Mara Sarova is a beautiful lodge to stay at, too bad the shoddy service and unkempt grounds negate the experience

One of the wonders of Kenya and the world is the Masai Mara Reserve, and each year tourists flock our airports to glimpse and experience this beautiful wildlife reserve. So when opportunity knocked to visit it with a few friends I dived in with an empty wallet but an exploratory spirit.

We chose to stay at Mara Sarova as the rates were fair and it is very well positioned (first reserve once you pass the gates). You get to enjoy the rolling plains around the Camp which is usually swarming with wildebeest, gazelles and zebras and the easy access to the nearby Masai village is an added bonus.

After a bumpy, dusty ride with minimal bathroom breaks we arrived at the Reserve gate with bladders on the border of bursting. However as soon as we entered The Sarova camp gates we were immediately welcomed by a Masai warior with a cold towel and a welcome drink (Don’t get me started on the commercialism irony).

My first impression of the hotel was awe and I was pleasantly surprised at the tasteful African touches here and there. When I found out that Virgin Atlantic’s Sir Richard Branson had stayed there I couldn’t wait for the most memorable stay of my life- If it was suitable for the most adventurous man alive it was definitely suitable for us.

Richard Branson's plaque

After being checked in swiftly we headed for our ‘tents’, which were more like rooms bordered by tents. The tents at Sarova are fully equipped with en suite bathrooms, beds, wardrobes, safari chairs on the deck, running hot & cold water and electricity. So you aren’t really roughing it out in the bush more like lapping in luxury.  We went for the Standard Tents that were comfortable and affordable but the view was undesirable as it looked out onto a stagnant water-body and tons of bushy trees.

gogeous bathrooms

Tents though were luxurious, with little touches like mosquito repellant and a hot water bottle to warm your bed in the evenings a welcome delight and despite no locks on the tents I always felt my belongings and I were safe.

Unfortunately I had gone there for some much needed rest which I never experienced thanks to the cankering of hammers and construction work going on directly behind our tent as the hotel was expanding. The staff did not bother to notify us of this and at 8am sharp the hullabaloo began. Even more annoying was that we could hear our neighbors at night if they so much as whimpered due to the proximity of neighboring tents and noise from pedestrian traffic and trolleys was beyond irritable at times especially in the mornings and afternoon when you were trying to take a nap.

Lighting outside tents on paths was inadequate at night and many a time I tripped and nearly broke an ankle. In all fairness I believe the reserve runs on generators so lighting has to be preserved but when you can barely see five steps ahead of you the procedure of walking to your room unaccompanied can be very daunting. However every now and then we would spot a wild deer and that made the dark trip worthwhile.

Buffet table

Unfortunately the food wasn’t the best. I understand fresh ingredients from the gardens are used to prepare dishes but in all honesty I felt dishes were rather bland, boring and wanting. I have tasted baby food that was more exciting and while chefs did try their best I wasn’t impressed by the variety. The live cooking counters at The Isokon Restaurant were meant to be a highlight but chefs seemed hassled and irritated when preparing your dishes. The Bush picnic hampers though were adequate when we chose to go away for the day and they more than made up for the lack of warmth received at the buffet.

Service tended to be average when it wasn’t less than adequate. The hotel was at full capacity so we never felt like treasured or special guests and while I understand staff were busy and frazzled, a smile or a polite nod or any example of Kenyan hospitality like a greeting would have been much appreciated. At points I felt like forgotten stepchildren especially at the dining areas. However room service was excellent and extra requests were always dealt with efficiently. With the numerous guests there we couldn’t eat whenever we wanted and usually had to wait for a table. We were never informed that we would have to wait to be seated or that we could book a table in advance until our last grumpy meal.

Nonetheless there are staff there who do try to make your stay worthwhile like the kind, polite doctor on duty for minor mishaps, the dessert and omelet chefs at the live stations who make up for the nonchalant service you receive from other staff.

The outdoor swimming pool and the Ewaso Pool Bar was a wonderful place to relax as well before and after game drives and in the evenings entertainment was usually provided like singers or Masai warriors performing their signature jumps.

In the end Mara Sarova does not live up to neither its’ high brand expectation nor its potential but with improved service and cuisine it might just be able to save itself.

FACTS:

Distance: 260 kms from Nairobi.

By road: 5 and a half hours from Nairobi

By air: 40 minutes from Nairobi, transfer from airstrip to lodge takes 20 minutes.

Rates: Through Big foot safaris, Mara Sarova cost us 19000/-Per Person for travel, game drives and full board for two nights and three days.

 

Published in The Star: Friday 4th February 2011.

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