Grandeur is all very well, but without a touch of glamour a high-end hotel is just that: a smart place to sleep in.
Until recently, Nairobi's luxury hotel scene was stuck in this rut, the likes of the Norfolk and Stanley being good at what they do (offering five-star service in opulent surroundings) but rarely offering excitement. Now, Tribe has provided Nairobi with an injection of contemporary cool. Despite a name that appears to hark back to the past – Tribe's motto is in fact "one tribe, the human race" – the hotel is utterly modern, fusing slick Manhattan loft interiors with an earthy African warmth.
In the two months since its official opening, the hotel has already played host to Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman, as well as luminaries from October's MTV Africa Music Awards, including former Fugee Wyclef Jean.
Architect Mehraz Ehsani, whose boutique brainchild is all about surprise and asymmetry, claims to be reacting against the Holiday Inn-style "box". "No pot-plants here," he says. "And you won't find many right angles either." He's right: Tribe beguiles from the start. Neither a block nor a high-rise, the newly built four-storey structure lies low, sinking back into its sloping grounds, a black ripple in the exterior walls disguising the lines of windows.
The entrance also confounds. You go in via the intimate one-storey entrance which almost immediately shoots upwards into a vast atrium, where stylish people recline on arty black leather stools, tall-backed sofas or wicker loungers. Much of the furniture is designed by local artiste Jutta Gavidia-Wilhelm and was constructed by her local workforce.
Indeed, the overall craftsmanship is impressive throughout: sofas so tall they form pods, reaching up towards sheer voile curtains lit by chandeliers of chrome baubles; polished granite steps snaking up to the first floor; innumerable discreet sources of light. There is also a profusion of African artwork adorning every corner of the hotel with hieratic heads, leather gourds and figurines studded with cowrie shells. A library containing some 2,800 books and a chill-out room with 300 DVDs is provided too, should you decide to linger. At Tribe, you feel as a guest should, but rarely does: comfortable and relaxed.
The hotel's restaurant, Epic, is fully in line with the Tribe ethos, all sleek curtains of repoussé steel. With an emphasis on organic fare, it has a good – but not overwhelming – range of options. Lunches are strong on salads and the prices are reasonable.
"Don't be fooled by the menu," says chef Neil McCarthy, veteran of London's Mayfair InterContinental and Moscow's Metropol. "These are only suggestions. We make whatever the guest wants." I decided not to call his bluff and ordered the "suggested" organic asparagus spears and dill gravadlax followed by ribeye steak, all of which were heavenly.
Still, there's a bit of work to be done. They're "almost finished" with the rooftop terrace, with its open-air cocktail bar and shisha lounge. The conference room and Kaya spa – with its seven Thai-oriented treatment rooms, hair studio, and gym – are slated to open early next year.
Forty minutes from Jomo Kenyatta airport in the west, the neighbourhood of Gigiri is in the north of Nairobi. This is embassy-land, where stately jacaranda trees bloom in UN front gardens. Most of Nairobi's other top-end hotels are in the centre, but for a taste of Nairobi's most intimate deluxe hotel, it is worth the journey. One advantage is that it sits right in the embrace of the Village Market, an enclosed shopping complex, with a weekly Masai market. Whatever you feel about malls, this one is convenient and far from brash. The other plus is that, as Tribe is just a stone's throw from the US Embassy, security standards are some of the tightest in Kenya.
The rooms differ from each other, but share dark wood flooring and sandstone brick walls, enlivened by African sculptures, icons and calabashes. They range from the standard luxury of the junior suites, to the loungey loft business suites, the flashier penthouses, and the truly monumental ambassadorial and presidential suites. But even at the top end, the spacious rooms, huge white sofas and rock-hewn bathrooms are never tacky (though you may find a pair of bronze lions watching you while you're in the bath).
Desks are well-appointed, with speedy Wi-Fi and laptop-sized safes to hand. The only let down is the plasma TVs, which look great but are slow to operate.
Tribe – The Village Market Hotel , The Village Market 9/418 Limuru Road, Gigiri, Nairobi, Kenya (00 254 20 720 0000; africanpridehotels.com)
Doubles start at $265 (£177), including breakfast.