Contact us!





    Call us!
    • General Inquiries
      +1 (888) 398-6555
    • New York Office
      +1 (212) 398-6555
    • Los Angeles Office
      +1 (310) 730-0030
    • Miami Office
      +1 (305) 800-6555
    • Bogotá Office
      +57 1 616 4133
    • Madrid Office
      +34 919 01 25 55
    • Toronto Office
      +1 (416) 279-1900

    F1S SELECTS

    Why Now is a Great Time

    to Visit Africa

     

     

     

     

     

    F1RST Selects

    Why Now is a Great Time to Visit Africa

    F1S’s Director of Canada, Willa Griffin recently spent three weeks in Africa, where she went on a gorilla trek, stayed at some incredible properties, and was able to see iconic spots, like Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, without the crowds. Her trip was made possible thanks to &Beyond’s luxury lodges and camps, One & Only Gorilla’s Nest and Singita Kwitonda.   

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    When we talk about bucket list experiences, going on safari, seeing lions, cheetahs, and gorillas up close and personal certainly makes the cut. Which is why we couldn’t wait to talk to Willa Griffin, about her recent three-week trip to Africa, where she traveled to four countries and had some amazing stories to share. Here, she tells us about the latest safety protocols, the incredible properties where she stayed, and what happened when she met a family of gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

    F1S: You just came back from three weeks in Africa. What was it like to travel there right now? Were there any additional safety protocols in place?

    Willa Griffin: What is most overwhelming about traveling right now is all of the preparation prior to going away. You really need to be on top of the entry and exit requirements for every country as they can differ dramatically—but this is where a travel advisor can be a huge help. And once you get to the airport and your documents have been approved, your shoulders definitely start to relax. Within the airport and once on board the plane, Covid protocols are taken very seriously. Masks are mandated and proper mask-wearing is enforced. Knowing that everyone on board has had a negative Covid test within 72 hours is a comfort.

    Outside of all that, traveling right now is incredible. There are very few visitors and places that have traditionally been filled with tourists are almost empty. A perfect example: Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We were the only people viewing the falls. Imagine having Victoria Falls all to yourself when normally it is wall-to-wall people.

    On my particular trip, extra safety protocols were in place to ensure guests felt safe and comfortable at all times. All of the staff at the safari lodges are vaccinated, but they still wear masks diligently so as not to take any risks with guests. Guests have the flexibility to wear their masks if they like but are not mandated to, since most safari activities are outside.

    Willa Griffin at the &Beyond Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp.

    Willa Griffin at the &Beyond Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp.

    Wild life in Botswana

    Wild life in Botswana

    F1S: You visited Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Rwanda—what an amazing itinerary! Tell us a bit about your experience.

     

    WG: We started our journey in Zimbabwe, guided by our expert partners at &Beyond. We stayed one night at Old Drift Lodge, which is right on the banks of the Zambezi River. Hippos and crocodiles seem to find great solace on those banks, so definitely be careful near the water’s edge. The beauty of Old Drift Lodge is its close proximity to Victoria Falls, one of the seven greatest natural wonders of the world. The falls border both Botswana and Zambia.

    Next, we went to Botswana, where we made stops at Xaranna and Sandibe, both of which are &Beyond properties. First up was Xaranna, an intimate safari-tented lodge with only nine rooms in the Okavango Delta. Located on a seasonal lagoon, you can take part in land and water safaris. Seeing the “Big 5”— a leopard, lion, African bush elephant, black rhinoceros, and buffalo—is often done on your first game drive.

    Sandibe is also located in the Okavango Delta. This beautiful lodge is made entirely of wood, in a nod to the scales and curves of the almost-extinct pangolin. It is an architectural masterpiece that blends wonderfully within its environment. Game viewing here is out of this world.

    From there, we went to the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa. Phinda is a 28,622-hectare—some 70,000 acres—private game reserve that was once used as farming land but was reclaimed for wildlife by &Beyond. Cheetahs, rhinos, and pangolins are actively protected within Phinda and guests can get involved with these conservation initiatives. In fact, the reserve has a real conservation focus, which is fast becoming world-renowned.

    Phinda has multiple amazing properties to choose from, including Phinda Mountain, family-friendly and newly renovated; Phinda Rock, a 6-bedroom adults-only lodge that I refer to as “Flintstone chic”; Phinda Homestead, a fabulous 4-bedroom private home where the elephants literally come and drink from the pool; Phinda Vlei Lodge, which has 6 suites with an old-world plantation-style design that’s perfect for honeymooners and Phinda Forest, which is right in the middle of the ancient sand forest.

    F1S: Rwanda in particular is such a bucket list destination. What made this part of the trip stand out?

    WG: Rwanda, which was our last stop, is one of the most special countries I have ever visited. The people are so full of hope, forgiveness, and pride for their country. They have been through horrific times with the genocide in 1994, but this tragic time has not killed their spirit to live, forgive and focus on the optimistic future. They are proud of their beautiful country and all that it has to offer. Driving from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park, with lush mountainous scenery and thriving agriculture, is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever done.

    We checked into the stunning One & Only Gorillas Nest, which opened in 2019 just before Covid, making it basically brand new. The resort is absolutely magnificent, with three dining facilities, a wellness area, and e-bikes at your disposal to get around the expansive property. All of the herbs and vegetables are grown on the property and at one lunch, we had the absolute pleasure of having our meal in the garden. The service was truly top-notch.

    The 21 rooms are like private villas, all nestled within the expansive eucalyptus tree forest. Referred to as lodges, they are completely free-standing and all have beautiful terraces—perfect for your morning coffee or evening glass of champagne as you take in the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The flowers and fauna are so lush it feels like you are in a rainforest (or in a Jurassic Park movie set!) 

    Another thing I loved about the property is the connection to the past. The hotel has fully restored the original cottage of Jack Hanna, the famed wildlife expert who fell in love with the gorillas in Rwanda and their conservation. The walls are covered with photographs and memorabilia that reflect his great works. The cottage is made available for guests to enjoy a meal, relax in the library, and learn more about Rwanda’s conservation work or to use the game room.

    The spa and wellness building is also amazing. There is an infinity pool heated to 80 degrees so it can be enjoyed all year round and a great workout room, as well as steam, sauna, and massage rooms. Within the building, you also have fabulous dining. You can have a light snack or a meal accompanied by some organic wines—they were so good!

    Phinda Mountain Lodge, an &Beyond property.

    Phinda Mountain Lodge, an &Beyond property.

    Interior at Phinda Mountain Lodge, an &Beyond property.

    The arch at Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge, Botswana.

    Interior at Phinda Mountain Lodge, an &Beyond property.

    The arch at Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge, Botswana.

    F1S: Any must-do experiences you would recommend?

    WG: Gorilla trekking! We did this during one of our days at One & Only and permits are about $1,500. (If you can, I recommend doing it twice!) The night before your trek you meet with your guide for your gorilla briefing. That’s when you decide if you would like to do an easy, medium, or hard hike. We chose medium. The morning of the trek you meet in the lobby where the staff of One & Only gets you outfitted with hiking boots, gators, gloves, coats, and backpacks with food and water. You then head to Volcanoes National Park where you meet your guide and fellow trekkers. We were lucky that our group had only four people (the max is 6). There are approximately 22 families of gorillas scattered throughout Volcanoes National Park. Your guide will tell you which family you will visit. For our group, it was the Amahoro family, which means peace.

    Gorillas nest at night and then in the morning start to move to look for food. The trackers go ahead of the group to try and pinpoint their location. It’s not an exact science, but once a general location has been determined, the journey begins. Our trek was straight up the mountain and after about 1.5 hours we met with our trackers who had found our family. We had one last briefing, left our packs (there can’t be food near the gorillas for obvious reasons), left our hiking sticks (gorillas still associate sticks with poachers), and walked just a short distance to see our family. We came around the corner and there they were just going about their day, eating bamboo, playing, and relaxing. This family is large and has about 22 to 25 family members. There were two silverbacks in the group, some babies (including a very little one!), a few teenagers, and a few mothers.

    The experience literally took my breath away. To see these incredible creatures up close and personal in their natural habitat was beyond my wildest dreams. In the 1970s, there were only about 200 gorillas and now there are over 1,500. It was incredible to see how habituated they were with us. They see us as no threat at all. (The mothers, however, never take their eyes off of you.) The little ones are curious and come right up close. But so as not to upset the mothers or the silverbacks, our guide taught us how to make a low grunting noise to discourage the kids from coming too close. We had the privilege to spend a whole hour with them before heading back to the hotel.

    F1S: What advice do you have for others who might want to travel to Africa right now?

    WG: Just go! Travel is safe. These safari lodges are not messing around with Covid protocols and your safety as a guest is paramount. Tourism is their livelihood, so they do not take anything Covid related lightly. Plus, there are no crowds.

     

    F1S:  Anything else we should know?

    WG: Lastly, after checking out of One & Only Gorillas Nest we had one glorious night at the new Singita property, Kwitonda Lodge. Singita very much feels like a safari lodge. It is very intimate and casual but beautifully appointed and elegant—just what you would expect from the Singita brand. There are 8 stand-alone suites as well as a four-bedroom villa located within Volcanoes National Park, at the base of the Volcano. Due to its size, there is no spa, but massages can be done in the room (there is a permanent table set up in the very large expansive bathroom). The nature walks are amazing and all of their fruit and vegetables are also grown on the property. A great place to stay—and I’m glad we were able to end our trip there!

    Navigating a safari or a multi-country trip without the help of an advisor is hard enough—and has become even tougher post-Covid. That’s where we come in: We can tell you more about Willa’s trip, talk to you about what you’re looking for in yours and together, help you plan your perfect safari.

    F1S

    #F1RSTINSERVICETRAVEL

    You might also like...

    Take me to F1RST Selects Stories