By Kenya specialist Mark
If your image of an African safari was sparked by watching Out of Africa or wildlife documentaries, Kenya will be the Africa of your imagination. On my travels to the country I’ve explored wide open plains filled with grazing antelope, stampeding buffalo and sleepy lion that rise from their slumber at dusk to hunt.
The romance and exhilaration of being out in the bush makes Kenya a popular honeymoon destination for couples seeking adventure. But I also recommend spending time relaxing on the coast and punctuating your trip with more unusual experiences, such as a hot air balloon ride or camel trek.
A safari in Masai Mara National Reserve
The Masai Mara is the best place to see Kenya’s wildlife, whether you’re a first-timer or a safari connoisseur. It’s everything you expect Africa to be — vast open savannah that’s full of animals, especially during the Great Migration (July to September), when huge numbers of wildebeest migrate north from Tanzania’s adjoining Serengeti National Park.
Heading out twice a day on guided game drives, you’ve a good chance of seeing a full cast of wildlife, including the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino), large herds of wildebeest, zebra and antelope, as well as the occasional cheetah.
Hippo wallow in the Mara River, where birds flit by in a flash of turquoise, yellow and blue. Lying in your tent at night, you might hear the splash of an animal crossing the water or the distant alarm calls of baboons under attack. The natural drama here is palpable.
For me, the Masai Mara is all about the lion. Populations here are healthy both in numbers and the animals’ condition. One day in the late afternoon we came across a pride of lion where a few cubs were play fighting as the adults lazed around in the last of the day’s sun. As the light dropped, the youngsters were led away by one of the females and the adults instantly switched to hunting mode. The sudden change in their disposition was fascinating to see, and we shadowed them as they stalked a zebra until it got dark. It was easy to imagine what happened next.
The reserve is bordered by private conservancies owned by local communities. Here you’ll see very few other vehicles, and you’ll have the chance to go on guided bush walks. The guides are not only incredibly knowledgeable, but also demonstrate the warmth and wit of the Kenyan people. My guide showed me various animal tracks and could usually tell what the animal had been doing when it passed by.
A dawn hot air balloon flight over the Masai Mara
Your day-to-day safari experience can be interspersed with activities to make your honeymoon that bit more special. One suggestion, that’s worth the 4am wake-up call, is to take a hot air balloon flight over the reserve as the sun rises. The views over the plains take shape and the reserve gradually comes to life as the morning mist clears.
Drifting over the landscape in whichever direction the wind takes you as the sky changes from dark indigo to pale pink and blue, it becomes easier to spot wildlife such as giraffe and zebra enjoying their first meal of the day and birds waking from their roost in acacia trees.
The balloon is shared with a small number of other passengers. After about an hour you descend to the launch site, where breakfast and a glass of champagne awaits.
Where to stay in Masai Mara National Reserve
Ol Seki Hemingways Camp sits on top of an escarpment looking out across the Naboisho Valley in the Naboisho Conservancy, which borders the Masai Mara to the north.
The large tents are well spaced out and their open sides lead onto a private deck with 270-degree views of the valley. Here you can enjoy a candlelit dinner served by your personal chef.
The Laikipia Plateau: an alternative safari destination
Lying much farther north than the Masai Mara, the Laikipia Plateau is a huge area of wilderness made up of community-run conservancies. Far fewer people venture here for a safari, but for a contrast to the Masai Mara I recommend spending a few nights exploring its harsher, semi-arid landscape, which is beautiful in its own right.
The plateau enjoys a backdrop of the Mathews Range of mountains to the north and the jagged outline of Mount Kenya to the south. Its mix of open grassland, valleys and escarpments adds to the stark beauty.
Laikipia’s higher altitude attracts different wildlife species to those found elsewhere in Kenya. Less accustomed to humans, the animals here also behave more naturally. On game drives or bush walks you may encounter the rare Grevy’s zebra, packs of wild dog, black rhino, reticulated giraffe and elephant herds that can be tracked on foot. Lion, leopard and cheetah populations also prowl the savannah.
A two-day camel trek with nomadic tribesmen
From Laikipia, you could join a two-day walking safari with nomadic Samburu tribesmen (a people indigenous to the Nile Valley who are related to, but distinct from, the Maasai). The Samburu travel with camels, which will carry your luggage, food and tent equipment, moving in a long ‘train’.
You’re taken out to completely uninhabited areas around the Mathews Range and Ndoto Mountains, walking between 8 and 20 km (5 and 12 miles) each day, but avoiding the afternoon heat. Your guides are bush experts and will point out wildlife, as well as sharing their knowledge of the area’s history and folklore.
In the evening, everyone gathers around a campfire to share food, drink and stories — the tribesmen have lots of tales to tell and are eager to share their way of life. By the end of the experience you feel as though you’ve known them for much longer.
Where to stay in the Laikipia Plateau
You can head out on two of the lodge’s horses for a ride through the conservancy. What’s more, if the owner, Will Craig, is home, he may be able to take you up in his pride and joy: a bright yellow open-cockpit biplane.
The plane has room for two passengers plus the pilot, and in true 1930s explorer style you’re given traditional flying goggles, caps and jackets to wear. Once the engine has lurched to life with a throaty roar and you’re gliding over the landscape at low altitude, you have views of Mount Kenya in the distance as Will points out different wildlife species below.
A stay at The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille
Situated in the Ol Lentille Conservancy, perched on one of the Laikipia Plateau’s highest points, The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille is the first place that springs to my mind when I think of Kenyan honeymoons.
This isn’t only due to the high standard of accommodation, but also because of the variety of activities offered here and the feeling of exclusivity you get from having your own Maasai guide, game vehicle and butler. Then there are the all-encompassing views you can enjoy from almost any vantage point, taking in lightly forested hills, distant mountains and waterholes that attract thirsty elephant.
There are just four villas at the property; I recommend The Eyrie for honeymooners. Privately set, it’s a circular wooden building with a circular bed that looks out through floor-to-ceiling windows. A sunken bath set into the rocks and a wraparound terrace also provide sweeping views out to distant Mount Kenya.
You can enjoy intimate meals, cooked by a private chef, in the villa’s octagonal candlelit dining area. Or, arrange for private dining in the property’s library, by the infinity pool or, my personal choice, out in the bush.
During your stay, you can do as much or as little as you like. You can choose to head out early for a morning game drive, or have a lie in and a leisurely breakfast out on your veranda. The spa offers unlimited treatments, including couples’ massages, and there are lots of places to relax with a drink while watching wildlife out at the waterhole.
It would be a shame, though, to turn down the many activities on offer. There’s a particular focus on exploring the area on foot — led by your Maasai guide you’ll learn about the local ecosystem and the Maasai culture.
Quad biking, mountain biking, horse riding, camel trekking and traditional game drives are also options. The area is home to good numbers of wild dog and elephant, as well as striped hyena, bat-eared foxes and anteaters.
One thing I particularly like about this property is its links to local communities. The conservancy is owned by the local people, and, while a British couple bought the land to build The Sanctuary, they then gave it back to the community and now lease it from them. Thereby, the profits benefit the local area, helping to build schools and hospitals.
Your Maasai guide can take you to one of the nearby villages to meet the local people. Here, you can stroll around the weekly market and visit schools built using funds from The Sanctuary.
Lots of honeymooners, following a safari in Kenya, then opt for some beach relaxation on Zanzibar. But I think Kenya’s own coastline, with its long stretches of palm-fringed white sand, secluded coves and characterful boutique properties, merits a stay in its own right. Forgotten about in recent years after trouble in the north of the country, the southern section of the Kenyan coast is now finding renewed popularity.
Choosing Kenya’s coast also saves time: it’s just a two-hour afternoon flight straight from the Masai Mara. If you chose Zanzibar, you’d have to fly to Nairobi in the morning and then wait for an evening flight.
The area I recommend visiting at the end of your honeymoon is Diani Beach. There’s plenty of choice when it comes to accommodation, shops and restaurants, yet it still feels peaceful.
The beach itself varies in size according to the tide — when it’s out, the soft white sand stretches into the distance, and when it’s in, it becomes a thinner strip ideal for strolling along while dipping your feet in the waves. Palm trees grow along its edge, providing shade, and the sand is so white that it’s never too hot to walk on.
Several marine parks are scattered along the coastline, including Diani Chale Marine National Reserve and Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park farther south. These are well-run and help to protect the local marine life, which includes coral reefs teeming with tropical fish.
Snorkeling and diving trips give you a chance to see what lives beneath the waves. There are also sections allocated for water sports, such as kite surfing and paddle boarding, or you can head out on a traditional dhow, stopping for a picnic on a secluded sandbank.
Where to stay on Kenya’s coast
Guests stay in cottages and villas spread across the grounds, and each room has been individually decorated in a Swahili style. The Andersson Room is specially for honeymooners, featuring a four-poster bed and a sea-view balcony. Up on a cliff overlooking the beach is a deck where you can join a sunrise yoga class each morning.
You’ll dine in a different place every evening, whether beneath the trees in the garden or on the beach. Along Kenya’s coast, when you dine you’ll be treated to fresh seafood and Swahili-influenced dishes, which combine Portuguese, Arabic and Asian cuisines.
Nearby is the Kaya Kinondo Sacred Forest, where baobab trees grow and you can go walking in search of rare red colobus monkeys.
Best time to visit Kenya on honeymoon
In my eyes, the best time to visit Kenya is September, when migratory herds are still flooding the Masai Mara but there are fewer visitors than in July and August. I also like visiting in June, when everywhere is green, the animals are enjoying the riches of the land following the long rains, and you’re likely to get excellent value for money.