In Nairobi, It's Chic to Head for the Hills

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The opening lines of Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa" -- "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills" -- are at odds with how most people imagine Nairobi today. But even during the crime-ridden 1990s (when the city earned the nickname "Nairobbery") and the recent post-election outbreak of violence, the leafy suburb of Karen has remained a scenic sanctuary from the rigors and perils of urban life.

Nairobi scenesters have long flocked to Karen for chic shopping, designer digs and some of the town's top tables. (The town grew out of the coffee plantation of Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.) A 20-minute cab ride transports you from the chaos and congestion of downtown to the hip haunts of diplobrats, expats and Kenyan sophisticates, where a few days of wining and dining are the perfect prelude to a safari.

To get a head start, walk (and sleep) on the wild side at the genteel Giraffe Manor (Langata Road, 011-254-20-891078, http://www.giraffemanor.com), which shares space with the Langata Giraffe Centre, a wildlife conservancy and sanctuary. The long-necked neighbors of the hotel often pop their heads through the dining room window during morning tea. Ivy-covered walls and period furniture are a throwback to the days of Lord Delamere. Double rooms in the six-room property are an aristocratic $655 per night.

Nearby Ngong House (60 Ndovo Rd., 011-254-20-891856, http://www.ngonghouse.com) boasts five stylish treehouses and a family-size cabin set on 10 acres of manicured grounds. Tribal cool meets rustic chic with hand-carved furniture, batiks, bronzes and colorful African fabrics. If you're not keen on dropping $600 for the night, pop in for dinner and try haute cuisine inspired by owner Paul Verleysen's Belgian roots. Set-price dinners include two starters, a main course, coffee and dessert for about $40.

Hipsters, pensioners and stroller-pushing parents mingle and make merry at Talisman (320 Ngong Rd.), which draws on Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern flavors. Try the feta and coriander samosas (around $7.50) before moving on to tender lamb kebabs ($12). Local art adorns the walls, and low couches are perfect for curling up and checking out the see-and-be-seen scene.

Few restaurants in Africa offer as memorable -- or kitschy -- a night out as the Carnivore (off Langata Road). The Karen standard made its name by grilling up gazelle, zebra, wildebeest and other safari favorites. Strict laws protecting Kenya's game have since limited the options; today, you'll have to settle for beef, goat, chicken and the occasional ostrich or croc. It's still great fun, though, as waiters in animal prints circle the floor with flame-grilled meat skewered on Masai swords. Fixed-price dinner is around $27.

The adjacent Simba Saloon packs onto its dance floor a boisterous mix of locals and out-of-towners -- perfect for working off that Carnivore carnage. The tunes are foreign and familiar: Expect to hear Congolese beats with the latest American chart-toppers. The scene is stylish but relaxed. Most people are too immersed in their own moves to worry about who's grinding with them.

Karen is far from compact, and you'll spend much of the night getting in and out of cars. It's worth taking a short cab ride to nearby Hurlingham, where flower-filled compounds hide some of the better eats around town. The Italian fare at Osteria del Chianti (corner of Lenana and Nyangumi roads) is served in a verdant yard strung with Christmas lights and surrounded by crackling fire pits. Wood-oven pizza is the specialty; a personal pie, glass of wine and dessert costs around $25.

Next door, Casablanca is one of the city's most popular stops after dark. Flirty singles sip colorful cocktails and puff hookahs while reclining on outdoor couches. On weekends, the place is crammed with night owls decked out in the latest designer duds. A pipe of strawberry-, lemon- or coffee-flavored shisha runs about $8; cocktails from $6.

By day, shoppers flock to the Junction (Ngong Road), the smartest of the area's malls, with a clutch of chic shops catering to European and African tastes. Zebu's leather wares are a favorite among the fashionable Karen set; shoes, belts and handbags feature beaded motifs by local designers. Kazuri has grown a grass-roots operation into a global brand, selling handmade ceramic jewelry and pottery made by women from nearby villages. A beaded necklace and matching bracelet cost around $22. The stylish glassware from Kitengela appears on some of the toniest tables around town. The Junction outpost is a good place to stock up -- a set of four cocktail glasses will set you back about $45 -- but the company's Karen workshop (011-254-72-522246, call for directions) makes for a quirky side trip. Across from Nairobi National Park, the store is decked out with surreal stained-glass sculptures and mosaic pathways, a touch of fairy-tale whimsy that, like Karen itself, provides a bit of urban escapism.

-- Christopher Vourlias

A cab ride from downtown to Karen costs about $15, depending on how well you haggle. Or take Bus No. 24 for about 50 cents, though it's a slow, bumpy ride. For more info: Kenya Tourist Board, 011-254-20-2711262, http://www.magicalkenya.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company