Ngorongoro Crater Lodge: Africa’s Amazing Hobbit Shire

Outside our room at Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

Where’s the best placed you’ve ever stayed?

Here, I’ll give you a minute to think…and then I’ll top it.

The best place we’ve ever stayed is northwest Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, an African fantasy with a flourish of chandeliers and zebras to mow the lawn. Since I left it seven months ago, I’ve thought about it every single day.

My 40th birthday trip to Africa was inspired by a longtime fascination with the continent, but our journey to Tanzania was specifically inspired by my friend Erika’s visit to the Ngorongoro (pronounced Goron-GOR-o) Crater Lodge. The Lodge has one the world’s most unique designs, and just happens to look out over the 21-mile wide Ngorongoro Crater, one of the world’s oldest geological features and home to a stunning lake and thousands of wild animals.

At the time, I’d already been thinking of booking our Botswana safari with &Beyond Africa, which turns out to also own the Lodge. It all felt simple, fated and happy. I mean, sure, getting from Xudum, our last safari lodge in Botswana to the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania required five flights in three countries and a long layover in Johannesburg, but even after 30 hours of travel, the journey felt truly worthwhile.

The last leg of our odyssey was a bumpy, 90-minute drive from the tiny airstrip at salt-blue Lake Manyara through the colorful, ramshackle and concrete town of Oldeani, up through the gates of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and along the climbing, unpaved Crater rim road, dusty with red earth where it’s not draped with a sea of green. We gaped out the safari truck windows at indifferent Cape buffalo, their heavy horns still and strong as they endlessly chewed through a thicket of wide palms and frondy ferns.

Along the dusty road up to the Lodge, you'll see miles of forest and sometimes, itchy elephants

Almost to the top, just 30 feet ahead, an elephant burst from the forest to the road in a cloud of dust, intent on scratching a deep itch. As we skidded past him rubbing his dry hide on a thorny bush, I remember thinking that it hardly gets better than this.

Two minutes later, we reached the Lodge — and I changed my mind.

Through the gateposts and over a dip, I lost control of my face. The lawn rolled like the English countryside. The afternoon sky was tinged with silver. And the Lodge itself? A sprawling Hobbit shire…with a twist.

No, seriously -- it really looks like a Hobbit shire

At first, the architecture looks like a play on Arts + Crafts, all handcrafted cottages with rounded edges. Then the chimneys start to look like towers, the raised details more like characters than decor. Turns out, the Lodge was re-created from a 1930s colonial hunting lodge to look like a cross between East and West Africa: a Maasai manyatta settlement and the organic, earthen homes of Mali.

Inside the rooms, there are tree trunks, soaring ceilings with spirals of wood and palm, fireplaces, rich tapestries, ornate chandeliers and fine china. Please don’t ask me why all of this detail works — just know that it does.

The Lodge is divided into three camps: North, South and Tree. Each camp has its own kitchen and dining room, and while North and South look a great deal alike, Tree – down the hill and closest to the Crater itself – is the most unique.

The main dining room at Tree Camp

Though closed to guests during our visit, we were fortunate to have Tree all to ourselves one romantic afternoon with only Simon, our quiet, smiling, utterly impeccable Maasai butler, to serve us a beautiful pan-African lunch in an exotic dining room built around a huge tree. We were then joined by the Lodge’s resident naturalist, Joachim, to learn more about the area’s strange plants, birds and creatures, including the Crater’s insanely rare white rhinos. Any guest can request one of these informative strolls with Joachim, and I’d highly recommend it.

The terrace, Crater view, lunch -- and us -- at Tree Camp

Tree is open when occupancy demands it, and while it’s quiet and intimate enough for a lovely couple’s getaway, be sure to check with reservations first; it’s often booked by visiting business groups or large families.

We loved staying up in the spectacular North camp, where the public areas, our terrace and even the bathtub looks over the Crater. Our room/cabin/house, the third from the main building, was like a sumptuous cave: the cozy bed made with jewel-tone silks and satins, the bathroom ceiling soaring between tree branches, and clever little doors in the w.c. that, when opened, revealed windows with a far-off view of other Hobbit houses across a dewy slope of lawn.

In other words, welcome to the loo-side Lord of the Rings.

Our (utterly spectacular) lodgings at North Camp

Hanging out each evening in the parlor and dining room — which I can only describe as an East African Versailles — we met mostly folks from the UK, which made the semi-colonial scene all the more surreal. We’d have a cocktail and laugh with our safari guide Erick, a warm and funny bird-lover from western Tanzania; our new friend Thembi, a hilarious British expat, committed journalist and sometimes-travel writer who fell in love with Africa and settled in nearby Arusha; or one night sitting fireside out on the terrace, swathed in traditional Maasai shawls against the October evening chill, chatted with a smiling Scottish couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

The main building at North Camp, inside and out

At dinner, we always sat at a table by ourselves in a splendid dining room, talking about the day’s incredible safari adventures and sipping South African wine. At our last night, when the whole staff gathered to sing Tanzanian songs on Tanzanian instruments, all in perfect, joyful harmony, it’s entirely possible that we each had something in our eyes. A piece of dust, maybe. It would explain the whole welling-up-with-tears thing.

But what we loved best? Stepping out of our Hobbit house door that very first morning to see zebras right there on the lawn, munching away. Over the next few days this would happen a lot – a whole dazzle of zebra roam the property — but it never got old. And if we spent our lifetimes there, I don’t think it ever would.

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Our stay at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge was semi-sponsored by &Beyond Safari,
provided at 50% of the total cost. However, all opinions herein are my own.

A stay at the Lodge costs between $720-$1500 US per night; this rate is inclusive of accommodation, meals,
drinks, safari game drives and more, but exclusive of Crater and national park fees.

Though it’s run by &Beyond Africa, the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is open to guests of any safari company,
as well as those who are self-driving themselves in and around the Crater Conservation Area.

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See also
Ngorongoro Crater: Survival of the Fittest
Ngorongoro Crater: Way Beyond the Rim

My Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta series

Off to (a Birthday Safari in) Africa
Africa: Turns Out, It’s Really There
Logistics of an African Safari

TWT Travel Binder: Tanzania

Comments

  1. We stayed in a tent close to the Crater – nothing like your accommodation which looks stunning. Lucky you and what a wonderful experience.

  2. Oh my. We are going next year and this reading this made me so excited! It sounds amazing!

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