HEMINGWAYS KAREN – SMALL BUT OH LA LA
(Posted 31st July 2013)
(A partial view of Hemingways’ main building, Spa and Gym from the garden / pool side)
A recent conference attendance in Nairobi drove the message home sharpish, that when the meeting season is underway in Kenya’s capital, room confirmations can no longer be taken for granted and when combined with the tourist high season, during which in fact thousands of extra travelers come to Kenya to see how the Great Migration pours from the Serengeti into the Masai Mara and the adjoining conservancies, it becomes clear that beds will go for a premium and then some.
The conference, in fact focusing on the hotel industry and the opportunities the economic recovery of Kenya will bring with it for the hospitality sector, outlined a number of international hotels to either open soon, like the Kempinski, or which have announced their intent to either find a hotel for management or else build one, like Dusit Hotels are doing.
But as the race for quality beds in and around the immediate CBD of Nairobi now reaches melting point, almost unnoticed by many has a new boutique hotel opened its doors two months ago, away from the ever congested city centre in the wooded suburb of Karen. Hemingways Nairobi is now open for business, still in the soft opening phase of course to complete pending jobs, some landscaping around a new pond and to allow the staff to progressively get used to having a full contingent of paying clients in house, of the sort who are both extremely discerning as well as extremely demanding.
Hemingways’ both sister properties in Watamu and on the Naboisho Conservancy / Masai Mara have been rated 5 star and the latest addition to the portfolio equally aspires, according to General Manager Simon Hodson, to attain the coveted 5 stars, when the new hotel will be inspected and rated in due course.
You might think that all newly opened hotels will struggle to achieve the right mixture and blend between service and facilities, but at Hemingways, where I spent the last few days, it almost seems to come without visible effort. 43 suites, I should probably call them large studio rooms and two Presidential Suites make it 45 keys. That is small enough to apportion close up and personal hospitality and extend more than usual courtesies to the guests and large enough for groups of tourists, or those much sought after corporate retreats, which seek that unique balance between top quality, Germanesque efficiency, Swiss precision, state of the art facilities, located in a great neighbourhood and offering the arguably best food money can buy in Nairobi. Add to that a great view – the Ngong Hills rise large in the distance over the treetops, the hotel is surrounded by mature trees and patches of forest, it is, or should be, a winning combination.
Of course there are enough examples of new hotels messing up on opening, some about which I have written and some of which I have just stoically endured, but thankfully the Hemingways, and I watched with Argus eyes and snooped around and about in order to find some glaring lapses, is not one of them. Even the fire place in the centre of the lounge, a welcome spot to soak in some heat during the ‘winter’ in Nairobi, has moved with the times and substituted gas for the conventional firewood, providing the expected ambience but in an eco friendlier fashion.
Check in consists of an efficient swift confirmation of the guest’s name on the flat screen and the handing over of a key to a personal butler who then whisks his charges off by electric cart. Miraculously was my baggage already at the room on arrival and while a bit of legally required formality is then inevitable, a form has to be filled and signed, the butler prepares to put the bags into the walk in wardrobe, unpacks even if that is what a guest wishes, eyes shirts, trousers and jackets for those travelling creases when they emerge from the case and – again, should the guest so wish – takes them for a swift but thorough ironing job before returning the clothes as crisp as one can wish for.
An introduction of the suite’s technology follows, light switches, ‘submergible’ flat screen TV, mini bar location – the fridge has a glass door and is lit when opened – and then … silence … unless the grass is cut on the sponge like lawn, there is only birdsong, or the distant chatter of the gardeners, which penetrates the silence of the location, and, oh yes, the regular sound of light aircraft returning to Wilson Airport, which is just a few kilometres down the road.
(Four poster bed with netting, a sofa set and pictures on the wall matching the name of the suite, in my case of Stanley’s journeys and his meeting with the elusive Dr. Livingstone)
The wardrobe drawers glide out and back in as on a cushion of air, there are enough hangers and then some more to cater for a large wardrobe – I do habitually not pack small – and should any of the essentials have ‘escaped’ into thin air while travelling from place to place, like the toothbrush, a shaving kit or any other, ANY other item needed in the bathroom, the butler is a call away and will provide the missing bits within minutes.
The free standing work desk, generously large, can also serve as a dining table, enough to sit four and in such a case will the butler again provide the extra two chairs and lay the table, uncork the selected wine and serve a meal, but more about meals later. Enough sockets are near the desk to charge all the gadgets we travel with these days, and if required will the butler bring an extension cord which can take a further four battery chargers.
A small business centre on the first floor of the main building, close to the main bar, is ready to dispatch one of the trolleys with a staff member to for instance pick up a memory stick and, once shown, print documents, bind them even and return it all, job well done, on the fast track. Service generally seems to be geared to fast track, efficient, swift and not just courteous but done with joy. It tells the story of selecting the right staff, with the right mindset and attitude to be of service, smiles galore included. They understood, that they are not there for a mere job and earn a salary at the end of the month but are there for their passion to make a career in the hospitality industry and be of service, superior service, to their guests.
Two sun beds on the balcony offer the option, during the warmer time of the year at least, to lounge about in fresh air, while inside the three seater sofa, besides the arm chairs, invites to feel at home, with not a thing missing.
Fresh milk at half past three in the morning to make a decent cup of tea? Cheeky me tried it and the butler was happy to provide that in a jug, and in my case it took all but 4 ½ minutes from putting the phone down to hearing a discreet knock on the door. And in the morning are the newspapers of the day hand delivered, again with a soft knock on the door, unless the DND sign signals exactly that, Do Not Disturb, something they know how to respect at the Hemingways.
All suites are named, after the explorers of old, after writers, famous Kenyans, Hollywood personalities who starred in films about Africa and more, giving that feel of ‘belonging’ to guests, even though the rooms are of course also numbered.
Spa and Gym are, as one would expect in a place of this quality, of 5 star standard too and ready to offer treatments of many foreign names, something this author knows to evade and instead head for the restaurant and rather check out menus and test the food.
And here comes the biggest surprise the newest Hemingways’ baby has in store for visitors and guests, a Michelin rated chef, who’s erstwhile restaurant in the UK gained that recognition and who came to Kenya to work with Hemingways and produce the finest meals with, in his words, the finest ingredients.
From corn-fed beef, cut inhouse to meet his exacting standards, sea and lake fish selected daily fresh after it is flown in from the coast or Lake Victoria to organic vegetables, herbs and fruits, Barry Tonks leaves nothing to chance.
The bread, baked at the hotel of course, could have come straight from a quality German bakery, the croissants could have come from Paris, as would the baguettes, and the pastries probably from Vienna, so authentic do his creations look, and taste. The pastry and bread production was in Barry’s words a challenge, to get the flour mixtures right, but it is clear from the results, tasted and judged severally, that it is a challenge no more.
I am a soup person and have been spoiled in many places with excellent creations, but what Barry conjured up in his kitchen, one which cannot be more state of the art than it is, exceeded my wildest expectations. The Broccoli soup and my palate made friends at first taste. I refrained asking for it at breakfast, which would probably have perplexed the staff as it did elsewhere when I asked for a chocolate mousse in the morning, but opted to substitute my order with a selection of Egg Benedict, Florentine AND Arlington, do I need to say more? Culinary delights, irresistible culinary delights!
I ate my way through the menu, or what I could actually eat without bursting my trousers, and copy cats beware, the small portions are already large and the regular portions will definitely be a challenge, especially when turning the dinner into a four course affair. Barry, who hails from the North of England, said that big portions of food are a hallmark of the area where he comes from, and, I agree with him, why change a good thing. Excellent food, coming in large portions, what more can an aficionado of fine cuisine wish for.
In fact the food at the Hemingways will make it all worthwhile, even when staying in the city, to drive out to Karen for a spot of lunch or a dinner, but bookings are already now essential to be sure to get a table. I guess while in house guests will have absolute priority for tables, diners from outside will sooner or later be faced with a waiting list, the tell tale sign that a place has ‘arrived’ and that demand by far outstrips the supply of covers.
Food of such superior quality is still not too common in Nairobi, although Kenya’s capital has plenty of excellent restaurants vying for clientele but the arrival of the Hemingways is set to correct that. Other leading hotels will undoubtedly have their own gourmet spies go and find out, if I told tales or told – for them at least, the frightening truth of culinary standards now available in this suburb of the Kenyan capital, which will no doubt spur a fresh race to answer the question: ‘Mirror Mirror on the wall who cooks the best food of them all’. For sure, during the days I stayed at Hemingways, the dining room was regularly full and notably patronized by the locals, who must have heard the rave reviews from friends, just how exceptional the dining experience there is and wanted to sample it themselves.
The new Hemingways, already at this early stage, presents itself as a hotel where the right ingredients of facilities, layout and location are matched with the service provided by a well trained and dedicated staff, and a restaurant which greatly enhances the package.
Rarely did I have such a good feeling about a new place as I do about the Hemingways, that it will not just make an impact on the hospitality scene of Nairobi but soon claim its place in the top level of the rankings and ratings. If there was one item I had to single out, which did not fit into the overall picture, it was the door locks. One could call them ‘classic’ of course, and going with the overall theme of the hotel to blend the appearance of an English country mansion with that touch of Hollywood deco and flair in recognition of what the greats of the silver screen have done over the decades to showcase first the hunts and adventures and then the holidays to Kenya. However, the use of the latest key technology would have been the smarter thing to do, sentiments and memories of the old days apart.
General Manager Simon Hodson, in the hotel from dawn to late at night, knows that he still has way to go to get to where he wants the hotel to be, but when he reads this review he also knows that he is well on track to achieve that.
With the Nairobi National Park close by, as are the Karen Blixen Museum, the Giraffe Manor and Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Trust and the Karen Golf Club only a short drive away, guests seeking out activities will not be disappointed. Besides, the full range of other options Kenya and her capital city have to offer, are at guests disposal and the butlers will be happy to make the arrangements through the front office of Hemingways. After all, Nairobi’s safari airport Wilson, where Safarilink’s main operational base is located, is within easy reach, making an overnight trip to sister property Ol Seki in the Mara the proverbial walk in the park.
Visit www.hemingways-collection.com for more information about Nairobi’s latest kid on the block of luxury hotels, for details on tariffs and reservations and how to get to hotel which is located along Mbagathi Ridge in Karen.