Four new getaways in Bolivia, Namibia, Panama, and South Africa
Sleep in style on the world’s largest salt flat
BY T.J. OLWIG
ust before sunset, as our four-wheel-drive vehicles prepare to depart, lead guide Vivel Romero makes an announcement. “We’re going to play a game. For the next 10 minutes, keep your eyes closed.”
Though I’m a sucker for adventure, Romero’s request is a tough sell given my current coordinates on the globe. I’ve just checked into Kachi Lodge, the new luxury camp experience from Amazing Escapes in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. For much of this afternoon, we’ve been hiking and driving around this pristine white desert I can only compare to a Neil Armstrong daydream. As far as the eye can see, the Salar, some 12,000 feet above sea level, looks like the moon topped with a blanket of the North Pole’s freshest snow. I’m hard-pressed to blink too long, let alone shut my eyes, but I do as requested. When we arrive for the Big Reveal, my play-along pays off: “Welcome to the biggest mirror in the world,” Romero tells us.
Gaping at the lunarscape, I’m stunned and speechless in a pool of ankle-deep rainwater. With each step, my feet send perfect geometric ripples across the mirage and into the Andes, or so it seems. When I turn around, the “pinch me” moment is amplified by a picnic of Bolivian wines and finger foods that has seemingly fallen from the sky, which a clocked-out sun has now painted a pastel blend of orange and pink.
In May, Kachi Lodge opened as the only hotel within Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. From the outside, the six geodesic domes — run entirely on solar energy — look like accommodations on a space station; inside, they ooze luxury. Minimal in design, each dome features Amazonian woods, plush bedding, a private bathroom, and a fireplace. The artwork of Gaston Ugalde, Bolivia’s most renowned artist, hangs on the walls. In the large see-through communal dome, the lodge treats guests to authentic Bolivian cuisine from Gustu, an award-winning La Paz restaurant. Think cocoa butter and llama tartar; for a tipple, a glass of Singani, Bolivia’s flagship spirit.
But it’s the Salar itself, by way of daily excursions in off-road vehicles, that defines this otherworldly destination. During my three-day stay, we hike cacti-dotted volcanic islands, harvest quinoa with a local farmer, shepherd a herd of llamas out to pasture, watch flamingos feed on salt-soaked algae, and drive to the lip of Tunupa, a majestic and dormant volcano. Closer to camp, guests can paddleboard, mountain bike, or, come nighttime, stargaze at the Southern Cross and learn about Andean cosmology with an expert on-site guide.
Details: Two-night packages from $1,980 per person, including meals, excursions, and airport transfers. Dry season runs from April to November; wet season, December to March. kachilodge.com
No roughing it at this tented desert camp
BY CHADNER NAVARRO
BUZZ: Opened in July, Sonop features 10 tented villas perched atop mammoth boulders in the Namib desert. The latest from Belgium-based Zannier, the lodge is a clever medley of creature comforts and stylish adventure.
STYLE: Stunning antiques elevate the lodge’s “1920s British explorer” aesthetic. Supple leather trunks, exotic carpets, old-timey candelabras, and even a huge gramophone bring this vision to life. Four-poster beds and stand-alone bathtubs keep the interiors homey.
ACHIEVING ZEN: A small spa offers body treatments featuring essential oils and homemade scrubs that highlight desert flora. Otherwise, go for sunrise yoga, an evening meditation session, or just to lounge poolside.
DIG IN: Considering the lodge’s tucked-away address, there’s a surprisingly impressive culinary experience — fluffy pancakes for breakfast, a light lunch of string beans tossed with prawns, and a nightly candlelit dinner with heartier fare, from springbok stew to unexpected fish curry.
ACTIVE PURSUITS: Guided horseback riding, nature drives, and electric fat-tire biking are bundled into the all-inclusive rate. For an added cost, splurge on the day trip to the Sossusvlei sand dunes, with a gourmet breakfast on the dunes. Back at Sonop, request an after-dinner drive five minutes into the desert. This area boasts one of the planet’s darkest skies, so you’re in for a rare treat — a starry Milky Way visible to the naked eye.
TRAVEL TIP: Partner your stay with a few days at Zannier’s first Namibia project. At year-old Omaanda, a collection of 10 thatched-roof luxury huts in a wildlife reserve setting just outside Windhoek, game drives are all about spotting baboons, elephants, lions, and ostriches. From $610.
Details: From $645 per person, per night; zannierhotels.com/sonop
Adventures aplenty at this private retreat
BY ELAINE GLUSACsla palenque, Panama’s new 400-acre private island resort, strikes me as the sort of idyllic getaway you’d imagine a movie star — albeit an earthy one — escaping to. Then I realize there’s one beside me in the polished wooden boat, a Latin American star (we won’t name for privacy reasons) who I introduce myself to in halting Spanish.
Home to just eight beachfront casitas and one six-bedroom villa, Isla Palenque sits in the Pacific’s Gulf of Chiriqui, about 270 miles west of Panama City and a 15-minute dash by speedboat from shore. It opened earlier this year promising few guests, ample solitude, and a multitude of adventures both onshore and off. Managed by the Cayuga Collection, it practices the eco-consciousness it preaches in ways small (bamboo drinking straws, no plastic) and large (locally sourced food, local workforce, green-built dwellings).
Tucked behind sea-grape trees, A-frame thatched bungalows celebrate outdoor living with front porch swings and outdoor bathrooms on the back porch, with the air-conditioned bedroom in between.
By day, the resort’s naturalist guides hikes to bird habitats and archaeological sites that offer opportunities to spot howler monkeys. Staffers run classes in rum-tasting, a yoga instructor offers sundown sessions by poolside, and guests can beachcomb seven strands.
From Isla Palenque’s main beach, the sun rises over several distant isles. Heeding my curiosity, I sign up for a final morning of island-hopping to snorkel off unnamed shorelines with the actor’s wife. Hauling a cooler filled with watermelon slices and Balboa beer, we go ashore one deserted isle boasting a black-sand beach strewn with smoothed volcanic rocks on one side and a white one with cowrie, scallop, and conch shells on the other.
“Increíble!” I say to my companion in Spanish.
“Incredible!” she responds.
Details: Rooms from $385, including meals. 855-679-4364; islapalenque.com
FARMSTEAD AT ROYAL MALEWANE
Design doyenne redefines safari style
BY JEN MURPHY
AESTHETIC: Most safari lodges transport you back to the days of Karen Blixen with their classic colonial style. But the Farmstead at Royal Malewane, which opened in Greater Kruger National Park in May, is refreshingly rooted in modern-day Africa, with plush peacock-blue bar stools, floral-patterned headboards, and paintings of neon caricatures from artist Ralph Krall’s “Karoo Lady” series.
THE MATRIARCH: That bold, eclectic style has become a signature of the woman behind the property, South African hotelier Liz Biden. Over the last 20 years, Biden has transformed her family’s bush retreat in the Greater Kruger into a safari lodge, Royal Malewane; their Hermanus home into Birkenhead House; and their Cape Winelands getaway into La Residence. Her hotel company, the Royal Portfolio, now extends to the Silo Hotel in Cape Town, too.
WHAT’S THERE: A main lodge area, three Luxury Farm Suites, and a three-and-a-half-bedroom villa, all decorated with contemporary art. Bedrooms feature clawfoot tubs and canopied beds. Set amid 35,000 private acres in Thornybush Game Reserve, the Farmstead offers views of wildlife from its swinging daybeds or spacious deck.
COMMUNITY SUPPORT: In partnership with the local community, the Royal Portfolio built and manages the Farmstead while paying lease fees to the community and employing its members.
OUT IN THE BUSH: Three of only seven living Master Trackers in the world work at Royal Malewane. Their keen ability to interpret nature’s subtle cues almost guarantees Big Five encounters.
Details: Luxury Farm Suites from $1,700, all-inclusive; three-and-a-half-bedroom Farmhouse from $11,330 per night, all-inclusive; theroyalportfolio.com
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