Kempinski, the first of the big league hospitality names, comes to Kigali

DES MILLE COLLINES – A JOURNEY UP AND DOWN HISTORY LANE

(Posted 19th January 2015)

And no matter where you stay in Kigali, there simply is no better place to see the city and the surrounding hills than from the Panorama Restaurant of the Des Mille Collines. You get a great view during the day but at night, that is when you get that million dollar view. Book a seat on the open side of the restaurant for dinner, come early and experience dusk turn into night. The sparkling lights of the city below and a star studded sky above is a magic combination and if at all possible, made better by some great food’ I wrote a few weeks ago to an acquaintance who asked for recommendations about his forthcoming visit to Rwanda’s capital city.

(A view from the DMC over the city of Kigali, scenic during the day and spectacular at night)

When travelling the region I do enjoy to periodically stay in those historical landmark hotels, sit in the lobby to soak up the atmosphere in search of the shadows of often illustrious guests who walked the corridors of the hotel before me or after wandering around the trophy cabinets for the umpteenth time check out the pictures of the hotel’s history which in some cases were taken over 100 years ago. In Nairobi it is the Stanley and the Norfolk and while no other city in the region can rival these grand ol’ dames of hospitality, there are younger versions, second or third generation so to speak, which can be found, allowing a journey down memory lane.

In Kigali it is no doubt the Des Mille Collines which fits that description and a stay at the end of last year allowed me to look up old notes and dig deep to recall bits and pieces of the hotel’s history and the fame which came with it.

Established in 1973 and until 2005 owned and managed by Sabena Hotels, was the DMC the first of a new breed of hotels in Rwanda, but being the oldest and best established always had a special place in the heart of both locals and visitors.

The former owners eventually sold the hotel in 2005 to a local investment group, in the year after ‘Hotel Rwanda’, Hollywood’s award winning 2004 film, starring Don Cheadle, had catapulted the name of the Des Mille Collines back into the international limelight. While there is naturally controversy over the historical accuracy of the film, which was largely shot in South Africa for that matter, one fact remains undisputed that it did bring Rwanda much publicity abroad, earned the country huge sympathy and helped to fuel a visitor boom which saw unprecedented growth since then. Besides other factors did the film contribute in making tourism the number one foreign exchange earner and a pillar of the country’s economy.

But it was not just THAT film which talked about the hotel, though not featured it in pictures, others too had included Kigali’s grand ol’ dame of hospitality in their stories. ‘Sometimes in April’ (Starring Idris Elba in the 2005 TV feature film) and ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ (the 2007 film about the UN’s commander in Rwanda at the time when the 1994 genocide erupted, Gen. Dallaire) actually showed the hotel and are, arguably, of better historical quality and accuracy, but at the same time not as widely acclaimed.

Fast forward to July 2014, when the owners signed a deal with Kempinski, one of the world’s global luxury hotel brands.

It is understood from chats with Christoph Strahm, Director General of the Des Mille Collines by Kempinski and with the hotel’s Director of Sales and Marketing Christian Huschka, that behind the scenes are plans being finalized towards a major refurbishment of the hotel. Initially was the hotel subjected to a thorough spring cleaning and even more important, giving the staff a thorough indoctrination about Kempinski’s philosophy of standards, service and food, for which the group is renowned the world over.

And it showed during my visit when, compared to a previous walk through about a year and a half earlier, during which the faces of the stuff were rather on the dull side, there are now smiles, regular enquiries about the wellbeing of guests and if anything at all could be done for them to make their stay more enjoyable.

Perhaps most notably, has the quality of the food, and its presentation, visibly improved. This made the DMC once again a crowd favourite, especially after office hours at the pool side restaurant, where the hotel’s signature snack, a selection of brochettes, sells like the proverbial hotcakes. The tunes of a live band adds to that magic evening atmosphere, as night settles over Kigali and the surrounding hills erupt in a spiel of glittering lights, best enjoyed of course under the rising full moon and during the dry season when it the evenings are balmy.

(Pasta with Veal for dinner and Eggs Benedict DMC style, with a touch of avocado in the dressing, for breakfast)

I particularly enjoyed the hotel’s ‘Powershot’ for breakfast, made of Sugar Cane, Pineapple and plenty of fresh Ginger’, which helped to drive away the insomniac fog lingering over my mind after a night of writing other travel stories and breaking news about RwandAir’s entry into the aviation big league after they were presented the previous afternoon with their IOSA Certificate by IATA.

The Des Mille Collines by Kempinski presently offers some 112 suites and rooms will, when the refurbishment and upgrading exercise starts, which is probably by June this year, very likely add a few suites and rooms, shift the conferencing facilities to different locations within the hotel and inject state of the art technology in rooms, back of house, kitchen and administration.

The multimillion US Dollar budget, the hotel’s executives were somewhat guarded in giving precise figures, will allow to completely strip all rooms of the present furnishings and insert Kempinski standards, which , as regular visitors to their collection of hotels and resorts very well know, are never uniform but certainly all very classy.

Every Kempinski Hotel has a personality and therefore every Kempinski Hotel, apart from the same exacting service and food standards, is different in its own right, in its appearance’ said Christoph Strahm while Christian Huschka, in not so many words, added his own take when he compared Kempinski’s hotels and resorts as a collection of polished jewels, each different but each a shining jewel nevertheless.

There have been some murmurs during the first six months of Kempinski’s arrival in Kigali, asking when exactly will the hotel begin to transform, but understandably does such a costly exercise take time to plan, design and equally important, have the owners provide the required budget. It is understood that final touches to the designs, colour schemes and new layout have been, by and large anyway, approved by the Board of Directors of the hotel and the finances been secured. This will pave the way now to create tender documents and, once a contractor has been selected, embark on the journey of transformation into what no doubt will become the Des Mille Collines Kempinski, with the ‘by’ dropped when the refurbishment and modernization has been accomplished.

(Any hotel which offers hammocks to its guests is a winner in my book)

I have captured the essence of the hotel’s history and upcoming transformation in a YouTube interview with Christian Huschka, which is online via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dvp1Dt0MzMs and included a clip taken from the balcony of my suite at the Des Mille Collines by Kempinsky at the crack of dawn, equally available online via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGigvuV0QzY

Rwanda, the proverbial Land of a Thousand Hills, is truly ‘en vogue’ and in demand, as the arrival later this year and over the next years of other international hotel brands is evidence that tourism per se and conferencing in particular will no doubt keep these hotels busy, with Kempinski of course in a pole position among the global big league.

%d bloggers like this: