24-Hour Room Service - The Norfolk, Nairobi, Kenya
Saturday 18 April 2009
If every great city deserves a great hotel, Nairobi's is unquestionably the Norfolk, which gained its "Fairmont" appendage when the Canadian group took ownership in 2007.
By then, the Norfolk had celebrated its centenary, having opened in 1904 as the first stone-built hotel in Kenya. In those days, Nairobi was little more than a railway halt on the East African line, but an English major from the Norfolk Regiment saw the potential for a beacon of civilisation in the bush.
The site he and his partner chose to build on was next to a papyrus swamp where lions roamed, and a river colonised by hippos.
When it opened on Christmas Day, the Norfolk had 34 bedrooms, two cottages "for married couples" and 29 staff, including a French chef who had been poached from the Waldorf in London. There was a dining room, sitting room, billiard room, bar, and – previously unknown in Kenya – electricity throughout.
Passengers would disembark at the train station covered in the red dust of the Masai country. The cool resting rooms and hot and cold baths must have been blissful relief.
Over the years, the Norfolk became a meeting place, hosting everybody who was anybody on their East African expeditions – presidents and prime ministers, famous explorers, actors and authors.
As its popularity escalated, new accommodation blocks were added, arranged about the lush gardens of the central courtyard. But the distinctive, half-timbered Edwardian exterior has survived both the builders and a terrorist bomb on New Year's Eve 1980, which destroyed much of the west wing and claimed the lives of 15 people, both guests and staff.
The builders were back in last year, adding new public rooms, restaurants and an outdoor terrace in a £6m refit completed by Christmas. The hotel's gym, steam room and spa have also been upgraded and rooms have been brought up to date in keeping with the hotel's international ownership.
Fairmont The Norfolk, Harry Thuku Road, Nairobi, Kenya (00 254 20 221 6940; fairmont.com). The hotel is a 10-minute walk from the city centre, opposite the University and next to the main police station. The location is convenient and safe, in a well-lit street guarded by security patrols.
Time from international airport: The 20km transfer to Jomo Kenyatta airport takes half an hour, except during the morning and evening traffic peaks, when the trip can take twice as long.
The rooms and suites are designed for the upmarket business and leisure traveller, with the luxury touches discreetly presented. The king-size beds, for example, have mattresses so deep you almost have to climb into them.
Since the hotel has come under the Fairmont banner, the décor has been updated – a soothing New England aesthetic prevails in the deluxe rooms and suites, while the Fairmont and Moderate rooms are more simply furnished, with dark wood panels and deep red patterned carpets.
Freebies: Complimentary fruit basket and a bottle of South African wine, as well as a range of "African Collection" toiletries.
Keeping in touch: Flatscreen TVs with a multiplicity of satellite channels; direct-dial phones and WiFi access (Ksh500/£4.20 per hour) throughout. There is also a business centre with computer terminals.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Standard double rooms start at US$241 (£172), room only. Breakfast is an extra $25 (£18) per person.
I'm not paying that: A short walk along Harry Thuku Road, the Hotel Boulevard (00 254 20 222 7567; hotelboulevardkenya.com) has 70 well-appointed rooms, shady gardens and an outdoor pool. A standard double costs Ksh6,680 (£56), including buffet breakfast.
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