Ethiopia is the fastest growing economy in Africa. Tourism, especially around the ‘northern circuit’ encompassing Lalibela, Lake Tana, Gondar, the Simien Mountains, Axum and Tigray is markedly on the increase, attracting affluent travellers who are looking for memorable accommodation to complement the complexity and beguiling beauty of the landscape and the people.
Will they find it? The answer is yes - just. While Aman junkies and luxury safari camp aficionados may not be rushing to stay in the country’s crop of new lodges, anyone who is captivated by the idea of characterful oases created by gutsy individuals in some of the most exceptional locations in the world should read on. Three of the following hotels – Limalimo, Bale Mountain and Gheralta also serve to unlock unforgettable experiences in wilderness settings.
The lodges outlined below lie on the northern circuit, except for Bale (pronounced Barlay) Mountain, which is south of Addis Ababa and perfect for winding down at the end of the trip. Long drives are necessary at times, but they are part of the pleasure: against an always engrossing, ever-changing, often Biblical landscape, the world drifts by, on foot, in horse-drawn carts, under bright umbrellas, constantly accompanied by livestock. A competent driver is key: in our case, Belete was pure gold, a man who could slip past cattle on a hairpin bend whilst explaining Ethiopian tribal differences and casually pointing out a rare endemic bird with what appeared to be a second pair of eyes.
Though modern life, particularly around rapidly expanding Addis Ababa, is fast gathering pace, what the traveller discovers in Ethiopia is an other-worldliness not found in the rest of Africa, an essentially agrarian, pastoral land, rooted in religion, that feels as if time has, though not forgotten, been put gently to one side.
Kuriftu Lodge, Lake Tana
The reason for heading to Bahar Dar, a city of wide, palm tree-lined avenues, is spread out before you at Kuriftu Lodge: serene Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile, with its monasteries and teeming birdlife. At Kuriftu, much use is made of dark wood, stone and bougainvillea-covered thatch to give an ethnic feel, emphasised by vibrant African artworks. Staff waver between helpful and unengaged. There is Wi-Fi in the lobby and two spa treatments are included in the room price. Rooms are spacious, with four-poster beds and mosaic-tiled bathrooms. You should request one with a lake or pool view at no extra cost: best are numbers 107 to 112. In the morning, if you aren’t taking a boat trip on Lake Tana (it’s worth the two-hour ride to remote and lovely Negre Selassie monastery) be sure to bag one of the sunbeds shaded by straw parasols that surround the stunning curved pool. In the evening, watch the sunset from the lakeside terrace, sacred Ibis wheeling overhead. Double rooms from £140, half board (00 251 582 264868;kurifturesortspa.com).
Read the full review: Kuriftu Lodge, Lake Tana
Mayleko Lodge, Gondar
With a low-key entrance in farmland close to Gondar’s airport (no noise; shuttle service), and a group of 20 neat thatched bungalows in a quiet garden, Mayleko Lodge at first seems underwhelming. But once inside, things perk up, for the huts, made of natural, sustainable materials, are simple but chic, with white walls, bamboo ceilings and pretty gauze curtains at four sets of French windows on to a terrace and lawn. And dinner, served in an elevated restaurant with the feel of a Tuscan trattoria, is a real delight: the scholarly, experienced chef knows how to cook Italian food with real flair (and there is nothing at all wrong with Ethiopian Rift Valley red wines, available everywhere, to accompany). The hotel is managed by Netsanet, a former English teacher, and owned by a hotelier from Addis Ababa named Ethiopia after her homeland. One can tell from her hotel that she has style. As well as a pool, there is darts, chess and backgammon to keep you amused. After breakfast (scrambled egg – a menu staple – with a twist), the mighty castles of King Fasilides and his descendants, a thunderous amalgam of Moorish and European, await. Double rooms from £70, including breakfast (00 251 912 202801; maylekolodge.com).
Read the full review: Mayleko Lodge, Gondar
Limalimo Lodge, Simien Mountains
Even Aman junkies might be persuaded. Certainly they would appreciate the handmade Hypnos mattresses that have migrated from the UK to the highest mountain range in Africa, and the fine natural silk and cotton fabrics by Sabahar that dress both the beds and the wall of windows in each suite, not to mention the specially designed uniforms (chic embroidered shifts for the girls) worn by the staff.
But what really sets Ethiopia’s newest lodge apart from the rest are its strikingly contemporary looks. The 11 bedrooms, set in eight separate buildings with bare earth walls (the North African building technique is a first for Ethiopia) and ‘living’ roofs are soothing, with distant views, but it’s the main building, perched on the very edge of the Simien escarpment, where the svelte and sexy design has changed the face of Ethiopia’s lodges.
The bird’s eye view of the mountains from the expansive terrace, with dining tables and firepits, stretch out as far as the eye can see, a fantastical confection of eroded ochre pinnacles – cones, spires, humps, needles – whose shadows shift in the changing light. In response, Addis Ababa-based Italian architect Mario Balducci has created a series of suitably airy, open, uncluttered interior spaces – huge bar/sitting room, dining room, stylish boutique, courtyard. Furnished simply but comfortably in muted, natural colours, they feel cool and chic. You can have a massage, yoga lesson, romantic champagne breakfast in a secluded spot. Staff are all locals, still in training, and despite its looks, the place feels very much part of the landscape and the community. It’s the creation of Shif, a gifted former trekking guide, and Julia, his English wife, who used to be an academic publisher. Their new lodge makes a thrilling base for guided hikes in the Simien National Park, whose dramatic landscape is liberally scattered with troops of adorable, approachable, endlessly watchable Gelada monkeys. Double rooms from £150, all inclusive (00 251 93 168 8062; limalimolodge.com).
Read the full review: Limalimo Lodge, Simien Mountains
Gheralta Lodge, Tigray
It’s 10 years since Silvio and Enrica Rizzotti built Gheralta Lodge. Silvio was brought up in Addis Ababa and they acquired this land close to Hawzen, the main base for visiting Tigray’s rock hewn churches, on the day they saw it. Hardly surprising: the spaghetti Western view across the stony plain to the craggy Gheralta Mountains is astounding, though the mysterious churches secreted amongst them are the chief draw.
It is a place of great charm. Built of stone like everything in Tigray, Gheralta is deliberately simple, African/Italian in style and relaxing. It has a shady terrace with sun loungers, a quiet library, a sitting room that opens on to an internal garden surrounded by billowing white curtains, and a large dining room where a set menu of Italian home cooking is served. Guests feel immediately at home, and the pre-dinner complimentary aperitif gets everyone chatting. Bedrooms are in low stone huts dotted around the plateau. Some have baths, others showers, and they show signs of wear, but even when the door handle comes off in your hands you won’t much mind – at least we didn’t.
If you are travelling independently, the hotel will collect you from Mekele airport and organize rock church guides. We met an Italian mountaineer who had trained the guides in safety techniques… nice to know as we climbed nervously into harnesses and braved the sheer rock climb to Abuna Yemata Guh, where the white-robed priest was waiting at his wildly improbable church door, reached by a narrow ledge: slip here and you fall 600 feet. Worry not; there are easier rock churches to visit, or you could while away the day on the terrace at Gheralta Lodge, under the clear blue skies and balmy temperatures of Ethiopia’s near perfect climate. Double rooms £75, half board (00 251 11 6632893; gheraltalodgetigrai.com).
Read the full review: Gheralta Lodge, Tigray
Bale Mountain Lodge, Bale Mountains
It’s an effort to reach, but one you should not fail to make. A six-hour drive to the edge of the Bale Mountains National Park, plus a final 37 miles on dirt roads to its centre, brings you to this oasis of comfort in a unique high-altitude landscape. In an idyllic clearing in the Harenna Forest, with mountain views, stands a collection of stone ‘menyetta-bets’ (bedrooms), a thatched circular living and dining room with cosy sunken fireplace and a sweep of windows, plus further well-hidden chalets, including a romantic treehouse. Each room has a wood burning stove and colourful throws on the beds, with matching curtains. Almost as surprising as good food, a decent gin and tonic and comfortable beds in the Bale Mountains, hitherto not on the tourist route, is finding Yvonne Levene, a true pioneer. She and her husband Guy built the lodge in 2014, and while he works part time in Addis Ababa, she runs their fiefdom with a gentle authority worthy of the London primary school teacher she used to be, forging close ties with the village four miles away.
By providing accommodation, the couple have unlocked a richly rewarding region. Its three distinct habitats – grassland, plateau and cloud forest – are all filled with a high concentration of wildlife, most of it endemic, much of which we saw, including a black panther slinking through the undergrowth. With the lodge’s expert local guides, we spent a riveting few hours on the stark Senetti Plateau spotting many bird species and the star attraction – the charismatic Ethiopian wolf. At close quarters, we witnessed the most endangered and rare canid in the world demolishing a goofy giant molerat that had just popped out of its hole. Later, we accompanied Jamal, a local beekeeper, as he shinned 20ft up a tree to smoke out his hive and collect the honey, which we ate next morning for breakfast. Double rooms £300, all inclusive, including a daily activity (00 251 9192790802;balemountainlodge.com).
Read the full review: Bale Mountain Lodge, Bale Mountains
How to get there
Ethiopian Airlines fly daily from Heathrow to Addis Ababa from £505 return, and on to 19 domestic destinations (0800 016 3559;ethiopianairlines.com).
It is of course possible to travel round Ethiopia using public transport but because of the distances involved between sights it is far preferable, if expensive, to take a tailor made trip with an expert travel company such as Wild Frontiers.
Where else to stay
The lodges described here are well-placed for all the major sites on Ethiopia’s ‘northern circuit’ with the exception of Lalibela, famed for its mesmerizing rock churches, and Axum, for its ancient stelae, Here the following unremarkable but acceptable hotels are best.
Maribela, Lalibela (00251 33 336 0345; hotelmaribela.com; double rooms from £46) with decent rooms, notably helpful staff and balconies overlooking the mountains.
Sabean Hotel, Axum a just-about acceptable 2012 high rise, clean but with remarkably hard beds (00251 347751224; sabeanhotel.com; double rooms from £35).
Fiona Duncan travelled with Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; wildfrontiers.co.uk) which offers a 14-day tailor-made trip to Ethiopia taking in Axum, Lalibela, the Simien Mountains, Gonder and the Bale Mountains from £3,340 per person based on two sharing, including accommodation with most meals, private chauffeur-driven transfers and guided excursions.