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By Alicia Erickson
Here’s a little known fact: Rwanda, a tiny landlocked country in Central Africa, is considered to be one of the greenest countries in the world. As the country pushes forward as a leader in technology, women’s rights, and environmental policies, they are also emerging as a major competitor in tourism in the greater East African region.
It’s a place that should be on every conscious tourist’s radar, and after spending some time in the country, I’ve discovered some of the best Eco Luxury Lodges in the Northern Province in Rwanda that I highly recommend adventurists visit, before they’re inundated with tourism.
The Northern Province
Tourists flock to the Volcanoes National Park from Kigali, home to the coveted mountain gorillas. The gateway to the park, the Northern Province, is brimming with wildlife and nature begging the curious traveller to come explore. The region as a whole offers an unparalleled escape into nature, abundant in lakes and rolling hills, all at jungle’s edge.
For the more active traveller, many volcanoes, including Mt. Bisoke and Mt. Karasimbi in the Virunga range, beg to be explored. For those seeking more wildlife, golden monkey trekking is available, although permits need to be booked in advance, which you can do here. .
To reach this region, one can either drive, book private accommodation, or take a direct public bus from Nyabugogo station in Kigali. All options take between two and two and a half hours, weather permitting. After traversing steep mountain passes and lush, terraced farmland to arrive at the foothills of Rwanda’s adventure capital, some of the country’s premiere luxury lodges await you, each with their own story, design aesthetic, and contribution to regional development.
3 Of The Best Eco Luxury Lodges in Rwanda
My favourite is Bisate Lodge, Rwanda’s newest eco chic escape, which perches in the greenery of the hills like so many enormous nests. I arrived early with the intention of spending the morning getting lost in the nature around the property, but heavy rains postponed my plans, forcing me to stay inside and indulge in the cozy thatched lodge, designed after a traditional Rwandan palace.
The front windows of the lodge open up to expansive views of Mt. Bisoke and some of the smaller peaks in the Virunga mountain range. With a warm cup of tea in hand, I settled in front of the fireplace to learn more about Bisate’s story and the intention of the lodge.
It evokes a return to nature, with its infrastructure and furniture constructed from a hybrid of woods and woven grass. Each detail has been carefully cultivated to both reflect the local culture as well as give back to local communities by supporting Rwandan artists and builders. The ceilings are made from recycled plastic; the chandeliers, in opaque grassy green, are constructed from recycled glass. Volcanic rock from the region was used to build the fire place and local woods make up most of the structure. The chairs, baskets, and pillows were among many of the artisanal goods specially designed for the lodge by Rwandan artisans.
Coupled with their vision of social impact, Bisate aims to invest in the surrounding environment. Immediately on the edge of Volcanoes National Park, the hope is that one day the lodge will be within the park itself following efforts of reforestation. The lodge was constructed with the intent to reintroduce plant species that have become endangered in the park, to extend the reaches of the park by planting new trees, and to encourage the increase of endangered species in the park by careful monitoring of wildlife on the lodge’s premises. When the sun finally did clear, we embarked on a hike through Bisate’s surrounding property, which encompasses trails through cutting through local villages at the edge of the rainforest.
Beyond the view of development is the intention to provide an intimate escape into the heart of Rwanda’s wilderness. Bisate has effortlessly accomplished this in every aspect of the experience. Six free-standing huts are stacked into the hills, built into an eroded volcanic crater. The views, spectacular from the start, improve with each step of the climb to the top of the property overlooking Mt. Bisoke.
Each hut is equipped with a stone fire place, a lounge area, and a bathroom, enclosed by wall-to-ceiling glass walls, allowing for an unhindered view of the hills. Meals are taken in an intimate dining area expanding from the lounge of the main lodge. Locally sourced food is incorporated into the meals as much as possible, which features a delectable fusion of African and European cuisines with imported wines and liquors on hand, best enjoyed around the fireplace on a chilly evening.
3rd image courtesy of Wilderness Safaris
The rains commenced as we boarded our bus from Kigali to reach Virunga Lodge. As if on cue, they thinned out as we made our final leg of the trip deep into the hills where the lodge is located. Wrapping around the lodge’s property are the twin lakes of Burera and Ruhando, and the deep blue silhouettes of peaks in the Virunga range are stacked on top of one another, fading into the distance behind the lakes. If you’re seeking the best of both the jungle and lakes, this is the sweet spot.
Rooms are constructed in free-standing stone huts, stacked into the hills. Each individual lodge has a private, expansive balcony offering views of the lakes – it’s the ideal place to practice yoga and mats are even provided in each room. The view is most remarkable at sunrise when pale pink clouds encircle the volcanoes, tinted indigo blue from the early morning light. To warm up after a wet day in the rainforest, gather around the open fireplace in the center of the living room, while appetizers and drinks are served before guests gather in the dining room for a family-style dinner.
The verandah of the main lodge sits high up in the jungle, offering panoramic views of the twin lakes and of the Virunga volcanoes; it’s the perfect place to pass an afternoon. Rich hues of reds, mustard yellows, and fiery oranges bring a warmth to the interior of the main cabin. Decorated with textiles, masks, and wood carvings collected from around East Africa, the common room pays homage to the traditional art of the region.
In fact, venture outside your room, and you’ll have the pleasure of talking to local artisans as they weave traditional baskets from grass and sisal fiber on the veranda, their products exclusively for sale at the lodge. They may tell you a bit about Virunga’s role in community development, which is significant. The lodge has built a school and library in the local village, and profits from the lodge have been dedicated to provide water access to villages, solar power panels, and many more projects seen as crucial to sustainability.
Beyond their dedication to community development, Virunga captures the importance of exploration and ecological conservation in the region as well, as is reflected the lodge’s latest addition: a map room dedicated to the career of Dian Fossey. Photos and notes from her work with gorillas decorate the walls alongside maps and dedications to early explorers of Central Africa. Adventurers can also pay homage to this great woman by hiking to her grave to leave flowers.
Sabinyo invites its guests to relax in a plush space. An elegant dining room and cozy sitting room draws design inspiration both from local African art as well as from an early 20th century explorers’ aesthetic, combining royal blue velvet couches with vibrant kitenge patterns in shades of rust and turquoise
Accommodation comes in the form of free standing, private lodges, offering a sitting room furnished with luxurious, imported bedding and furniture, accented with rainforest and African-inspired design. Off the country’s electric grid, Sabinyo aims to reduce its carbon footprint by using alternative energy sources when possible.
Meals are taken either in the dining room or outside balcony, offering selections of some of the best food I’ve had the pleasure of eating in Rwanda. There’s also an extensive – and delicious – wine list, which we enthusiastically sampled after a long day’s hike up to Bisate crater. Over a glass of red, we plunged into a conversation with Sabinyo’s new management, who recently redesigned the hotel. I was fascinated to learn that the lodge is fully owned by the local community through a trust called SACOLA. Collective decisions are made to invest profits into projects that advance conservation efforts and socioeconomic development.
For travellers who are interested in local cultures and communities, I’d highly recommend Sabinyo’s community tour. A local guide has established partnerships with village members, who will invite you into their homes, where you can learn about the construction of a traditional Rwandan house, how to identify local crops or how to sort beans, a staple to the Rwandan diet.
You can also watch traditional Rwandese dances, and if you’re feeling brave enough, join in the festivities, sure to inspire infectious laughter. The community walk captures what Sabinyo does best: help guests experience the rich history, culture, and nature of Rwanda.
Whether your idea of travel is relaxing in luxurious accommodation with fine foods and wines or trekking through rainforests and volcanoes, the Northern Province of Rwanda offers it all. And the region’s three outstanding eco-lodges combine the two, offering guests both adventure and comfort, while keeping a close eye to the preservation of the local cultures and habitats.
All images courtesy of the lodges unless specified.
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