The trip that is most like the one that the travel agents and tour operators went on would be the A&K Signature Tanzania trip, starting at $9,890 for 12 days. www.abercrombieandkent.com
Rates: Sanctuary Swala starts at $440 per person, per night; Sanctuary Kusini starts at $495 per person, per night. Both rates include all meals and some activities and exclude international air.
Note: While A&K owns Sanctuary Retreats, they do not operate exclusively with each other, although many Sanctuary properties are included in A&K itineraries. If, for example, clients book a trip with Micato, Ker & Downey or another tour operator, they can also stay at Sanctuary property.
Commission: 10 percent
Sanctuary Kusini // (c) 2010 Sanctuary Retreats
In her 20-plus years as a travel agent, Charlene Failla has been all over the world and visited almost every continent, sometimes several times over. Recently, she was invited on a fam trip for agents and tour operators sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent’s (A&K) Sanctuary Retreats. The destination: two luxury camps in Tanzania, Africa: Sanctuary Swala and Sanctuary Kusini.
As Failla told it, on about the fourth or fifth day, as she and her husband were relaxing in their tent at Sanctuary Swala, looking out over a nearby watering hole, she leaned over to him and said, “This blows Europe away.”
Small wonder. The Sanctuary properties in Africa, 12 in all including these two in Tanzania, are the last word in safari luxury, as their brochures keep reminding you. But it’s true: “Camping out” in a sanctuary means having your own dedicated butler, en-suite bathrooms and a private wooden veranda. It’s like having your own canvas condo.
And that’s just the beginning.
One morning before dawn at Sanctuary Kusini, Failla got up with the other seven travel agents on the trip and took a balloon ride above the Serengeti. As she recalled it, they skimmed low over the short-grass plains (“Serengeti means “sea of grass”) and, following a river below, spotted “literally hundreds of hippos.”
When they came down a short time later, the group was treated to a traditional sparkling wine toast followed by a bush breakfast.
“Here we were in the middle of nowhere having Mimosas and an American breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes, all served on fine china with tablecloths and silverware,” said Failla.
As for the hot-air balloon trip itself, she said simply: “I couldn’t send a client there without having them do it, too.”
Sanctuary Swala and Sanctuary Kusini, the two camps she visited on her trip, are in different locations in the northeast corner of Tanzania, although the amenities and A&K’s legendary attention to detail are on display at both, where staff often outnumber the guests.
In addition, the company is known for the quality of its guides, who are superior by any standard.
“Ninety percent of the reason to go is to see the animals,” said one member of the fam group, “but the guides made the trip. They can identify a bird or animal, but they also know the history of the entire ecosystem.”
Sanctuary Swala (swala is the Swahili word for “impala”), located in the Tarangire National Park, has recently undergone a $1.5 million renovation. It’s on the edge of a gently rolling savannah where clients can see some of the largest herds of elephants in Africa, which often appear red after dusting themselves with the dark red sandy clay found on the semi-arid plain.
According to Pamela Lassers, media relations director for A&K, Swala has a “Bedouin feel,” and everything at the camp is made locally or on site.
“A local man used banana fiber to make seat backs, chair and trays used at the camp,” Lassers said. “And there’s a phone booth that’s been carved out of a tree stump.”
Each of the 12 canvas “bush pavilions,” or tents, at Sanctuary Swala is raised on a platform and has been designed according to a spacious open plan with a large living area, king bed and en-suite bathroom with both indoor and outdoor showers.
Floor-to-ceiling canvas windows lead into large private lounge decks and overlook the main watering hole which regularly draws lions, leopards and bull elephants.
An infinity swimming pool has recently been added to the property.
In keeping with A&K’s commitment to the local community, Sanctuary Swala also helped build a primary school in the nearby town of Mamire, with the camp providing lunch every day for more than 600 students. Swala also donated a 500-gallon storage tank that provides clean water.
The property also prides itself on its sustainability, with no wood burned to heat water; solid waste sorted and removed from the site; and guest amenities that are fully biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
“We’re aiming for low-impact, sustainable tourism that conserves the habitat and protects wildlife,” said Lassers.
Sanctuary Kusini, located at a higher elevation, was built amid kopjes, or huge boulders, and it has often been described as having more of an old-school, Hemingway look. The tents are dark green, the furniture evoking a British campaign style (there are even some writing desks) and Oriental carpets covering the floor. Bush breakfasts and sundowners are served on the giant boulders surrounding the property.
The view of the plains below is spectacular: Zebra, Cape buffalo, lion and cheetah are a common sight year-round. And as part of the Serengeti Cheetah Project, guests are encouraged to send their photos of the big cats to experts who can identify the animals by their spots and track them for research purposes.
For those who don’t want to go out into the bush for a traditional “nighttime safari,” with spotlights used to see nocturnal animals, there is the so-called “cosmic safari,” which is star-gazing from atop a huge boulder using a green laser pointer. Pillows and drinks are provided by the staff.
This part of the Serengeti is also known as a wildebeest calving ground, where the animals come to give birth to their young from November to May.
For the travel agents and tour operators on the fam trip, the drive through the Ngorongoro Crater, known for its abundance of wildlife living closely together, was a highlight, although it was also a lesson in survival on the plain.
“We saw 20 lions trying to take down a Cape buffalo,” said Sanctuary’s Carla Tracy, who was on the trip. “Our guide said that it was a kind of training exercise for the cubs. They didn’t actually kill the buffalo. They were learning how to stalk it. They would attack and then back off. It was horrifying, but also incredible to watch.”
And all of this was seen from the safety of a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“It’s certainly not like camping out with the Boy Scouts,” said one happy traveler on the way back from Africa.