Mara Serena Safari Lodge: Our full report
Located on Ol Donyo Oseiya hill, in the western ‘Mara Triangle’ sector of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, ...... the 74-room Mara Serena Safari Lodge is one of the oldest and largest properties in the Mara ecosystem. Dating from 1973, this substantial hotel is part of the international Serena Hotels group whose largest shareholder is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, and it has the full roster of hotel facilities.
Mara Serena is the main accommodation option (indeed one of the very few places to stay) in the 510km² Mara Triangle, the western sector of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. This area has for many years been run as a well-managed, exclusive sector of the reserve, with just two access gates (the Oloololo Gate in the north and the Purungat Bridge Gate in the south). With the steep Siria-Oloololo escarpment flanking its western edge, the Mara River forming its eastern boundary and the Tanzanian border running along the southwest, the Mara Triangle is considered the most secure sector of the national reserve and protects the majority of the Maasai Mara’s 30 or so black rhinos.
Mara Serena is one of eight Serena camps, lodges and hotels in Kenya, the other Serena location in Expert Africa's programme being Sweetwaters Serena Camp on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia.
Mara Serena is sited on a forested hilltop overlooking a broad bend in the river, 1km to the east. You approach the lodge up the hill from behind, from the Mara Triangle airstrip, and enter its central parking area, where there’s always a lot of coming and going and staff appear from the lobby to welcome you.
Walking down the steps into the atrium of the lobby reception area, huge French windows, opening onto a terrace with tables and chairs, offer an immense view across the meandering Mara River and the reserve beyond. The décor in the lobby – 70s kitsch meets modish Maasai – is all smooth curves, and yellow, ochre, brown and white paint in swirls and blobs. It’s an organic-looking style that is followed throughout the lodge, including up to the left, where the lobby is linked by a short staircase to the main bar and dining room. With chunky furniture, tiled flors and Maasai maiden wood carvings, the whole ensemble does feel rather dated. But the staff are helpful and the whole hotel functions professionally and to a consistently high standard, though is occasionally a littlefussy and over-attentive in the dining room.
The 74 guest rooms are accessed down steps and sloping paths to the east and northeast of the central areas, fringed by heavily planted borders and shaded beneath natural trees and giant euphorbias. They consist of rows of flat-topped, cell-like units with curved profiles, painted in earthy grey tones in emulation of the local Maasai architectural earth-and-cow-dung style. Mara Serena has quite a lot of steps and slopes to navigate, so if you have any mobility challenges, do request a room that is closer to the main areas and therefore higher up. In common with the other Serena hotels in Kenya, the very brightly decorated rooms here are small, with just enough room to walk around the twin, triple or king-size double beds. There’s a small seating area at the front of each room, with glass doors leading out to a tiny balcony, with just room to lean out over the wooden rails (views of the river are quite far off, the river itself being about 1km from the lodge). The beds have curtain-style floor-to-ceiling mosquito nets and facilities include tea- and coffee-making sets and room phones. The very small, ensuite bathrooms incoporate shower cubicles with plastic curtains, a single basin and mirror, and a flush toilet.
The principal activities at Mara Serena are game drives in the Mara Triangle. Our driver guide, although he didn’t have a Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association qualification, was a veteran Serena staff member, knew the area well and adhered to the Mara Triangle game-driving rules. The Triangle is largely open grassland with a limited number of well-maintainted dirt roads running through it. Off-road driving is allowed in the Low-Use Zone, in order to watch big cats. The High-Use Zone, which in pratice means the area to the west of the river, as far as the north-south road, is a High-Use Zone in which off-roading is not allowed.
On our afternoon drive, hyenas, giraffe, warthogs and zebra had been the subjects until suddenly the guide spotted something in the distance. It turned out to be a pair of courting black rhinos, out in the open, and much more interested in each other than their obesrvers. This is not an animal you expect to see in the Mara, and certainly not in the rough preamble to mating. The next morning we returned, after a night of heavy rain, to find the male had lost the female during the course of the night and was running backwards and forwards across the flooded and newly washed plains trying to pick up her scent.
For an aerial perspective, Serena has a balloon launch site close to the lodge (flights at dawn last an hour and cost roughly U$500 per person).
Serena has ten, seven-seater, pop-top Land Cruisers at their Mara lodge. These are reliable workhorses, but don’t boast any fancy fittings for photographers. The roof hatches work well enough, and you’re likely to use them quite ofen, as the drivers’ cabs are glassed in and the rear side-windows are roll-up making the overall visibility much less that is common at more bespoke small camps where the vehicles have often been customised for optimal game viewing. The competent driver-guides usually go out without spotters, so there is also an eighth passenger seat at the front. A proportion of visitors arrive from Nairobi by road in their own vehicles, so the 70–80 passenger seats available for fly-in guests is sufficient, but you should expect to share with a full complement of other guests, especially at busy times.
Back at the lodge, the pool (2.4m deep, unsupervised, open 6.30am to 6.30pm, no children under 12 without parental supervision) is a lovely spot to cool off during the hot hours. You can order drinks and snacks here.
With its dramatic location, commanding a view of the Mara River that provides, as Serena describes it “A Ringside Seat For The Greatest Show On Earth", the Mara Serena is a very popular and well-known base for Mara safaris. This is especially the case during the migration, when it can feel very busy and somewhat impersonal here. As expected, we found the driver-guides’ knowledge of the Triangle very proficient, the very small rooms comfortable and the meals reasonably good for a large, price-conscious lodge.
- Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
- Ideal length of stay
- 3–4 nights
- Five minutes drive from Serena airstrip.
- Accessible by
Food & drink
- Usual board basis
- Full Board
- Food quality
- Food at the Serena lodges is standard hotel fare, with at least a couple of choices, with buffets figuring prominently and various salads and standard options always available. During our stay, we started lunch with a chicken broth with hot rolls, followed by beef medallions, stir-fried vegetables and rice – all edible enough if not particularly tasty. There was a selection of quite nice puds from the buffet table, incluing a very good passion mousse, little cashew tartlets and fruit salad. Dinner started with a nice carrot soup, followed by an excellent chicken breast dish with spinach. Slices of birthday cake made for one of the guests were going the rounds as a dessert, although there were several other choices. Breakfast the next morning was slightly disappointing: the cafétière has yet to make an appearance at Mara Serena and they’re still filling tiny silver tea pots with dark, venemous coffee from an urn. Otherwise, a standard international-hotel-style breakfast buffet was on offer, with the usual rubbery scrambled egg and congealed bacon: much better to make use of the omelette and pancake man and order something fresh.
- Attitude towards children
- Children are welcome.
- Property’s age restrictions
- No age limit.
- Special activities & services
- Ayahs from housekeeping can look after small children while the rest of the family is out on game drives.
- Baby cots and high chairs are available.
- Generally recommended for children
- With its large, safe public areas, swimming pool and practical rooms, the lodge is quite straightforward for younger families and there are always children here in holiday time.
- Power supply notes
- No wind- or solar-generated electricity. There is constant hot water to the rooms and septic tank flush toilets. A bio digester is being planned, but meanwhile the septic tank is emptied and serviced every six months.
- All the major cellphone networks are available from three phone masts. The lodge’s free wifi is available throughout.
- TV & radio
- One room (the suite) has a TV, as does the conference common room.
- Water supply
- Water supply notes
- A treatment plant processes the water before it goes to the rooms. Water for tea-makers in the rooms is rebottled from 20-litre urns.
Health & safety
- Malarial protection recommended
- Medical care
- Serena employs a resident nurse. There are first-aid kits and trained members of staff in each department.
- Dangerous animals
- Moderate Risk
- Security measures
- Security guards are always on duty. The extensive lodge compound is surrounded by a discreet electric fence.
- Fire safety
- There is a fire extinguisher for every four rooms. Fire-training takes place every three months.
Hot air ballooning
- Disabled access
- Not Possible
- Laundry facilities
- Laundry costs extra, and there’s a laundry list in every room. Laundry is machine-washed and line-dried.
- There’s a central safe at reception for valuables. Foreign exchange is available, though rates are lower than at the banks.
- Accepted payment on location
- MasterCard, Visa and Amex are accepted without surcharge.
Other lodges in Maasai Mara National Reserve
Alternative places to stay in this same area.