare of multiple sets of beady hippo eyes! It was pretty amazing to know we were so close to some of Naivasha’s most popular residents.
Dinner is served inside of the common area. In another lifetime, this building was home to the family’s farmhand. It’s since been converted into a cozy dining and living space. Mealtimes felt more like gathering around a friend’s table than eating at a restaurant.
All in all, we had a fantastic stay at Olerai House. It was the perfect “city break”, and a place we look forward to visiting again and again (…we might have taken my parents for fourth of July weekend the following month!). Families will be happy to know that there is also an option to rent a small self catering cottage if you prefer to cook your own meals. Whether you’re visiting Kenya or looking to explore someplace new and special, I can’t encourage you enough to take a day or two and relax at Olerai House. I promise, you will be so glad you did.