Kutazama's outstanding location and double-tier pool make it unique in Kenya.
Kutazama: Our full report
Perched on a steep scarp above the Manolo River, in the Shimba Hills, a 45-minute drive from the coast south of Mombasa, Kutazama is an exclusive boutique lodge with just two suites. The lodge is the long-term project of British owners and hosts Gill and Garry Richardson, veterans of long careers in Africa, who live here permanently, with their six dogs.
The Richardsons found this breathtaking spot in the hills (Kutazama means ‘Look’ in Swahili) in the 1990s, and came up here to camp at weekends. They acquired the land and started building a house, which they have gradually enlarged over the years. Other people have also built properties along this beautiful, west-facing escarpment – locally dubbed ‘Champagne Ridge’ for being a favoured location for the second homes of some of the richest people in Kenya. The whole area, however, is entirely rural and low-key – outside the Kutazama property, on the coconut palm-lined access road from Kwale, the nearest town to the lodge, there are no signs to even indicate it is here – and the land around is still farmed by the Digo, Giriama and Duruma tribes of the coastal Mijikenda peoples.
At a height of more than 400m above sea level, the Shimba Hills are refreshingly cool compared with the often sticky coast. A huge variety of bird and insect life, including some spectacular butterflies, fills the air and flits through the riot of flowering vegetation around the lodge (the owners are proud of the fact that they only had to cut down one tree in the construction process). Look out across the jungle from any part of Kutazama and you’ll often see elephants, large herds of which are denizens of the Mwaluganje Sanctuary, which borders the lodge to the west. At night, bushbabies and bats entertain guests in the main lounge.
The dogs – three Jack Russells (Milly, Monty and Ziggy), two Rhodesian ridgebacks (Jade and Amber) and one dobermann (Kaya) – like to say hello, but mostly keep themselves to themselves. If we have one reservation about Kutazama, it would be that with six dogs on a small site like this, you have to be at least tolerant of man’s best friend. We thought the furry crew were delightful: we’re just saying.
The central areas at Kutazama consist of the split-level open-air terrace/lounge/dining area – with the kitchen and bar – under soaring makuti roofs, and Garry Richardson’s fascinating ‘collection room’, where a huge tongue of natural escarpment rock seems to emerge from the wall to provide a rugged display area for a wealth of African artefacts. Many guests have spent long sessions, over a few drinks, in this beautiful room, hearing the stories of where the many masks, statues and musical instruments came from.
Perhaps the most outstanding and memorable feature of Kutazama is the spectacular, double-level infinity pool. Big enough to do lengths, but perfect for simply relaxing on a pool stool and staring at the landscape, this is set beneath a towering, vegetation-draped cliff-face that is a wall of colour when the wisteria-like purple wreath flowers are out. Their blooming depends on rainfall, so it’s tricky to say exactly when the spectacle will occur.
There are just two suites at Kutazama – the Frangipani Suite, which opened in 2007, and the more expensive Orchid Treehouse Villa, which opened in 2008. They are both doubles, with extra beds possible. The floors are tiled throughout, and laid with rugs, and there are french windows, carved doors, pretty wall hangings and a wealth of detail everywhere, reflecting the owners’ love of Kenya and the other countries they have lived and worked in. Both suites have their own butlers, ready to supply drinks or snacks, or help you in any way, and summoned by walkie-talkie. Although Kutazama is funky and idiosyncratic, it is never rustic or unfinished.
Frangipani is directly south of the main dining/lounge and kitchen area and consists of a private lounge, a private sunbathing patio and spa pool sheltered by a frangipani tree, a large bedroom with a four-poster bed with full-length mosquito net, and a bathroom with twin basins, shower and bidet.
Orchid Treehouse Villa is further south along the ridge, just beyond the swimming pool that comes between the two suites. As it’s at the end of the property, Orchid Treehouse is extremely secluded and perfect for honeymooners. The name refers to the Orchid Tree that grows over the villa, which is not a treehouse. It is, however, on two levels, with the bedroom downstairs, where the bed is framed by a huge, split tree trunk set into the rear wall, together with the spa pool terrace and a double shower, complete with giant boulder protruding through the tiling from the cliff face. The bathroom, partly open on its panorama side, is similarly enhanced by natural rock sloping down its rear wall. Upstairs, Orchid Treehouse has a lounge terrace with a superb, 270-degree panorama, and its own kitchen for private dining.
Both bedrooms are doubles. They can put an extra (single) bed in each of the bedrooms although in the Orchid Villa this would make it a bit cramped. Alternatively they can put an extra four-poster double bed in the lounge of either villa – not ideal, but a solution if twin sleeping arrangements are required.
The reason most people want a couple of days at Kutazama is to do absolutely nothing (often after being on safari for a week), but there are some very appealing activities if you have the energy. Guests are encouraged to go on an early morning walk with Garry, who has a gun licence and carries a shot gun with high powered cartridges for guest protection. Garry has done the walk more than 300 times and has never even shot in the air to scare off elephants, despite having had some very near contacts. Such encounters are rare except in the dry season, when the preferred grazing on sweet elephant grass is not available and the elephants are forced back into the forests and thick bush to browse on trees and bushes.
You go into the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary and through a protected forest to the hidden Chitsanze waterfall, where there’s a small kaya or Mijikenda sacred grove, Kaya Chitsanze. It’s a good natural-history experience and benefits greatly from Garry’s wealth of knowledge about local fauna and flora. Other activities include game drives in Shimba Hills National Park, and trips to Diani Beach.
Our viewWe haven’t stayed at Kutazama (with only two suites, it’s often full), but we have visited, twice, in 2012. Each time, we’ve been wowed by the location, the beauty of the setting and landscaping, the stunning, panoramic views from the knock-out pool, and the enthusiastic and engaging welcome from the owners. Meals here are reputed to be outstanding, so we think Kutazama is perfect as a final treat after a few days in a beach hotel, especially if you like dogs.
Ideal length of stay: We’d suggest 3 nights (following 4 nights on the beach and a week’s safari).
Directions: Kutazama is a 1hr transfer from Diani Beach/Ukunda airport. If you're transferring to or from from Mombasa, the Likoni ferry crossing, linking Mombasa Island with the south coast mainland, can sometimes add significantly to journey times, especially at rush hours. For Mombasa airport, allow two and a half hours.
Owner: Gill and Garry Richardson
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: Although no-one from the Expert Africa team has yet sampled the food at Kutazama, the lodge is famous for its cuisine and outstanding presentation.
A suggested menu is put together every day with a choice of courses. Chefs ask guests early in the day to look at various ideas. They always have:
Lobster royale or ginger crab
Duck (Christmas and New Year speciality)
Dining style: Individual Tables
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: All included, except champagne.
Attitude towards children: Kutazama would ‘strongly discourage under 12s’.
Property’s age restrictions: None, as such, but under 12s only with firm parental supervision
Special activities & services: No
Generally recommended for children: This is an expensive, quite sophisticated boutique lodge where there are only ever two parties of guests – usually two couples – plus the owner-hosts. It’s not a place for noisy children, and while the whole set-up is informal and fun-loving, that’s in the context of peaceful relaxation, and an appreciation of the natural environment being at the top of the agenda. Without a real interest in natural history, younger teens would quickly get bored here.
Communications: Cellphone reception is good (especially Safaricom; Airtel not bad). No WiFi – yet. Each guest party has a two-way radio for ordering drinks or asking for anything at all.
TV & radio: None
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: First-aid kit, with snake anti venom. Guests are all covered by public liability insurance. Kwale District Hospital (10 mins) is one of the best on the coast. Also available: Palm Beach and Diani Beach hospitals (less than 1hr).
Dangerous animals: High Risk
Security measures: The whole property is open-plan and most doors don’t lock. Security doesn’t seem to be an issue, though there is a guarded gate – and the entire property is electric-fenced but only for elephants. There are quite a few dogs around but no askaris, day or night. There are no signs about the property on the access road, and few guests, so the local awareness of the property is fairly low.
Fire safety: Fire extinguishers in public areas and in Orchid Tree Villa. There has been no staff training. Guests would assemble at the pool area (or in the pool if necessary).
Disabled access: Not Possible
Laundry facilities: Full Laundry Service - Included
Money: Safes in villas, big enough for small items.
Accepted payment on location: Cash only: US$, € euros, £ sterling or Kenya shillings. But rarely, if ever, needed.