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The Sad Decline of The Norfolk, Nairobi

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Some hotels are so integral to a city's history and so bound into the fabric of its social and economic life that they become synonymous with their locations. The Norfolk in Nairobi is like that. Or at least it used to be.

The first of my dozen or so visits was in the early 1980s. As for countless thousands of others before and since, The Norfolk was my base camp for excursions to the teeming grasslands of the Masai Mara, the coral lagoons of the Kenya coast and the flamingo-dotted lakes of the Great Rift Valley. Each morning, the lobby would be crammed with absurdly handsome safari guides, surrounded by admiring throngs of khaki-clad travelers weighed down with cameras, binoculars and enough ancillary equipment to mount a major expedition to the Congo. And outside, a small herd of Land Rovers would be waiting, attended by a handful of dignified Masai warriors, leaning on their spears and robed in flaming scarlet. You felt that you were part of a tradition dating to the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who stayed at The Norfolk on his "African Safari and Scientific Expedition" in 1909-10, a hunting trip still considered the most lavish in Kenyan history.

In Roosevelt's day, The Norfolk was a new hotel, having opened five years before in 1904. Back then, Nairobi barely existed, having been founded in 1899 as a rail depot on the new line between the East African port city of Mombasa and Kisumu on the shore of Lake Victoria (a service promptly dubbed "The Lunatic Express"). A curious, mock-Tudor building with a large interior courtyard garden, it soon became a focal point for the whole of British East Africa, as well as the favored watering hole of the notorious Happy Valley set, a dissolute group of aristocratic settlers introduced to a wider audience by the 1987 movie "White Mischief," starring Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance. Their unofficial leader, Lord Delamere, apparently invented the term "white hunter" -- to better distinguish one of his European guides, Alan Black -- and on one occasion rode his horse into the dining room of The Norfolk and jumped it over the tables. But despite such antics, or perhaps because of them, he gave his name to the wonderful Lord Delamere Terrace, the social center of Nairobi for close to a century and one of the great lounge bars of the world.

In addition to the louche colonials, its original guests would have included the likes of Karen Blixen, author of the classic "Out of Africa," and the aviator Beryl Markham. In the '60s, the terrace became the favored haunt of the Hollywood "Mogambo" crowd, on their way to stay with William Holden at his Mount Kenya Safari Club. And then came the naturalists and wildlife filmmakers: Jane Goodall; Hugo van Lawick; Alan Root; and, of course, the Adamsons. Just about everyone pitched up at The Norfolk eventually.

By the time of my inaugural visit, the place had acquired a lustrous patina and possessed a style and atmosphere all its own. On a typical evening, I spied the great anthropologist Richard Leakey in earnest conversation with academics from Nairobi University (located just across the street), while three tables away, Andie MacDowell was being feted by the members of a Vogue fashion crew. And at the far end of the terrace, the soignée figure of Geoffrey Kent, founder of Abercrombie & Kent, could be seen entertaining a group of ladies whose safari shirts seemed to be augmented by improbable quantities of diamonds.

So much for the history. I returned to The Norfolk in July to find that in my absence it had been renamed "Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel." Hard to believe, I know, but true nonetheless. I immediately sensed something odd about the place, but having just arrived from New York via London, my powers of perception were not at their most acute. The lobby was cluttered with a chicane of suitcases, and most of the guests seemed to be glum Chinese businessmen clad in suits that clearly had not originated in Savile Row. But no matter. At that point, all I needed was a room and a shower; the tour of inspection could wait. The early check-in had of course been arranged far in advance, but the receptionist nonetheless treated me to a look of incredulity and withering disdain. There might be something available in "a couple of hours or so," she informed me, so why didn't I go and have breakfast on the terrace.

Not best pleased, I stumbled away, only to find that at 9 a.m., breakfast was effectively, if not officially, over. The buffet looked as though it had recently been vacated by a flock of vultures. There wasn't even any bread, and a passing waiter, who seemed insufficiently embarrassed, informed me that the kitchen had temporarily run out. I settled for an omelette, which arrived somberly decorated with black flakes of unidentifiable residue, scraped from the bottom of the frying pan.

It was only after a third cup of coffee that I began to take detailed note of my surroundings and discovered with unfolding horror that the terrace was now decorated in anodyne pastel colors and appointed with banal furniture, a combination that had all the charm and romance of a Midwestern Marriott. Here too, the guests seemed to be predominantly Chinese, a hapless crowd of exiled salarymen, their eyes seldom unglued from the ever-demanding screens of their BlackBerries.

It is probably unnecessary to dwell at length on the further inadequacies of my stay. I will note only that despite Fairmont's multimillion-dollar "refurbishment," the air-conditioning in my room was so noisy that it had to be turned off and the bottom of my virtually waterless shower was ringed by a sinister black mold. Also, it was impossible to sleep without first having tracked down and eliminated the room's squadrons of resident mosquitoes.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for The Norfolk's tragic demise is a realization by Fairmont that Nairobi is now such a dangerous and unpleasant city that the upscale leisure market has gone forever, leaving the place to the dam-builders and the timber merchants. Nairobi residents now routinely describe streets as "windows open" or "windows closed," in reference to the precautions required to frustrate a violent assault. And one driver also instructed me to keep a sharp lookout for solitary youths with mobile phones, who might be calling ahead to alert the men with guns about the approach of potential prey.

So where do you stay in Nairobi these days? Well, not downtown if you can avoid it. The best bet is the suburb of Karen (and yes, it is named after Ms. Blixen), where there are three or four boutique properties with pleasant gardens surrounded by reassuring festoons of razor wire. Having abandoned Fairmont The Norfolk, I tried Ngong House, owned by a Belgian ex-diplomat, but it was a little too alternative for my taste. Friends tell me that next time, I should settle for the nearby Giraffe Manor, a 1930s stone manor house where a herd of endangered Rothschild's Giraffe roams the surrounding estate. Now owned by the Carr-Hartley family, members of which have been involved in the Kenyan safari and wildlife business since 1910, it sounds like a pleasant alternative to Fairmont The Norfolk. And let's face it, there's not much any hotelier can do to mess up a giraffe.