Category Archives: Kenya domestic tourist

Guide to Monaco

A guest post of a trip to the Principality of Monaco, the city-state on the French Riviera, where the Monaco Grand Prix is taking place tomorrow. It’s a normal, but pricey, place for the rest of the year when Formula One is not having a race weekend.  

Getting There: Fly into Paris or a nearby major European city. You will need to get a connecting flight into Nice. 

Nice Airport is fairly easy to navigate especially coming from Paris. There may be additional customs regulations coming from other European countries though. 

Once you exit baggage claim, you can take a train, bus, taxi or helicopter to Monaco. To truly enjoy the wind-down to the Principality, take the bus or a taxi. A taxi will be +$100 so opt for the buses which leave every hour or so. The train is less than $10 but you miss much of the view. 

Getting Around: You can get along speaking English but please, please learn some French if only to read the signs and communicate politely with vendors. The majority of people here speak English, probably better than you but it would behove you to learn their language. 

Staying in Touch:  Safaricom Welcomes You to France! If you are there for a while longer, you should get a SIM in Paris though. 

Where to Stay: Save money and stay in France. The city of Fontvieille in France surrounds the principality and has several hotels. It’s an easy walk to the harbour and there are parts where you can take an escalator or lift down to the port. Go any time after the summer to get hotel deals that are ‘normal’. There are also several AirBnB options but depending on when you go, prices will be higher than you expect. Some try and stay in Nice and commute in which is fine but if you can, stay in the city. 

Visa, MasterCard are well accepted. In November, you can get a decent hotel rate of about $170 a night. Breakfast and lunch may set you back about $120 but you can budget and meal plan for your mealtimes. If your hotel offers a breakfast deal, take it. 

Eating Out:  Food, France, Immigration. Italy is a short train ride away. For the sake of doing it, get on the metro to the city of Ventimiglia, Italy which is accessible from Monaco. You will pass Menton, France where a good chunk of the people who work in Monaco live and after that, a whole new country.

Lunch is a great way to explore the cuisine. Often enough, you’ll be too full to contemplate dinner. There is one supermarket in Monaco – a Spur that is so hidden, good luck finding it. You can always go to the big Carrefour in Fontvieille, France for a big shop. It’s near the Stade Louis II. 

Odd Points: Tipping. A service charge may already be added to your restaurant meal so if you tip, it will be a tip on top of a tip. Keep an eye out on your bill for service compris

Shopping & Sight-Seeing: Monaco is super safe. It’s hard not to look like a tourist but make sure to map out a plan before you leave your hotel in the morning. It’s a small country so you can’t really get lost but make sure not to look like a complete boob when walking around. Ladies – unless you are stepping out of a car into a restaurant, you do not want to wear heels exploring Monaco. Be sensible yet stylish. See yachts parked for the winter, some on sale, and pricey apartments, with advertisements in Russian.

La Condamine where the locals shop but you will find every single luxury item in the world in this tiny country. Save your money, park yourself at a restaurant outside and gawp at the fabulous beautiful people. Take home gift – a souvenir at a gift shop in Monaco. Include the receipt. 

Seriously, set yourself up for a lazy weekend brunch or a late evening drink and watch the beautiful people in their natural habitat. We spotted Flavio Briatore!

Sights to See: The streets. Do the F1 grid walk! Also, the Oceanography Museum in Monaco is well-curated and a must-visit for its’ exhibits and breathtaking views outside of the principality. Seriously an underrated and affordable highlight! Depending on when you go, see if there are other events ongoing such as a food and wine festival in November. 

Biggest surprise in the country? At the tourist offices, you can get an entry stamp in your passport!

Kenya Tourism Signature Experiences

This week saw the unveiling of the Magical Kenya Signature Experiences collection for 2021-200, by the Ministry of Tourism that is meant to showcase the country’s diverse attractions aside from the traditional wildlife safaris and beaches.

The MKSE program began in 2019 when fifteen experiences were selected. The first group had pricey traditional tourism attraction like the Karen Blixen Museum, Finch Hattons Luxury, the Tamarind Dhow, Il Ngwesi, and helicopter trips to Suguta Valley, which music legend Madonna did a few weeks ago.

MKSE has now added 29 signature experiences in an ongoing process from 59 entries, and the ones that didn’t make it, also get mentorship to improve and qualify. Joining starts with completing an application questionnaire, and one criterion for selection includes that the investor/operator has been offering the experience for over two years. Tourism officials then do a desk audit to shortlist the promising ones, followed by a physical visit to check out the experiences. The Signature Experiences facilities will be marketed by the Kenya Tourism Board at local and international trade fairs.

The second group of MKSE experiences is more diverse and probably more accessible, though price rates were not shared. The big winners on the list are the Watamu coastal area and Nanyuki, with multiple experiences, while operators Watamu Treehouse and Savage Wilderness each feature three unique activities for visitors and tourists to try. 

Some unique additions include: 

  • Bicycling in the Maasai Mara and at Diani.
  • Watersports: Rafting/kayaking at Watamu, Sagana & Tana River and floating adventure at Mida Creek (Watamu).
  • Camel walking safaris with Karisia.
  • El Karama Lodge experience for children. 
  • Warrior Academy with Saruni. 
  • Climbing Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro with African Ascents. 
  • Golfing at Great Rift, Naivasha. 
  • 16th century stone ruins at Thimlich Ohinga Migori, now a World Heritage site.
  • Interacting with rare rhino: treks at Borana, extravaganza at Solio, tracking at Saruni,
  • Also, two unique experiences are farm ones: At Ololo in Nairobi, there is a farm experience package in which guests can tour and dine on food from the farm. They can partake in picking eggs, vegetables, visit the orchard, milk animals and buy handmade furniture. Then at Olepangi, farm guests can milk cows, make bread, collect vegetables, ride horses, do yoga, and get massages.

The new list also had some of the traditional pricier offerings that draw tourists to Kenya, including Breakfast with Giraffes (sometimes a hot topic), In the footsteps of Elsa (inspired by the story of Joy Adamson’s adopted lioness), and humpback whale watching at Watamu, that controversially featured on CNN recently.

Guide to the Mexican Grand Prix

A guest post by Linda Kamau who has travelled from Nairobi to watch the Formula 1 Gran Premio De Mexico for two years in a row (2018 and 2019).

Getting there: For both trips, I have flown Emirates via Dubai and the USA. A ticket bought early will cost you between $1,200 – $1,500, but if you buy later, it may cost up to $2,500.

For both trips I have gone a week or two early and flown to Cancun then later got into Mexico City the weekend of the Grand Prix, flying on Interjet or JetBlue. In 2018 I did Nairobi – Dubai – New York – Mexico and in 2019, I did Nairobi – Dubai – Florida – Mexico. Using either of the flight legs will take a total of about 30 hours to get to Mexico.

For the visa, if you hold a valid US, UK or Japan visa then you do not need to apply for a Mexican visa. For both trips, I have not had to apply for a Mexican visa, as I hold five-year visas for both the UK and US.

As I always say, if you are transiting through JFK or Heathrow, ensure your flight connection is not less than 2 hours as the immigration queues can get quite long which might cause you to miss your flight.

Arriving at Benito Juárez International Airport, you are welcomed with images of F1 drivers just after baggage pickup. This is a circuit loved by many so there are a lot of people arriving for the race weekend, and immigration can take longer to clear.

An important thing to note, you have to fill in a landing card and once the immigration officer has stamped your passport, they give it back to you with a small part of the landing card that you will need to show when exiting the country. Losing it will cost you 300 Pesos, equivalent to $35.

Getting Around: Uber and Lyft are your friends here. They are way more affordable than regular taxis and can take cash too (Uber cash exists here). Mexico City is big, really big and it is not advisable to just walk around.

The local currency is called the Peso. The exchange rate versus the dollar averages at $1 = 18.10 pesos. Credit cards work but there is a general rule, to not withdraw money from just any ATM. If you have to withdraw, do it at an ATM in the bank. ATM fraud is rampant in Mexico.

Where to Stay: Due to how big the city is, traffic can be crazy. Therefore it is advisable to stay close to the race track (the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez circuit) which is also close to the airport and can save you time for both going for the race and arriving and leaving Mexico city. In 2018, I used booking.com and stayed at Camino Real ($400 for 3 nights). But in 2019, because I was booking late, the same hotel now cost an arm and a leg. So I took a less expensive one – Hotel Hollywood Villas. The cost was $200 for 3 nights, and it was a ten-minute walk to the track.

What to Eat: Tacos, tacos and more tacos. Every corner you turn to, there is a restaurant selling tacos, other Mexican dishes and Tequila. I believe this is taken any time of day as there is no rule to Tequila, Mexicans just love their Tequila. I enjoy Mexican food so I did not get close to any McDonald’s or any other international restaurants, but they are in plenty.

Staying in Touch: As is my rule, immediately I land in a new country, I find the next SIM card store. Data/connectivity comes first even before that vital shower after a long trip. In Mexico, it’s advisable to get Telcel, it’s the largest network and very reliable. It will cost you about 20 pesos with 50 pesos airtime which totals to 70 pesos ($4). You can recharge at a store or you can do that online if you understand the Spanish on the Telcel web page.

Shopping & Sight-Seeing: In the city, you can go see Our Lady of Guadalupe, the largest Cathedral after the one in the Vatican. It’s quite a tourist attraction but also a great marvel of architecture.

With Mexico being so far away from Kenya, it would make sense to add in a vacation and see more of the coastal side. I have spent time in Cancun, Tulum and Playa Del Carmen and if I were to choose I would go back to Playa Del Carmen. It’s calm, less touristy and you are close to both the beach and city life. There is also the Chitchen Iza (pyramid ruins) and all the Cenotes (naturally occurring sinkholes) in the islands.

I did sample the nightlife in Mexico City with local friends I made after the 2018 GP. We are now F1 buddies, and we sync our trips and plan to attend the newly-added Grand Prix in Miami in 2021. We spent a night dancing salsa at a Cuban joint called Mama Rumba. It was fascinating to watch both the old and young dance – salsa is for all and so is the club.

Race Day: The race is at 1:10 p.m. but that is quite late for Kenya as it’s an 8- hour time difference – so adjust your body clock. It can get quite humid even though October is the rainy season in Mexico. It sometimes rains for an hour and then quickly goes back to being humid.

In 2018 I got a seat at the Grada 4 Grandstand; this is in the area where the cars make their second turn and you have a great view of most of the circuit including the Grandstand. The 2018 race saw Lewis Hamilton clinch his fifth title in Mexico and he did some spins in his Mercedes for the crowds after. Grada 4 gives you that thrill and also you get to enjoy the after-party as you can hear and see the DJ.

Race Tickets: For my first visit, I had bought my ticket on the F1 website which cost $460 for the 3-day package. On practice day I went to pick my ticket from the ticket station at the Circuit. It is advisable to attend on all the three days, as you get to familiarize yourself with the location of the track and especially which gate you will use to go in and which side of the circuit you will be sitting on during the race.

In 2019, my Mexican friends bought the tickets and we got to sit on the side where you see the cars as they start the race just before turn 1. It was nice to watch home crowd cheering Sergio Perez ‘Checo’ and he delivered his best race for his fans after a tight fight with Daniel Ricciardo.

In both of these Mexican Grand Prix races, Mercedes were not the favourites even though in 2018 Hamilton just needed to finish top-six to clinch the title, which he did. Ferrari’s strategy got the better of them again in 2019 and Hamilton took advantage and went on to win the race getting him closer to his sixth driver’s championship.

Also, see this other 2019 F1 race trip report – A Guide to Baku, Azerbaijan.

Guide to Baku, Azerbaijan

Getting There: Qatar Air was the best, and the only real option picked by our travel agent. We booked tickets early and they cost about $1,000 for a round trip. The flights are Nairobi-Doha and Doha-Baku and total time and the total journey time was about eight hours. Our layover in Doha was short and we had to sprint through the airport to get our connecting flight. Fortunately, we had received boarding passes for the Baku-leg in Nairobi, but in the rush, we lost some documents.

In the weeks prior to departure, there was some confusion about how to obtain a visa to enter Azerbaijan. The country has an e-visa page, but the pull-down menu of country choices does not list Kenya. Some other travellers going for the race chose South Africa as the nearest country to complete the e-visa application but we chose to wing it.

The Formula One race is a big business deal in Baku, and there was a Presidential directive on the internet that the Government of Azerbaijan would offer visas on arrival for F1 fans coming to attend the race. We had arrived early for check-in for our flight in Nairobi which was a good thing as we had to haggle with the Qatar Air staff and make some calls as they checked a book register of passengers. Eventually, they allowed us to proceed and board. There was no issue in Doha, other than the sprint across to catch the connecting flight.

On arrival at Heydar Aliyev International Airport (GYD) in Baku, there was a special desk section for F1 fans with special ushers around, dressed in F1 garb, ready to assist. You showed your ticket, paid a $26 fee and were issued with a 30-day single-entry visa. Note: We had bought our tickets through the official F1.com site and they arrived two weeks before the race, delivered from the UK by DHL to Nairobi.  

For other fans who already had applied for and got e-visas online, they could walk up to airport machines and get served.

After getting an e-visa, you then proceed to the immigration area.  There, they ask a few questions about the purpose of your trip and you also have to provide an email and phone number (we gave Kenyan ones).

if you intend to stay for more days in the country, you have to register online within 10 days of arrival and even the hotel you are staying at can process this

Getting Around: Baku is a small city and we walked end-to-end across it on different days. There was no need for taxis as it’s a very walkable city with lots of sights. We took a taxi from the airport that cost 50 Manat for a distance of about 40 kilometers using an unofficial cab (the official airport ones charge 70 Manat) and that was the only ride we hailed. All cabs are old Mercedes cars. As you walk around, note that weather changes were quite abrupt from sunny to cloudy. days were ok, but the nights were chilly.

Where to Stay: We had made a reservation at the Viva Boutique using Booking.com which we had made a while back and the rate was about $120 (200 Manat). They cost much more if you have booked late. Hotels tend to block off and charge higher fees for Grand Prix weekends. This room which would now be about  400 Manat on race day while other hotels would charge about 800 Manat. 

The hotel is not far from the track and we walked to different events of the race weekend.

We had arrived a few days before the race and had made an Airbnb reservation for the first few days. The homeowner had offered to pick us from the airport, and we had even negotiated an amount for this. But after clearing immigration, the Airbnb host was not answering his phone and we got worried. So we went to the hotel and negotiated for extra nights.

What to Eat: Restaurants are many, from local ones to others serving common international cuisines such as London Pub, McDonald’s and Starbucks.  Local restaurants had many dishes which we did not try. They have chicken served in many different styles and we ate a lot of chips and bacon.

Staying in Touch: It’s usually advisable, when visiting a new country, to get a local phone SIM card, in order to avoid roaming rates that are very expensive. We got Azercell lines from a booth at the airport that cost about $20, and which came with lots of minutes, SMS and 10GB data bundle that lasted the whole trip. This enabled lots of phone chats, browsing, and sharing of images and videos from the Baku trip with friends. However, like in a few other countries, you can’t make phone calls on WhatsApp – a VPN is advisable for that.

Shopping & Sight-Seeing: The local currency is called the Manat. It’s quite strong $1 = 1.70 Manat (so a Manat is ~$0.6 or ~EUR 0.5). Credit cards work well here for most purchases, but it is always a good idea to call your bank before you travel to any country.

Sights to see on the streets of Baku are the full-grown trees, especially in the old city section. The buildings also have interesting architectural designs, walling and engineering of tiles on newer buildings.

Baku is a small town. Malls are modest in size. There are kiosks that are rather expensive, compared to the supermarkets.  By Monday, after the race, malls were quite empty.

One popular tourism attraction is Yanar Dağ, (“burning mountain”), a natural gas fire which blazes continuously on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea near Baku. Tourist charges to visit are 2 Manat each.

Race Day:  The race is at 4:10 PM, which is late compared to other F1 races, and Baku is an hour ahead of Nairobi. 

We had great seats across the pit lane that cost about $500 and it was a fun vantage point. The race itself was kind of anti-climatic given the dominance of the Mercedes team who recorded their fourth consecutive 1-2 finish in 2019, and pre-race favourites Ferrari again seemed lost. The stage was set on Friday, during practice, when one of the cars from team Williams ran over a manhole cover which had come loose. This cause extensive damage to the car and the session had to be stopped. Other teams, including Ferrari, had their practice time limited as a result and this may have contributed to their Sunday pace.

During the weekend, we did the pit-walk to view cars up close in the garages. Many F1 races now put on huge musical concerts to entertain fans from across the world who have come to attend, and this year Baku had American rap star Cardi B performing on Sunday night, after the race.

Odd Points: You can exchange foreign currency with no questions asked and no need to show any identification (ID) in Baku.

A guest post by @asemutwa who travelled to watch the Formula 1 Socar Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2019 race in Baku.

Also see this other race trip report.- Guide to Abu Dhabi.

Turning Dreams into Hotels – Angama and Hemingways

From recent social media posts, we have two tales about how two award-winning hotels came to be built.

Angama: The story of Angama was published back in 2017 but was re-shared this week in a newsletter from the lodge. It was contained in a blog that was written by the founder on the putting together of finding the right partners and putting together a project team and how they managed to execute on a design and vision to build a 10,000 square meter lodge on a cliff in the Mara, in just ten months. This came after eight months of chasing funding.

Hemingways:  The story of Hemingways, is from an interview of the Chairman of Hemingways Holdings, Dicky Evans by journalist Joy Doreen Biira.

He narrates how they operated a hotel in Watamu on the Kenyan coast for 30 years before deciding that there was an opportunity to do a hotel property in the capital city of Kenya. Then, on to the search for an ideal location, acquiring the land, growth by acquiring other companies, working with planners and neighbours, sourcing environmental permits, utilities etc. all to build and fit out what became Hemingways Nairobi at a total cost $22 million. To do this, they also got some funding from I&M Bank, and also invested in other properties in the Mara and in Naivasha and are doing renovations and expansion into new apartments at Watamu.

The importance of partnerships comes in both stories; Hemingways at Watamu partners with other hotels in Nairobi, which don’t have properties as the Coast, to host tourists who want a  private luxury experience at the beach, while Angama, in another post, narrates how local airlines came together to reduce the flying time for their tourists moving between the Mara in Kenya and Serengeti in Tanzania to just a few hours – eliminating an extremely  long process of several flights through Nairobi, Kilimanjaro, and Arusha and airports.

In the two posts, there are unique insights you rarely hear local investors talk about such as how much money they put have invested into their projects, the process of acquiring land, and how infrastructure developments lead to new investment opportunities and possibilities. Also, the day-to-day running and management, and the use of expatriate project managers is a theme that runs through the stories of the two properties that were built quite fast and which are now receiving global accolades for excellence.

Some of the recent awards the hotels have been feted for include the “Best Resort in the Middle East and Africa” by Conde Nast Traveller for Angama, while Hemingways was named the “Best Hotel in Kenya” in three categories (top 10 hotel, top luxury, top service) by Trip Advisor.