Lions and rhinoceros, coffee and chimpanzees, craft and culture, sustainability and spectacular landscapes—and not least of all, mountain gorillas. A large percentage of the world’s population of our endangered cousins thrive in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, which is the main reason for much of the tourism to the tiny East African nation. But what many don’t realize until they arrive is there’s actually so much more to see, do, eat, and feel beyond the one-day gorilla trek. In fact, actress Emmy Rossum has said her Rwandan honeymoon was one of the most beautiful and moving trips of her life.
Another perhaps surprising fact? While the sense of adventure is strong, travel in Rwanda is also steeped in luxury. It’s a true safari destination in that sense. This is a bucket-list journey if ever there was one, where couples can cuddle up in incredibly intimate lodges and camps set in spectacular landscapes with wildlife unlike anything you could find stateside—not to mention Pinterest-worthy design and exceptional cuisine. It’s incredibly green, and not only when it comes to the colors surrounding you. The country is a sustainable development leader in the world, practicing many thoughtful ways of protecting the planet’s resources.
Every Rwandan honeymoon must start in Kigali (home to the international airport), which you’ll find to be one of the cleanest—and safest—cities on Earth. It’s where you’ll find the ultimate boutique hotel introduction to this great destination: The Retreat by Heaven. With its 12 solar-powered, custom-built teak dwellings complete with patios, outdoor rain showers, and colorful printed bathrobes, this bolthole is an idyllic place to rest up, get acclimated, and explore the city. (If you’re looking to spend a bit less, there’s Heaven Boutique Hotel next door.) The cuisine at the adjacent open-air, buzzing Heaven Restaurant is some of Rwanda’s best, the result of an overwhelming successful social enterprise idea. For less of a scene, Fusion Restaurant at The Retreat offers fine-dining vibes on a smaller scale.
By day, there’s plenty to engage with—from art and culture, fashion, culinary and nature tours by Heaven taking interested parties all over the dynamic city and its surroundings, to the somber yet must-visit Kigali Genocide Memorial, which provides the difficult and moving context you’ll need to interact in this ever-healing nation. For a caffeine fix, stop by Question Coffee. But for a more intoxicating beverage, visit the 1000 Hills Distillery, Africa’s first small-batch craft distillery—it gives tours and tastings, or you can simply go for cocktails. The Inema Arts Center is a worthy visit, as is the Kandt House Museum if you’re history buffs. Fashion fans can’t miss Rwanda Clothing Store, a jewel box of a retail gem for both women’s and men’s clothing, plus, irresistible jewelry and accessories, and gorgeous home decor, all by a young local female designer.
After a couple days in Kigali you’ll be ready to commune with nature. Some travelers like to visit Lake Kivu, which lies across Rwanda’s western border and is a serene place to relax, hike, bike, and play in the water. For wildlife lovers, however, the ideal next stop is Akagera National Park, which was recently graced with its very first luxury safari camp, Magashi, by Wilderness Safaris. The slow, smooth drive there (four hours) feels quite long from Kigali, but it’s generously scenic, a constant stream of lush, patchworked hills rolling by like a sea of green carpet. Magashi guests are the only ones allowed to enter the park’s north entrance, giving them more exclusive access to, say, a large herd of elephants playing welcome wagon.
This is an escape that feels gloriously far from the real world, romantic and natural. There are just six luxury tents, each with a king bed swathed in rose-colored mosquito netting at its heart. Large wooden decks overlook shimmering Lake Rwanyakazinga, its prolific population of hippos constantly popping their heads up like whack-a-mole to say hello as you enjoy a drink from the extensive minibar or a yoga session using the provided mat (there’s a jumprope and resistance band, too). But that’s far from the only place to chill and appreciate your surroundings—there’s also a swimming pool with a view, a fire pit, a seductively lit communal lounge, and an outdoor deck where you can appreciate animals coming incredibly close, as the camp is not fenced. Mealtimes are special highlights, since the food—from buffet breakfasts and brunches to firefly-lit multi-course dinners—is positively mouthwatering.
Of course, as idyllic as it is at camp, what you go for is outside. Twice-a-day safari excursions happen by adapted truck as well as occasionally by boat, especially just before sunset, when cruising you might feel as if you’re in Switzerland or some other misty blue and green land of untold beauty. From the water—wine or G&T in hand—you might spot crocodiles, buffalo, silver monkeys, kingfishers, antelope, zebra, or even black rhinos. Game drives turn up white-tailed mongoose, hyena, warthog, leopard, giraffe, and many more species. You might spend the morning admiring lions with their profusion of cubs, playing in a pile like puppies, suckling, yawning, nibbling and cuddling to form bonds—and not a single other vehicle or tourist around.
A few days at Magashi and you will have settled nicely into safari life. But for as small as it is, Rwanda offers many different landscapes begging to be experienced. A helicopter could be arranged back to Kigali or, to extend the honeymoon, to the sumptuous tea plantation–adjacent One&Only Nyungwe House, backing up to the striking and serene jungle canopies of Nyungwe Forest National Park, where one offering is trekking to view wild—and shockingly humanlike—chimpanzees.
Whatever you do, make sure the grand finale takes place in the Virunga Mountains of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda’s northeast, where inimitable primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey famously studied and lived aside mountain gorillas for decades. The over-the-top opulent options in that region are plenty, providing the cherry on top of a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon. Wilderness Safaris opened magical Bisate Lodge in 2017, and in 2019 Singita debuted Kwitonda Lodge, and One&Only followed with Gorilla’s Nest.
The latter feels more like a true luxury resort than an African camp, though your ecstatic drumming welcome feels wholly authentic. The property sits in a eucalyptus grove, landscaped beautifully with exotic imported roses and indigenous flora, the stories of which you can discover on a nature walk or mountain biking. With 21 individual dwellings up on stilts (the idea was not to cut a single tree) and hidden amid nature, there’s an incredible emphasis on pampering and privacy. A heated infinity pool with a state-of-the-art gym and pool bar, an indulgent spa using local ingredients such as coffee for out-of-this-world body scrubs, and ever-changing many-course meals informed by Rwandan flavors elevated for international appetites ensure the feeling is super-high-end and sophisticated.
At Kwitonda Lodge, an entirely different energy pervades. Sitting at the base of the Virunga Mountains, you’ll see a handful of jagged peaks and untamed grassy expanse serving as a buffer zone slash front yard to the eight suites, as deluxe, plush, and design porn-y as anywhere you’ve ever seen. By night, butlers escort couples back from the main lodge—encased in local cut stone and lined with curvaceous locally made terracotta brick and hand-woven accents—since buffalo are known to wander around (there’s even the occasional elephant or gorilla). Community is important here, and quite evident. There are large-scale artworks of many mediums, oil to vibrant paper scroll beads, and copper-clad lighting, creating an otherworldly yet incredibly comfortable atmosphere—rustic yet refined.
The standalone suites, featuring the same natural yet premium materials, are even more appealing to both the eye and body. They’re essentially the dream African abode. The warm palette of cozy textiles, leather, and wool play beautifully with the spectacle outside the massive picture windows (complete with window seats for reading, snuggling, or sipping vino or craft cocktails made at the chic kitchenette), not just nature at her best but also a private heated plunge pool and outdoor fireplace. The expansive bathrooms are host to not only a large soaking tub, showers (indoor and out), and double vanities, but a massage bed complete with incense and Tibetan singing bowl to set the mood. Heavenly spa treatments are done right there, ideally after your gorilla trek.
Speaking of, couples are educated by the staff conservation officer and wildlife specialist ahead of their trek. Before dinner—the meals at Kwitonda are endlessly delightful, with lovingly prepared tapas-style lunches and bright, vibrant dinners that might include a warm take on Caesar salad with crispy camembert cheese and broad beans, and gnocchi made of the iconic local potatoes with ginger butternut puree—you’ll get the lowdown on what to expect in an artifact-, book- and photograph-riddled conservation lounge alongside other guests. You’ll even get outfitted head-to-toe in the best protective, waterproof gear and, early the next morning, sent off with a perfect picnic lunch.
Of course, as much as there is to experience at Kwitonda House, not just eating happily but trying cooking interactions, basket weaving, stick making lessons, yoga, cycling, and visiting the Arakabo Nursery on-site (it’s here that much of the produce you savor is grown), the gorilla trek is the pinnacle. That journey is to some extent shaped by your guides, all of whom are incredible, and some of whom might have even known Fossey personally. But the gorillas are the ones actually in charge. For the trek, you’re put into a group of up to eight and assigned a gorilla group, the head of which is a dominant silverback male who, if you’re lucky enough to see his 400-pound self, will imprint in your mind forever.
The only sure thing, however, is that each outing is guaranteed to be unique and endlessly special. The first part involves some amount of hiking—fortunately you’ll hire a local porter to carry your hefty pack—that might be a breeze or could be a bit strenuous, through deep mud, weaving in and out of bamboo thickets and lush greenery, or maybe climbing higher into the Virunga Mountains. You might hear the gorillas first (after all they have almost two dozen different vocalizations) or maybe smell them, or you could even be greeted by a toddler beating his chest playfully. Once you reach them, you’ll get one life-affirming hour to observe their familiar behaviors, listen to their communications, and be moved by their intimate interactions—especially touching if there’s a baby in the group.
Words can’t do the experience justice—it’s something you truly must live to understand. Epic is an understatement. At the end of your adrenaline-filled excursion, when you return to Kwitonda Lodge, you’re met with a hot steaming towel, warm gluwein, and a staffer to remove your muddy boots and exchange them for plush slippers. You and your love might retreat to your suite for quiet reflection or a fevered recounting of the day’s highlights, take a dip, book another hike or trek to see golden monkeys, indulge in massages, or simply relax over some excellent South African wine and another memorable dinner. In many ways, it doesn’t get more adventurous or exciting than Rwanda.
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