This trip of a lifetime reached from the Serengeti plains to the roof of Africa.
by midtownmjd on November 7, 2008
I stayed at Karama Lodge twice, once after a pretty horrendous night in Dar es Salaam, and once following seven days on Kilimanjaro; both times I nearly burst into tears of joy upon arriving. Granted, any room with a bed and a mosquito net would have elicited a similar reaction at those points (the journal I kept just exclaims, "hot water!"), but I ended up being so charmed by the lodge’s services that I would be just as excited to see Karama any day.Minutes from downtown Arusha and atop a gated drive, Karama’s 22 huts are perched amid lush green hills reminiscent of New Zealand’s landscape. The manager, a laid-back former New York drama teacher and restaurant-biz veteran, has created a welcoming compound centered on a wonderful bar/lounge/restaurant cabin. The main office is worth spending time in, too, as they offer Internet access and delicious juice.Each timber hut is unique, but all offer great beds with down comforters and mosquito nets, rugged-modern bathrooms behind a curtain, and porches. Some cabin doors are closed with a zipper, and some are more substantial. They’re beautiful in a no-frills way, but everything you need—like that hot water—is available for you.I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Karama's restaurant at different points on the trip, usually accompanied by a rich South African merlot and a visit from the resident feline. One particularly delicious dinner was pan-fried tilapia and rice; another was chicken with mushrooms. Breakfast was always substantial and tasty, though sometimes it was served buffet-style and sometimes it was off a menu.I adored Karama’s combination of a friendly environment, respect for its surroundings, and modern amenities, and, at about US$45 per night (for a single with breakfast), it’s an absolute steal. I would recommend that anyone visit the Arusha area and stay there—you'll be completely relaxed and looking forward to your next sundowner in no time. For more information, check out the website at www.karama-lodge.com/.
Immediately after checking into the Impala Hotel, my group headed for dinner at one of the hotel restaurants, and, since it was the Fourth of July, we celebrated by chasing our food with sips of gin-in-a-bag bought earlier that day on the Serengeti. The gin wasn’t awful. The same can be said for the Impala.Located just off downtown Arusha’s traffic circle, the Impala offers any convenience you might need while in town: an Internet room; Italian, Indian, and Chinese restaurant menus; a bureau de change; a gift shop; a breakfast buffet; a bar; and hot showers. It just does it all without any charm whatsoever. But sometimes that’s OK.My main complaint was that my room’s holey mosquito net was questionable, but the hotel is well insulated, so it probably doesn’t pose any real risk. And after ordering dinner, it took close to two hours to receive our food, which was fairly annoying. But once we got it—a mix chosen from the three full menus—it was surprisingly delicious (whether that’s a result of two hours’ worth of starvation and Tusker beers, I’m not sure). But I truly found my veggie pizza, garlic naan, rice, and chicken tikka masala perfectly spiced.Other than the mosquito net, the room wasn’t bad—not as nice as the lobby, pool, glass elevator, and other public areas, but not bad. The shower was hot and powerful, which was much appreciated. And the breakfast buffet the next morning was quite good and filled us up for another day of traveling. So while I would recommend Karama Lodge over the Impala for anyone headed to Arusha, if the Karama is full, the Impala isn’t a bad second choice. You’ll be able to take care of any business you have to in a safe and reasonably pleasant environment. Current rates are published on the Impala’s website at www.impalahotel.com/.
by midtownmjd on July 30, 2008
The Movenpick Royal Palm Hotel is an oasis in the dusty bustle of Dar es Salaam: airy, shiny, and comfortable. Normally in Africa, I might be disappointed to see a semi-characterless hotel that looks like it could be in New York City, but after more than two weeks of trekking, camping, and, of course, spending a night at the Jambo Inn, I was excited to experience even an ounce of luxury. Discounted luxury, luckily—I used points accumulated on a credit card to lower the room price from US$175 to just US$25.We got a US$20 fixed-rate cab from the Dar airport’s taxi stand to the Movenpick. The hotel had some trouble checking us in—they couldn’t find our reservation, made online, for an hour—but we didn’t mind sipping our complimentary orange juice (served in champagne glasses) and waiting. Eventually, we were brought to our room by an overly friendly bellhop.The room was beautiful, and the beds were welcoming and comfortable. There was a TV with CNN International available (yay!), a large desk, a sitting area, and turn-down service with chocolates in the evening. The best part, of course, was the shower—the best one I’d had in weeks. Hot, strong, clean, and roomy, it was very impressive and unlike any other I saw in Tanzania.The only annoyance after our trouble checking in was the lack of Internet access; the business center closes at 4pm on Saturdays, so we were turned away at 3:58pm and couldn’t access our email accounts at all during our stay. Instead, we used the time to wander past the business center and into the gift shop. The same area houses a tour company and some other small businesses, but they were all closed for the weekend.We were exhausted (and everything was closed), so we whiled away part of the afternoon in the hotel’s bakery/café, which is overpriced but serves delicious snacks and ice cream. Then, for dinner, we decided to skip the US$42 buffet (it features a different theme every evening) and go to the hotel’s Italian restaurant instead. We arrived just after its 7pm opening to shockingly good service, food, and décor—all for a reasonable price. We enjoyed a delicious bread basket with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, tapenade, roasted garlic, and bruschetta; soup (vegetable and crab bisque); penne all’arrabbiata; and stuffed eggplant. I also ordered the wine of the month, a sweet South African chenin blanc, for 7,500 schillings. And for dessert, a perfect chocolate-cappuccino mousse (11,000 schillings). Main dishes were priced around 14,000 schillings.The next morning we took the hotel’s shuttle service to the airport for our flight home; it was more expensive than a cab, but the hotel is removed from the city center and any street taxis, and they didn’t seem to want to call us one. Anyway, the shuttle was convenient and on time.While its service isn’t impeccable, the Movenpick is about the nicest hotel you’ll find in Dar and I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking for the comforts of home, a bit of luxury, or a great Italian meal.
by midtownmjd on July 29, 2008
I should have listened to the IgoUgo review I’d read: the Jambo Inn is a dump. But, lured by the price (35,000 Tanzanian schillings for a double en suite) and the friendly manager (Jignesh), my friend and I booked a room for two nights at the Jambo. We planned to stay there one night before departing for Arusha, and one night before leaving Tanzania. How bad could it be? Bad enough that within about an hour of arriving we were on a computer booking a new hotel for our return to Dar es Salaam.We found the hotel easily on its crowded street in an area with several hotels and restaurants. It was bigger than I’d imagined, and though not attractive, it wasn’t completely uninviting. At check-in, Jignesh (who, it must be said, truly is one of the friendliest hotel employees I’ve ever met) collected our money for the room and for the next day’s 5:30am taxi to the airport. But all hope for a pleasant stay vanished the moment we entered our second-floor room.The mosquito nets had more holes than netting, about half of which were stuffed with Band-Aids. As my friend and I started plotting how to remedy the situation (there was, after all, at least one mosquito flying around the room, and it was dusk—malaria o'clock), the electricity cut off. We were in absolute darkness, along with the rest of Dar; the entire city had lost power in the middle of an international soccer match, so horns began blowing and people began whooping. Police sirens were also blaring through the streets. My first thought (just before I thought of the soccer match) was that there’d been a coup of some sort. I can only explain this by saying that the Jambo Inn is the sort of place that makes you think of worst-case scenarios.Luckily, shortly after we found our flashlights, the power came back. Which would have been a blessing, except the lighting really only served to illuminate a roach in the bathroom. The next bathroom mishap involved a clogged toilet, which I spent about 15 minutes attacking with a plunger provided by a guard in the hallway. The shower was also gross, with an odd bucket of standing water sitting on its floor.Things only got worse in the downstairs restaurant, which serves mostly Indian food. The worst Indian food I’ve ever had, in fact. My chicken tikka was light on chicken, the only meat being mostly neck meat.I only slept about an hour that night, encased in the scary mosquito net, because I dared not move for fear of malaria. (I never said I’m not a hypochondriac, but it wasn’t that far-fetched a thought.) Since I had all that time to think, I decided that it’s worth spending a bit more for a medium-priced, medium-comfort hotel in Dar es Salaam. And please don’t repeat my mistake: listen to IgoUgo reviews!
My grand plan for visiting Tanzania began with a night on Zanzibar, so after arriving in the Dar es Salaam airport and DEETing up, my friend Kate and I grabbed a taxi to the ferry terminal to begin an interesting trip made even more amusing by sleep deprivation.At the airport’s taxi stand, we were able to get our driver at a printed rate of 20,000 Tanzanian shillings. When we arrived at the ferry terminal after some heavy traffic on dusty roads, about 10 men began trailing our car and offering to sell us ferry tickets. Our driver, who spoke English very well, told us not to buy from them, and not to show them our passports, but to instead buy our tickets at the Seabus "fast ferry" counter. Then he parked and took Kate, armed with both of our passports, to this out-of-sight "counter" to buy the tickets, telling me to wait in the cab. I normally would’ve protested this as a bad idea, but I was too tired. Plus, I figured that since I didn’t necessarily have a better plan, I would have to trust this driver.I sweated it out in the car for about 15 minutes while a couple of men circled me, eyeing the trunk where our bags were held. It was a pretty sketchy situation, but again, this driver seemed like a stand-up guy. Sure enough, he and Kate returned with the tickets (and the passports). Only then did he inspect the tickets and announce that though Kate had paid US$45 per ticket (for four tickets), the vendor had recorded a payment of only US$30 per ticket and pocketed the additional US$15 per ticket. He went to recover the money and returned with US$20 for us (apparently having pocketed the other US$40 himself). I suppose he earned it.Kate and I settled into a shady waiting area, but we had two hours until the next ferry. Unfortunately, no one else appeared this early, so we had the army of touts all to ourselves. Despite our protests, a few "official porters" carried our bags and talked Kate out of another US$5. This ferry ride was proving quite expensive. Eventually more passengers showed up, and we made friends with other travelers willing to dole out advice on visiting Tanzania and climbing Kilimanjaro.The boat was very hot and cramped, and we made the mistake of trapping ourselves in window seats, but there were cheap, cold drinks for sale. It was a long 2.5-hour ride, but at least we were able to laugh at the fact that the little girl behind us was so fascinated with Kate’s blond hair that she kept copping feels. I don’t think all boats are as stuffy as this one, though; later, our ferry back to the mainland was air-conditioned and much more modern, with flat-screen TVs, although it was just as miserable for its extreme choppiness.Eventually, having learned some small lessons in corruption, we arrived at Zanzibar’s port to grab a taxi to the lovely Beyt al Chai.
by midtownmjd on August 2, 2008
Beyt al Chai (or the Stone Town Inn, as it’s also called) looks and feels like I’d hoped my Zanzibar hotel would. It’s a grand, old house with six open-air rooms decked out with rich, jewel-toned silk pillows and curtains; carved-wood, four-poster beds with mosquito nets; and a common room with oversized couches and exotic hookahs. The attention to detail is impressive, with beautiful Omani-style touches everywhere you look.The hotel is located in Kelele Square, a 4,000-schilling taxi ride from the ferry port and a wonderful location to use as a Stone Town base. It’s quietly beautiful, in a crumbling sort of way, but it’s safe and just far enough removed from the center of town that there aren’t street touts to dodge. The leafy square is lined with small hotels and a mosque from which the call to prayer emanates five times each day. It’s a fitting atmosphere for the exotic Beyt al Chai and I felt very comfortable there.When we arrived, Sophie at reception was expecting us and greeted us by name. It turned out that my friend and I were the hotel’s only guests that night, so although we’d reserved the Beyt al Dahl room (the hotel’s cheapest option), she told us to choose our favorite room but still pay the Beyt al Dahl price (about US$75 per person). We chose one that promptly sprung a toilet leak, so we headed to room #2: Beyt al Hukm. It was much like the others: big and grand, with two different beds and a bathroom pairing modern amenities with traditional Arabic style (my journal reads, "sultan simple chic"). There was even a hairdryer.At 6pm, the staff preps the rooms for the night, drawing the shutters and curtains, turning down the sheets, letting down the mosquito nets, and spraying for mosquitoes. The hotel’s small staff is wonderful—casual but accommodating (which generally sums up service in Zanzibar and Tanzania). The hotel also employs a Masai guard, Paul, who is unfailingly polite and helpful as well.The other fabulous thing about Beyt al Chai is its restaurant. We ate two meals there and were the only guests each time (because we were the hotel’s only guests, but also because Zanzibar was empty in general due to some power problems earlier in the month). The food is absolutely delicious, and the service wonderful as well. For lunch, I had penne in an olive-oil sauce with wild mushrooms and roasted red peppers, and it was as perfectly al dente and seasoned as any pasta I’ve ever had. My friend had an Indian-style coconut-chicken soup that was just as good. And because it’s Zanzibar, the spices—even just black pepper—are awesome, and the coffee is strong and delicious.Breakfast the next morning was almost as good: mango-papaya juice; fresh fruit (pineapple, mango, papaya, banana, and passion fruit); toast, bread, and butter cookies; and omelets. And, of course, that great coffee. Our server was chatty but endearing (and probably bored), wanting to exchange email addresses and asking a lot of questions about the US.After breakfast, we paid for our room, checked out, and left our bags in the front office for free so we could explore some more before catching our afternoon boat back to Dar es Salaam. In truth, I was ready to leave Stone Town by then, but I was sad to leave the Beyt al Chai and vowed to send anyone heading to Zanzibar to this charming hotel. It's not cheap, but it's comparable to most Zanzibar hotels, and you'd pay much more for the experience at home—if you could find something half as lovely.
I can't speak highly enough of my experience with Tropical Trails. Choosing a trekking and tour company for my Kilimanjaro-safari trip was a daunting task, to say the least: book after book advised me to consider it a life-or-death decision. So after months of research, correspondence, and quotes, I decided, warily, on Tropical Trails. It was kismet.Annette was my contact, and she was excellent at providing information and equipment lists, revising the itinerary to fit our needs and budget, communicating changes, and responding to questions. She was also patient when we kept changing our final count of travelers in the group, and not at all pushy in getting our business. I really grew to like her through our email chain, and our introduction in person at Tropical Trails’ Arusha office felt like a reunion.Tropical Trails arranged our entire itinerary, including hotels in Arusha; our weeklong Kilimanjaro hike; a hotel and campgrounds for a Tarangire, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro safari; and rental equipment for all. Above that, they employed (at fair wages) our guides, cooks, and porters, a truly gifted assembly of people who supported us for two weeks. Tropical Trails seems to have a knack for working with the best, from putting us up at Karama Lodge to equipping us with high-quality tents and sleeping bags to providing us with incredible local guides. They were not among the most expensive companies offering us quotes, but everything was top-notch and a great value for the quality.Finally, I can’t mention Tropical Trails without praising their affiliation with William James, our head guide on Kilimanjaro. He’s among the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and I credit his intimate knowledge of the mountain and his brilliant hiking strategies with getting 100% of our group to the summit of Kilimanjaro. William himself has reached the summit 99 times (probably more by now), but he made it seem like he had the experience of 99 treks and the passion of a first-timer. Tropical Trails truly made my Tanzania experience the most memorable of my life.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009