A new nonstop flight between NYC and Nairobi means the wonders of East Africa are within reach as never before.
The first nonstop flight between the United States and East Africa launched on October 28, courtesy of Kenya Airways’s new route between New York City’s JFK and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a 15-hour gate-to-gate journey, and a Nairobi landing puts you in a prime position for exploring Kenya—and the rest of East Africa, too (via connecting flights or ground transfers). Here are eight excellent things you can do in the region.
1. Take a spectacular hike up African peaks
Fly into Nairobi and it’s just a 60-minute hop on a flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport for Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak (set in northern Tanzania). At 19,340 feet high, “Kili” is a challenging climb, but with the right amount of training, it’s accessible to almost anyone—there’s no need for rope or technical climbing skills here. The lower rain forests teem with wildlife, including eland and leopards, and as you climb higher, the upper slopes are reminiscent of lunar landscapes and are often blanketed in snow. Alternatively, there’s excellent trekking up Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak (and a four-hour drive from Nairobi).
The biggest draw for travelers to this part of the world is the wildlife. Kenya is famous for its bounty of big game: Here you can live out all your Lion King dreams on safari in Maasai Mara National Reserve, where you’re likely to spot cheetahs, lions, elephants, giraffes, wildebeests, buffalo, and more.
Hire a vehicle in Nairobi for the roughly six-hour drive down to one of the tented camps on the fringes of the reserve—the Porini Lion Camp is an excellent eco-friendly option, where you can spend your mornings seeking out giraffes or elephants and evenings on the trail of the big cats such as lions and leopards. You might also take bushwalks with Maasai guides, enjoy sundowners overlooking the grassy plains, or picnic by the Mara River.
There’s no peak wildlife season here—it’s plentiful year-round—but the spectacular annual migration, in which millions of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles travel en masse across the Maasai Mara (and in the Serengeti, further south), takes place between May and June.
If you want to stay near Nairobi, but still experience a bit of Kenya’s wild side, look no further than Giraffe Manor, situated in the Karen suburbs, southwest of the city center. This beautiful 1930s home turned luxury hotel pairs plush guest rooms with four-poster beds and antique furnishings with a wildlife sanctuary where endangered Rothschild giraffes roam freely day and night.
You can join them in the gardens for a stroll, or simply watch them lumber along, extending their necks to nibble leaves on the trees, from the front terrace. Don’t be surprised to see them poke their heads through the windows come breakfast time—they’ve grown accustomed to being fed by guests who can’t resist their probing blue tongues.
With a lengthy coastline lapped by warm Indian Ocean waves, Kenya makes for an idyllic beach break. Diani Beach, situated east of Nairobi and south of Mombasa, is one of the country’s finest stretches, with its silvery sand and astonishingly clear waters. Get here on the shiny new express train from Nairobi to Mombasa (in approximately five hours), then hop in a taxi for the hour-long ride further on.
On a snorkeling excursion, you’ll spot colorful fish and sea turtles, while just beyond the beach, you’ll meet the infamously cheeky colobus monkeys that, if you’re not paying attention, will challenge you for your lunch.
Alternatively, fly just 90 minutes from Nairobi to the blissful island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. The stuff of beachy dreams, there’s powder-white sand, luxury resorts galore, and very little distraction to ensure the ultimate in R&R.
Heading north to Ethiopia—by plane or, for the more intrepid, by road—promises a delicious adventure; it’s a two-hour flight from Nairobi into the capital, Addis Ababa. At any restaurant here (try Habesha 2000 or Dashen) you can sample the staple food of injera—a kind of sourdough flatbread that also forms the plate for your meal—served with myriad stews and sauces on top. It’s customary to share one huge injera served on a mesob (a traditional woven basket) among a group of friends or family, with each diner tearing off chunks of the pancake to mop up the spicy stews in the middle—no forks needed.
And don’t miss a trip to a sega bet (meat shop)—Yilma is one superb option—where expert butchers serve up cubes of high-quality raw (tire sega) or grilled (tibs) beef for dipping in Ethiopian spices. Friday nights at the sega bet are often more like a party than a butcher shop, as locals sit outside on plastic tables and chairs drinking the local beer (tella) and tucking into their favorite dishes.
6. Party late into the night in Addis Ababa
Ethiopia’s enormous capital knows how to party. Sure, its size can make it feel intimidating for some visitors: It’s big, busy, and not exactly easy to navigate. But stick around and you’ll be greatly rewarded for your perseverance.
Addis, as the locals call it, has some of the country’s finest restaurants, popular coffee shops (Tomoca has been open since 1953), and a heady nightlife scene focused around jazz clubs serving the potent local tipple, tej, which is made from fermented honey. Music hot spots to seek out include Fendika Azmari Bet, Mama’s Kitchen, and African Jazz Village, where regular live music entertains Ethiopians young and old, and the latest stars are born.
The small, hilly town of Lalibela, Ethiopia (accessible via a two-hour flight from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, with a further hour-long flight connection on to Lalibela), has a population of just 17,000 for most of the year, but come January 7, 2019, this number will soar as hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and international visitors pour in for the annual Orthodox Christmas celebrations.
The center of the festivities is the 11, medieval, rock-hewn churches—huge cube-like caverns that sit below ground, carved out of the red stone that characterizes the landscape. Thousands gather, all dressed in white, around the rims, caves, crevices, and staircases surrounding the holy buildings to join in a lengthy 12-hour mass. If you can’t come for Christmas, a visit at any time of year will enthrall—these truly are a man-made wonder.
8. Visit one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places on Earth
Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression isn’t a hospitable place. In fact, it’s one of the world’s most hostile environments, with an average annual temperature of almost 94 degrees, highs of 122 degrees in the summer months, and just 4 to 8 inches of rainfall each year.
Yet there’s something mesmerizing about its shimmering salt pans and multicolored boiling hot springs that are tinged yellow, orange, and red thanks to the minerals that bubble up from beneath the surface.
An organized overnight camping expedition is the best way to visit (you can catch one from Addis Ababa); most include a hike around the rim of one of the area’s active volcanoes to see boiling pools of red-hot lava and a visit to the striking hydrothermal fields.