MAY 2015 – Combining old-world opulence with a memorable wilderness experience, Stanley & Livingstone offers a tranquil oasis a short drive from the thundering Victoria Falls. An intimate lodge with just 16 luxury suites, it has established itself as one of the most charming boutique properties in this dramatic corner of Africa.
Henry Morton Stanley would certainly have approved. As would David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer whose body now rests in the hallowed halls of Westminster Abbey.
Had these two giants of African exploration been tramping across the continent in the 21st century they would no doubt have chosen the lodge that bears their name to throw down their dusty duffel bags and hang up their pith helmets. They’d have settled into the comfortable armchairs, called for a G&T, and traded tales of their adventures across Africa.
Today, 150 years after Stanley and Livingstone made their mark on the world, this idyllic boutique lodge provides a home from home for modern-day adventurers soaking up the sights and sounds of this colourful continent. And, unlike so many mainstream properties in the area, this intimate lodge favours wilderness over water in a unique offering combining the best of both worlds.
Situated a short drive from the majestic Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi River, the lodge is located in a 2 400-hectare private game reserve bordering the larger Zambezi National Park. Home to all of the celebrated Big Five, giraffe, antelope and elephant wander freely here and a spacious terrace overlooking the lodge’s waterhole brings the wilderness right to your doorstep.
But step inside the front door and the heat and dust of the African bushveld quickly evaporate. In the heart of this remarkable wilderness area the lodge offers a serene colonial-style escape evoking the sumptuous comfort of the Victorian era. Wood-panelled walls and a deep mahogany desk greet travellers, along with a broad smile from the ever-helpful staff. Sketched portraits of the legendary explorers will catch your eye here too, as will the original Africana and colonial-era artworks that line the walls leading through the lodge, immediately bringing the region’s rich history of African exploration to life.
In the main lounge, deep armchairs beneath the soaring thatch roof give on to a roaring hearth perfect for warding off the chill of a winter’s night. Bookcases are piled high with tales of African explorers, while wildlife guides encourage you to plan your next day’s bush adventures.
Statues of the lodge’s namesakes guard the stairway leading down to the intimate bar, where pre-dinner cocktails offer an opportunity to meet fellow travellers and forge friendships. Perhaps live out your own “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” moment? Gin and tonics are de rigeur here, and best enjoyed on the spacious terrace, watching the golden sun sink beneath distant acacia trees.
With the lanterns lit, dinner in the elegant dining room is a sensual affair. Expect white linen napery and crystal glasses, discreet service and superb haute cuisine prepared by talented local chefs. The lodge also boasts a substantial wine cellar, with guests encouraged to browse the collection of fine South African and European wines on offer.
All of which will leave you dreaming of a good night’s sleep, and the suites at Stanley & Livingstone are a haven of rest and relaxation. With just 16 suites scattered through the gardens, Stanley & Livingstone is an intimate lodge, a place where guests become friends and the staff greet you by name. This personal touch and attention to detail is evident in each of the luxurious guest spaces.
The spacious master bedrooms offer lavish furnishings and elegant colonial-style décor; think four-poster beds with rich organza drapes, plush carpets and vintage artworks. The bathrooms are done up in a similarly classic fashion, boasting Victorian baths and timeless décor. Private patios look out over the lodge’s lush formal gardens, a perfect contrast to the untamed wilderness lying steps from the manicured lawns.
While the feel of each suite evokes the grand days of travel, a colonial era of fine living in dramatic surroundings, there’s no shortage of modern comforts. Satellite television, air-conditioning and complimentary Wi-Fi come standard. And, for guests seeking an additional layer of exclusivity, the nearby Ursula’s Camp offers a private retreat for up to eight guests in four immaculate chalets.
Comfortable though they may be, it’s a rare guest that doesn’t relish the chance to wake before dawn and leave their suite to explore the private reserve. Twice-daily game drives traverse the property, where Big Five sightings are commonplace and skilled rangers bring the bushveld to life.
For a close-up look at this remarkable landscape, walking safaris are also offered, adding a frisson of excitement to the experience of exploring the African wilderness. With an armed ranger leading the way, and your senses alert to animals that could be hiding behind every bush, there are few better ways to imagine yourself as Stanley or Livingstone setting off into the great unknown. The reserve is also home to a healthy population of endangered black rhino, and specialised rhino-tracking safaris are a highlight for many guests eager for a glimpse of this highly endangered species.
The Big Five and plentiful large antelope are certainly the star attraction on the reserve, but they are not the only show in town: the reserve is a paradise for twitchers, with a wide variety of endemic and migratory species to be found on the extensive bird list. Fishing excursions to cast a line for the Zambezi’s legendary Tiger Fish are also easily arranged.
For while you’ll be tempted to spend all of your waking hours exploring the private reserve or luxuriating in the comforts of the lodge, the immediate area also begs to be explored.
Unsurprisingly the prime attraction is the Victoria Falls. Livingstone named them for his queen, while locally they are known simply as Mosi-oa-tunya: ‘the smoke that thunders’.
Whatever you choose to call them, you’ll be hard-pressed not to agree with Livingstone’s appraisal, when he first chanced upon the Falls in November 1855, that “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”.
In summer, when the Zambezi is in full flood, the view is breathtaking as the rains that fell thousands of kilometres away in the Angolan highlands plummet down into the Batoka Gorge, showering the surrounding rainforest in a mist of water. In the dry months of winter, when the Zambian side is reduced to a mere trickle, the forested cliffs of the Zimbabwean portion of the Falls remain captivating, a cascade of rivulets and waterfalls making their way inexorably towards the Indian Ocean.
Once you’ve admired the Falls there’s no shortage of diversions: all of that water funnelling into the gorge ensures the Zambezi offers some of the most spectacular white-water rafting on the planet, while above the Falls the placid Zambezi is best explored by canoe – for the adventurous – or on a sunset cruise. Whatever your adrenalin levels, the helpful staff at the lodge are only too happy to help.
Or, you could simply tick the Falls off your list and retreat to the stylish confines of this immaculate boutique hotel. Pull up a lounger alongside the sparkling pool and order a cocktail, or find a quiet corner and soak up the stillness of the reserve.
Rest and rejuvenation, or the thrill of experiencing the African bush just minutes from the continent’s greatest natural attraction? It’s sure to be a tough choice, but if you find yourself torn between adventure and absolute relaxation, just ask yourself… what would Stanley or Livingstone have done?