In recent years, Rwanda has become an emerging destination for American travelers, thanks to its growing mountain gorilla population, classic savanna wildlife experiences, and quickly evolving capital city of Kigali. It’s also become a haven of world-class lodgings. Read on for our AFAR picks of the best luxury lodges for your next trip.
Volcanoes National Park
In the northwestern part of the country, Volcanoes National Park is home to more than a third of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas; it’s also the site of some of Rwanda’s most luxurious stays.
Singita Kwitonda Lodge
Best for: families and groups who want to stick together
Highlight: The exclusive-use, four-room Kataza House villa, which comes with its own private chef, butler, and experiences manager.
Book now: singita.com
The only thing better than cinematic views of Volcanoes National Park from your private villa? Enjoying those mist-shrouded peaks from a heated plunge pool next to a roaring fire. Leave it to Singita, a benchmark setter for luxury safari lodges, to find an unparalleled location for the company’s latest retreat. (As far as properties go, it’s the closest you can get to the national park.) The eight stand-alone rooms, with their soaring ceilings and picture windows facing the Sabinyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura volcanoes, take inspiration from the local landscape (volcanic stone walls; hand-fired terra-cotta brick) and pair it with an earthy palette of grays and greens.
The same aesthetic dominates the light-filled, indoor-outdoor dining room, where chef Alice Wilhelm works her magic with small plates that feel indulgent and healthy at the same time (Musanze mushroom risotto; ginger caramel chicken with avocado). Her husband, lodge sommelier and F&B manager James Burnham-King, ensures you’re pairing her dishes with the best wines on the African continent (a Stellenrust cab from South Africa’s Stellenbosch, maybe). And when you’re gazing out over the 178 acres of land next to the park, spotting the occasional buffalo (and on much rarer occasions, a gorilla), rest assured the terrain is being rehabilitated with a replanting project that will create an extension of gorilla habitat around the park.
One&Only Gorilla’s Nest
Best for: wellness buffs
Highlight: The resort features running paths, a state-of-the-art gym, and a serene spa with a heated swimming pool.
Book now: oneandonlyresorts.com
The calm, eucalyptus-shaded grounds of One&Only Gorilla’s Nest are a welcome respite from the bustling neighboring city of Musanze. The latest luxury lodge to open near Volcanoes National Park is a leafy, 35-acre oasis where 21 guest rooms—configured as one- or two-bedroom suites—sit along winding, landscaped pathways. Interiors are studies in natural wood and geometric Rwandan Imigongo designs; basket porch swings make for easy lounging on large larchwood terraces.
Between trips to Volcanoes National Park for mountain gorilla and golden monkey treks, travelers at the resort will find plenty of things to better acquaint them with Rwanda. Opt for a coffee tasting of locally grown, female-owned Question Coffee, maybe, or head over to the recently restored Jack Hanna House, the former residence of the famed Columbus Zoo and Aquarium zoologist known for introducing America to rare animal species on talk shows and TV programs. Guests can pass an afternoon at the cottage, which retains its original furnishings and wood floors, for a game of cards on Hanna’s veranda, or book the space for a private dinner of local Rwandan dishes.
Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge
Best for: adventurous travelers who like a room with a (bird’s- eye) view
Highlight: The soon-to-open Bisate Day Lounge, located on an adjacent hillside, lets guests check in early to shower, change, or grab a light meal or massage while in transit. Slated for early 2021.
Book now: wilderness-safaris.com
A winding volcanic stone staircase leads to the hillside Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge, but the 320-foot climb is worth every step: With its six individual villas, Bisate faces views of three volcanoes within Volcanoes National Park, and it is designed to mimic the thatched exteriors of the palace of a Rwandan king. The result is a futuristic-looking cluster of thatched cocoons embedded in the tree-lined hillside, with a sustainable twist: Get closer to the thatching, and you’ll notice it’s made of recycled plastic. Rwandan designer Teta Isibo of Inzuki Designs collaborated with Cape Town–based Artichoke Design on the locally inspired interiors; Rwandan textiles appear on pillows and upholstery; and cowhide rugs cover wooden floors. Showers are made of volcanic stone, and a wood-burning fireplace heats up the entire room to max coziness.
The lodge, set on a former agricultural plot across 106 acres, has undergone a multi-year indigenous tree-replanting project just next to the national park. Thanks to the reforestation, once-absent species such as the golden monkey, tree hyrax (a small mammal related to elephants), and side-striped jackal now roam the grounds. Guests can have a stake in the conservation experience, too: A sapling is planted for each visitor as a gift during their stay, and that visitor takes home the GPS coordinates of their tree so they can check on it once they’ve returned home.
Nyungwe Forest National Park
In the mountainous southwest corner of Rwanda, one of Africa’s oldest mountain rain forests is also one of the country’s most exciting emerging destinations.
One&Only Nyungwe House
Best for: seasoned safarigoers who want to visit less-explored ecosystems
Highlight: An hour-long helicopter ride from One&Only Nyungwe House’s private helipad offers guests a sweeping overhead view of the jungle.
Book now: oneandonlyresorts.com
When it opened in late 2018 on a working tea plantation next to the national park, One&Only Nyungwe House was the only luxury retreat in this less-discovered part of Rwanda. But that could change quickly, now that African Parks, a Johannesburg-based conservation NGO that works with governments on long-term, donor and tourism-funded park management agreements, is taking over the management of the Nyungwe Forest to improve wildlife conservation efforts and develop tourism. The goal is to showcase why Nyungwe—which supplies 70 percent of Rwanda’s water—is also a compelling destination for aficionados of the natural world. The terrain is filled with mahogany and ebony trees, swamps, and waterfalls, and it’s home to 13 species of primates, including the colobus monkey and the gray-cheeked mangabey. There’s plenty for the bird lovers, too: close to 300 bird species, such as great blue turacos and giant hornbills, inhabit the area.
The sprawling One&Only retreat, with its 22 one- and two-bedroom suites, is a destination unto itself. Geometric Imigongo designs cover interior walls with their dramatic, black-white-and-red color scheme; hand-woven decorative plates from local cooperative Indego Africa decorate the rooms; and king-size four-poster beds dominate the spacious bedrooms, all of which face the jungle through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Akagera National Park
A 3.5-hour drive outside of Kigali, Akagera National Park is just 433 square miles, but its turnaround story is monumental. After suffering heavy poaching and other extractive activities in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it now receives 36,000 visitors a year—half of which are Rwandan nationals. That’s because in 2010, African Parks took over the management of Rwanda’s only savanna park in partnership with the government-led Rwanda Development Board. The NGO has dramatically improved the park’s biodiversity (it’s now home once again to Africa’s iconic “Big Five” species, including the endangered eastern black rhinoceros), along with better infrastructure, strong law enforcement, and improved relationships with area communities.
Wilderness Safaris Magashi Camp
Best for: guests who want to get a close-up look at a successful wildlife conservation story
Pro tip: With rates starting at $540 (all inclusive) in the country’s lower “green” season, Magashi is great value for the kind of exclusivity and luxury you’re getting in East Africa.
Book now: wilderness-safaris.com
In 2019, Wilderness Safaris Magashi Camp debuted in the park’s wildlife-rich northeastern corner along scenic Lake Rwanyakazinga as the only luxury lodging. Magashi is also the only privately managed area in Akagera, which means that guests staying at this property have more than 16,000 acres to explore all by themselves. Magashi’s private concession status also allows for offroading, walking safaris, and even evening drives—all activities that are prohibited in the park. In the six spacious tents, which are fully solar powered, sisal rugs cover natural wood floors, and traditional basket weavings decorate stone-clad bathrooms. Each accommodation has its own deck facing the lake, which is teeming with hippos and crocodiles. When you’re not on a game drive checking out nearby lion prides or taking a spin on the retreat’s double-decker swamp cruiser, you can cool off and take in the magical surroundings at the lake-facing swimming pool.
Rwanda’s bustling capital, home to a new generation of creative entrepreneurs, is worth a couple of extra days on your itinerary.
Best for: culture and history buffs
Highlight: Heaven Tours runs outstanding cultural experiences out of the city–including one on Rwandan fashion and another that takes guests to the moving Nyamata Church Genocide Site. (Stay two nights at the Retreat, and you get a half-day cultural tour.)
Book now: heavenrwanda.com
San Francisco native Alissa Ruxin started out as a health professional, but that all changed when she arrived in Rwanda with her husband, Josh, in 2006. Her pivot to hospitality in 2008, when she opened Heaven Boutique Hotel and Heaven Restaurant, was part of a larger plan to bring more hospitality training and employment to the city at a time when Rwanda was beginning to emerge as a global tourism destination.
Two years ago, she opened her second hotel, the Retreat, which is now regarded as one of the city’s most sought-after boutique hotels—and likely even more so after the debut of eight enormous villa suites in January 2021. Each suite is slated to be massive (1,300 square feet) and will feature oak floors, high ceilings, mattresses made of organic materials, and outdoor showers; they’ll also have their own saltwater plunge pools heated by solar power. Part of the property upgrade included an expanded gym, a new three-room spa, and an outdoor fitness deck that hosts weekly yoga classes.
Coming Soon . . .
Gishwati-Mukura National Park lodging
The Gishwati Forest recently signed a 25-year contract with the Rwandan government to introduce luxury ecotourism in a multiphase plan for Gishwati-Mukura National Park, located in northwest Rwanda just a couple of hours’ drive from Volcanoes National Park. The conservation-minded company is collaborating with the Forest of Hope Association, an NGO that played a large role in preserving this park and its chimpanzee population. In the coming months, Forest of Hope Association plans to debut and manage two affordable accommodations, including a campsite for up to eight guests and a basic guesthouse for up to four guests.