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Travel + Culture

In Kenya, New Money Mixes With Low-Key Luxury


My trip to Kenya took on an African goof factor before I'd even left my desk (something I was used to from my days in Peace Corps there). Arranging through the Rondo Retreat guesthouse for a driver to pick me up at the Kisumu Airport and shuttle me around out west, I got repeated e-mails back with references to the "tax man" who would be at my service. (He turned out to be a 19-year-old kid, with a tin-can of a car, which only added to my guilt as I directed him farther and farther into the middle of nowhere over roads whose rocks, mud, ditches, and small lakes ate away at the value of his prize possession with every turn.) Then there was the email from Charles, the reservations guy at Shompole (an exquisite, five-star-worthy eco-lodge in Maasai country). "In regard to the payment," he wrote, "Please try and come with the exact amount because I will not have any money on me and also please note that the banks in Kenya are not accepting US currency issued from the year 1996. If you can get currency notes from the year 2000, the better. Sorry for the inconvenience!" (I found out later that they worry about the older bills being counterfeit.) I dutifully went to the bank in Times Square and stood off to the side of the window to look through my wad of cash (who knew that most $20s and $50s were in fact issued in 1996?). You can imagine the look I got from the teller when I asked if she wouldn't mind trading the offending bills for something a little more up-to-date.

Rondo Retreat

Tucked away in the Kakamega Rainforest

Rondo, actually, turned out to be a dream. After rattling over a long red-dirt road through the dense, lush Kakamega Rainforest, we emerged into a clearing where a brick driveway curved alongside fiery daylilies and roses, then pulled up before a tidy clapboard house. The living room was all hardwood floors, overstuffed furniture, and book-lined shelves; my rose-painted double cozy with old-timey bedspreads and crisp sheets. Like your grandmother's country house, this place is of another time (it was the setting for the colonial-era film The Kitchen Toto), but nothing about it was done on the cheap. The grounds are crawling with birds and butterflies, not to mention monkeys, so there's built-in entertainment as you take your tea on the verandah, and the meals, served in the stately dining room, are satisfying if not overly ambitious. The retreat is run by a Christian society (they don't serve alcohol, though you're welcome to bring your own), but there are no creepy religious overtones—just lots of friendly service and an overall vibe of cheer. (I wandered into the kitchen before dinner to find the manager strumming on a guitar, singing something inspiring to the cooks as they went about their prep work.) If you've traveled in this part of Kenya, you know there's not much in the way of luxury out here. Which is what makes this warm little spot, tucked up on its lush green hill—and offering a room with dinner and full breakfast for a mere 75 bucks—such a satisfying find.