Destination Rwanda – Gorillas, wildlife, forests, gastronomy, culture, resorts and some really good coffee
Does the idea of exploring a rainforest appeal? What about mountainous regions with rare species and birds? Have other people’s tales of trekking expeditions to see endangered primates in far-flung places made you a little bit jealous? Well, Rwanda is the hottest destination on LuxuryBARED’s radar. Here’s how to do it in style.
Small in terms of size, Rwanda nevertheless packs a punch when it comes to adventures. These days the same is also true of creature comforts. Gone are the days of having to stay in second-rate lodgings – there are now new, ultra-luxury properties (all actively involved in biodiversity conservation efforts) in several of the country’s highly sought-after destinations. And while it’s good news for luxury travellers, it’s also great for the wildlife, as visitors focus attention on the issues and bring in much-needed revenue, which goes towards preserving the environment.
Home to a third of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas (there are about 880 in total, up from 620 in 1989) and many other unique primates, animals and birds, Rwanda offers guests a rare opportunity to observe these beauties in their glorious, natural habitat. The odds are good that you will come face to face with gorillas and clans of golden monkeys while you’re out on a trek. In Rwanda they are found solely on the slopes of Volcanoes National Park in the north-west of the country, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kigali’s city centre. Careful planning is necessary. Strict rules and restrictions apply, as do steep charges for a daily trekking permit – a good thing in reality as it keeps the experience not only real but also in line with the country’s conservation initiatives.
So that you can make the best of your trip, an ideal itinerary should be one of at least ten days to a fortnight. It could include three to four nights in the vicinity of Volcanoes National Park, and you will probably want to spend two to three nights near the Afromontane forests of Nyungwe National Park, famous for bird-watching and chimp trekking (although the chimps are elusive, so don’t get your hopes up). You’ll also need a chimpanzee trekking pass for the day. If you see one or two of them, great – otherwise the day spent in this beautiful rainforest with a competent guide will afford you sightings of a myriad other animals, plants and many rare birds.
Finally, don’t miss spending a day or two recuperating in Kigali on the way in or, better yet in terms of relaxation, on the way out. There are several markets and arts centres worth visiting, as well as the Genocide Memorial Centre and its beautiful gardens.
In addition to Kigali’s fascinating culture, history and vibrant arts and crafts, the city’s dining scene is booming. A combination of Belgian culinary influence, plenty of livestock, freshwater fish and ample fresh vegetables equates to some fine fare to be had. Brochettes are popular, usually in the form of grilled meats with banana, and since the Belgians were here until 1962 there’s plenty of French-style food on most menus – and a burger or two. There’s wonderful ice cream and pastries to enjoy, too, which can be savoured along with a great cup of locally grown coffee. The soil and temperatures here ensure that Rwanda produces some great java, although, oddly enough, the locals themselves aren’t particularly partial to a great cup of joe.
And don’t let the mention of Rwanda conjure up uncertainty and violent memories. In 2017 Rwanda ranked ninth on the list of the world’s safest twenty countries, sandwiched in between Switzerland and Qatar, and ahead of places one usually deems docile such as New Zealand and Sweden. And there’s another, possibly random but topically interesting statistic that might surprise and even entice you to visit. In research published by the World Economic Forum last year, out of 150 countries ranked in terms of gender equality, Rwanda came fourth, right up there with Iceland, Norway and Finland, in that order. Sweden, incidentally, came fifth.
And finally, if what Rwanda has to offer isn’t enough for a trip to this part of the world, a visit can be combined with a high-end safari or a visit to a wildlife sanctuary or jungle experience in Kenya or Uganda since visitors can apply online for an East Africa tourist visa (US$ 100), which covers a multiple-entry visa valid for travel to Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.
So polish your hiking boots and get planning. The best time to go for the driest weather is between June and August, which, by the way, is also optimal gorilla-trekking season. Here are our picks for top places to stay.
Volcanoes National Park: Bisate Lodge
With spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, Bisate Lodge’s spherical, thatched structure with six rooms offers guests a visit with a true sense of place. Designed to echo the thousands of hills in the Rwandan landscape, the lodge contributes to biodiversity conservation, is intensely nature-oriented and endeavours to make a positive impact on the mountain gorilla population living on and around the volcanoes. Numbers are estimated to be around 320 and they move around in one of the ten gorilla ‘families’ in the area. The lodge is a short drive away from the park headquarters, from where gorilla treks depart.
Also near Volcanoes: Singita Kwitonda, opening August 2019
For those in the know, Singita already offers exceptional safari experiences at lodges and camps in South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Now it is opening a luxurious property in Rwanda, bringing its expertise in preserving land, encouraging biodiversity and helping to nurture existing wildlife populations. Named after a much-loved silverback (male gorilla) who died in 2012, Kwitonda promises to be a welcome addition to Volcanoes.
Nyungwe Forest National Park: One&Only Nyungwe House
The drive from Kigali to the One&Only Nyungwe House, nestled in a tea plantation on the edge of the park, takes five hours. An easier way to get there is by helicopter, which only takes 30 minutes and offers spectacular views over the mountains, forests and rivers. You’ll see plenty of landscape close up if you decide to go trekking or bird-watching while you’re here. And if you don’t feel like exerting yourself too much, you could just opt to luxuriate in one of this beautiful property’s five wooden villas (four rooms each) and spa and enjoy its superb cuisine. Situated in south-western Rwanda, at the border with Burundi to the south and Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west, Nyungwe Forest is one of Africa’s bird-watching hotspots – and they just might come to your terrace to say hello.
Kigali: Retreat by Heaven
When you’re done trekking and exploring (after all, it is tough going), don’t leave without spending a few days in Kigali, where you’ll discover a fascinating, safe and vibrant city with some great restaurants, art galleries and a whole lot more.
Here you’ll find true luxury in terms of accommodation at Retreat by Heaven with its eleven rooms and sumptuous facilities such as its massage and spa treatments, meditation sessions, yoga, organic meals and private fitness classes. Then, and only then, should you think about heading home.
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