History, Serenity, And Luxury: A Stay At Nairobi's Iconic Fairmont The Norfolk

Nairobi’s iconic Fairmont The Norfolk hotel is the perfect base before heading off on an African adventure, with its rich colonial history and a few secrets and scandals
Fairmont The Norfolk
Fairmont The Norfolk is an early 20th-century colonial buildingCourtesy: Fairmont The Norfolk, Nairobi

While visiting any destination, soaking up its history is something that most travellers look forward to. And, sometimes, you don’t even have to leave your hotel to do it.

As I walked into Fairmont The Norfolk in Nairobi, a sense of awe gripped me. The only hotel in Nairobi with hot and cold water in those days, was where early colonisers came to wash off their red dust-covered limbs. Wealthy Europeans and young Englishmen would seek the hotel for fortunes. It was a civilisation in the bush.

Since opening its doors for guests on Christmas Day of 1904, many luminaries, including Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, have taken refuge in its cool resting rooms. The military and civilians even used it as a meeting place during the First World War.

In the subsequent years, the property went through a lot, including a bombing that destroyed almost a quarter of the hotel. But when it wasn’t battling revolutionaries and thwarting terrorist attacks, Fairmont The Norfolk was where big game hunters like Ernest Hemingway and Mick Jagger plotted their hunting safaris. And I did the same, but armed only with my DSLR and notepad.

History flows through every corner of the hotel in its vintage furniture, art, and refurbished rooms
History flows through every corner of the hotel in its vintage furniture, art, and refurbished roomsCourtesy: Fairmont The Norfolk, Nairobi

Past Forward

Rich history swirls through every crevice of Norfolk. While paintings and photographs of old Nairobi grace the storied hallways, an ox-drawn carriage sits pretty in the lush garden. The distinct Tudor architecture and a 1928 Ford Roadster serve as a reminder of Kenya’s past. Though an atmosphere of the past still pervades the corridors, my room feels relatively modern with glossy magazine-worthy interiors—a lavish king bed, marble bathrooms and plush toiletries. I am told the property featured in the film adaptation of Karen Blixen’s novel “Out of Africa,” and the lead actors Meryl Streep and Robert Redford occupied one of the rooms. The hotel has been managed by Fairmont, part of French hotel giant Accor, since its centenary in 2004.

The Lord Delamere Terrace here is where I get my first taste of ugali—maize flour savoury cakes. It’s typically eaten with vegetable stew, meat, and beans. Kenyans eat ugali by rolling it into a small ball and then using this to scoop the accompanying side dishes. I took to the popcorn-ish tasting dish instantly as it reminded me of pundi, the savoury steamed rice balls of my native Karnataka. The restaurant also serves a wide range of international cuisines.

But the most decadent experience at the hotel is the traditional high tea. The afternoon ceremony has white-gloved servers bring out tiered dessert trays stacked with pretty pastries, dainty sandwiches, scones, macarons and mini quiches with exotic fillings. Come nightfall, saxophone fills the air at Cin Cin Bar, and I give in to the temptation of a negroni with Kenyan-style tapas.

The ultimate joy of Fairmont The Norfolk is its tranquillity. Just 20 minutes away from Jomo Kenyatta airport, it felt like a world away thanks to the gardens, pond and constant birdsong. When I returned to my room after a long day of exploration, the curtains were drawn, lights dimmed, and a collectable elephant lay on my bed. It reminded me of Karen Blixen’s words from her book “Out of Africa,” where she describes waking in the highlands: “Here I am, where I ought to be.” She may have spoken for me too.

Nairobi in a Day

Start off at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where you can see baby elephants guzzling milk out of a bottle and holding out their trunks for a massage. They are orphaned elephants, their parents killed by poachers or felled by disease. Intrigue seekers will love the Railway Museum, which houses the early carriages known as “horse boxes” and all the fascinating paraphernalia of the journey from Mombasa to Nairobi. Finally, the Nairobi National Park is the only place in the world where you can go on an authentic safari with a backdrop of towering skyscrapers.

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