In writing of my travels, only two hotels, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Norfolk in Nairobi, have irresistibly attracted me to such an extent that I stayed longer in them than I should and written more about them than I originally intended.
The remarkable luxuries and peculiar history of these hotels will have little consequence to hardened travelers. People of a jaded disposition will resume their journeys through the Orient and Africa untouched and none the wiser. It is too bad they did not linger for lunch in the lobby of the Peninsula or on the terrace of the Norfolk. Even the most travel-hardened has to be impressed with what can be seen and heard here.Over the years, the Norfolk's verandah alone has served lunch to such illuminati as Teddy Roosevelt, Karen Blixen, General Baden-Powell, Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Delamere, Lord Astor, Richard Leakey, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark, Elspeth Huxley and Beryl Markham.
From his book, "African Camp Fires," published in 1914, Stewart Edward White describes what he observed on the Norfolk verandah during his first visit to Nairobi. "Here gather men from all parts of East Africa, from Uganda, and the Jungles of the Upper Congo. At one time or another, all the famous hunters drop into the verandah's canvas chairs - Cunninghame, Alan Black, Judd, Outram, Hoey and the others; white traders with the natives of distant lands; owners of farms experimenting bravely on a greater or lesser scale in a land whose difficulties are just beginning to be understood; great naturalists and scientists from the governments of the earth, eager to observe and collect this interesting and teeming fauna; sportsmen just out and full of interest, or just returned and modestly important. More absorbing conversation can be listened to on this verandah than in any other place in the world. The gathering is cosmopolitan; it is representative of the most active of every social, political and racial element; it has done things; it contemplates vital problems from the vantage point of experience. The talk veers from pole to pole - and returns always to lions.
"Pioneers in natural history - which, at the turn of the century, was sometimes an excuse to shoot 30 rhinos in a day to examine what they had been eating - declared the Norfolk their club. In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt stayed here as he assembled what was then (and probably remains) the largest of all safaris. From the verandah where pink gins were, then as now, served without ice, the ex-President watched his 500 porters draw up. Each was clad in a regulation blue jersey. Most were barefoot, preferring to preserve the smart new boots Roosevelt had just presented by adding them to their loads. And those loads, which weighed 60 pounds apiece, ranged from collapsible baths to cases of Champagne."
A more recent writer from England, John Hemingway, penned these lines about the Norfolk terrace. "On this verandah time has no value, history blends with the future, the old faces and the past live on in the present, and Africa meets in it a sometimes reckless, sometimes insouciant, pursuit of new values."
One of the most obvious new values in Kenya today is the preservation of wildlife. Where in the past the Norfolk served as the staging area for all of the important hunting safaris in East Africa, no such permits are now issued. In a new world of conservationist sensibilities, only photographic safaris depart these days from the front of the Norfolk.
A good deal of the history of Nairobi has been tied to this hotel. Only three dozen settlers were living in tents and small corrugated tin-roof shacks when the Norfolk opened for business in 1904. With the exception of two days in 1981, the hotel has been open for business continuously since then.
The man who built the hotel, a Major C.G.R., Ringer, had small hand bills printed about the new hotel. They proclaimed the property was "stone built - tiled roof: the fashionable rendezvous of the Highlands . . . Hot and cold baths and Billiard Room. French chef, late of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York."
It should be noted that the French chef was later fired for his incompetence. It was true he had worked at the Waldorf, but in the laundry, not the kitchen.