WITH THE SWAGGER OF A GIRAFFE NECK SILHOUETTING AGAINST A SNOW-CAPPED MT. KILIMANJARO, flamingoes in massive flocks flying across the soda lake at the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater, chimpanzees whooping in a misty jungle and sharp-sailed "dows" cutting through topaz, coral-filled waters, Tanzania captures the essence of all that Africa affords travelers.
While a mass-market tourist infrastructure has flourished for more than a decade, the country is finally catching up with South Africa and Botswana, and a "new" Tanzania is emerging—one with a focus on a more private experience, where luxury meets the bush in unrivaled style. From permanent tented camps to lodges to mobile setups that move with the animals every two weeks, these are our top picks that are sure to appeal to any safari sophisticate.
Singita Grumeti Reserves
Singita Grumeti Reserves (www.singita.com), a private concession that spans a whopping 346,000 acres along the western edge of Serengeti Park, is Tanzania's newest and brightest star. Here, visitors can witness the moaning of the two million wildebeests and zebra hoofing it on their annual migration.
While giraffe, warthog and ostrich are all common, and it's not unusual to see the Big Five—elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalo and leopards—in one outing, such was not always the case. When park developers created Serengeti in 1951, they skipped one-third of the circle that completes the circular migration eco-system. That extra third was designated for human development and large game hunting. These "hunting blocks" were intended to generate income for the central government and local districts through the sale of hunting licenses and trophy fees but became overhunted and commercially poached since they lie in a perfect position to intercept wildlife—right on the migration path. Then, in 2002, investor Paul Tudor Jones, leased three hunting blocks and turned them into Grumeti Reserves.
In June of 2006, after great success in bringing the animal population back, the reserves decided to increase the fund's coffers by going into partnership with Singita, Africa's leading luxury lodge company. There are now three distinct camps run under the Singita Grumeti Reserves umbrella, each approximately one hour apart.
The original Tudor Jone's estate, Sasakwa (www.singita.com/sasakwa.html), which took 3,000 people 13 months to build, boasts seven one- to four-bedroom cottages. The epitome of safari indulgence, the homes offer living rooms with fireplaces, verandas with heated infinity plunge pools, glass-walled bathrooms and Swarovski spotting scopes for viewing the animals on the plains below the escarpment on which they are perched.
Because it is within a private concession, Sasakwa can offer safaris that are not permitted on public land. This allows professional horse guides from Sasakwa's Equestrian Centre to lead guests on horseback excursions for up-close views of the Serengeti's wildlife. Guests with even more extreme designs can take mountainbikes out for a thrill.
Faru Faru River Lodge (www.singita.com/farufaru.html) is built on a gently sloping hill in the style of a classic East African safari camp yet modernly decorated to give nod to the animal research stations of the 1950s. Each guest suite features a giant glass wall overlooking waterholes and the Grumeti River, a spectacular open-plan design from which to view the great migration, if luck and timing converge during a guest's visit. The lodge features an airy dining room, a lounge, bar, shaded lawn, viewing decks and a heated pool. The spa features two therapy rooms, but many treatments can also be enjoyed in-suite.
In addition to game drives, professional guides lead walks from the lodge along the Grumeti River. Other activities include archery, lawn croquet and hot-air ballooning.
Sabora Plains Tented Camp (www.singita.com/sabora.html) is permanently situated on the rolling Serengeti plains. Herds of animals walk through it and if you're lucky, you'll see a cheetah bring down an impala in front of the tents.
Beautifully decorated in 1920s style, each of the six three-room tents offers more luxury than you would have found decades before—air conditioning, direct-dial phones, Wi-Fi Internet access and an outdoor shower. One of the tents has been reserved as a two-room spa for guests to get a massage after a day playing boule, tennis or archery. The camp's facilities include a dining room, lounge, heated plunge pool, Jacuzzi, Colonial Trading Post, laundry and valet services, a bar lounge (with satellite TV, DVD player and a library) and a covered viewing deck overlooking the Serengeti plains. Zanzibar
Grumeti River Lodge
Watching the annual migration cross the Grumeti River is the stuff of National Geographic documentaries, but to see firsthand thousands of herbivores stampede through crocodile-infested waters inspires awe and will no doubt provide travelers with a tale of a lifetime. At the far western edge of the Serengeti, it's as remote as it is special.
An unexpected sense of whimsy predominates Grumeti River Lodge (www.ccafrica.com), which makes you feel like you're in some fractured fairytale in the bush. Muted red clay and thatched walls provide a backdrop for the modern West African glass-and-beadwork decor that complement the textiles of electric oranges, sunburst yellows and royal purples adorning the furniture. An enormous headboard shaped into a crown will make all guests feel like royalty.
Court jesters are always on call at Grumeti River Camp. Just pull up a to a river view lunch table or dip in the pool for a front-row seat and watch the hippos practice their chorus of belches, yawns and grunts while others pop their lily-pad-wearing heads out of the water and practice their hippo ballet. The resident herbivore population ensures that predator viewing is consistent year-round and if you're lucky, you might even witness a late-night brawl between an elephant and a hippo right outside your tent.
Ngorongoro Crater Lodge
The Ngorongoro Crater, on the western edge of the Serengeti Plain in Northern Tanzania, was once a molten, spewing behemoth of a volcano larger than its neighbor, Mt. Kilimanjaro. Now, however, the 12-mile-wide, tree-rimmed sunken cone is the largest unbroken caldera in the world and forms a natural stadium where the largest permanent concentration of African game is on display.
It's no surprise that with such a natural theatrical spectacle there exists a lodge so grand, and the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge (www.ngorongoro-crater-lodge.com) is this theater's box seats. Don't expect propane lamps and green tents—here the theme is unconventional high drama, as if the pages of Swiss Family Robinson, Dangerous Liaisons and Snows of Kilimanjaro were sewn together and brought to life.
Each mud-thatch suite is a kaleidoscope of design, where crystal chandeliers hang over baroque bathtubs, chunky carved beds draped in silks look out onto the crater, gilt mirrors are suspended above stone fireplaces that swirl out of the walls while trees shoot up through the floor and burst out banana-leaf roofs.
The lodge can organize walks along the crater rim, game drives on the caldera floor, day trips to a local Masai village and excursions to the Olduvai Gorge (the cradle of mankind)...but to experience the world's best laundry service, be sure to leave your dirty clothes with the butler on your way out. They will be returned to you cleaned, wrapped in silk and tied with roses. You can get further details at www.ccafrica.com.
At 2,600 square kilometers, Tarangire is one of Tanzania's smaller national parks but loads of elephants, antelope herds and more than 550 bird species call the savanna plains, swamps and river home.
Nomad Tarangire Safari Camp (www.nomad-tarangire.com) is in the mid-southern part of the Tarangire National Park and is the place to go for open plains teeming with elephants. This small, eight-bed camp with a Bedouin theme provides a refuge from the searing heat of the day.
Spreading canvas and the twinkle of brass lanterns are what to expect here. Kilims and cushions tossed around the mess tent create a splendid place to hang out with a cup of chai. The bed tent interiors are particularly innovative: an outer layer of shade cloth and netting, with a further shade net covering the bed, allow guests to be outside and wake with the sunrise slowly creeping up over the grass plain, yet still be protected.
To book at all these lodges, contact Sandy Cunningham, safari specialist at Uncharted Outposts, who can provide custom travel for a more intimate experience (www.unchartedoutposts.com, 888-995-0909 or 505-795-7710).