Namibia's New A-List Worthy Travel Destinations

Omaanda_Split - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Zannier Hotels

The southern African nation is a favorite getaway for Hollywood royals and British royalty alike.

Namibia’s newest luxury hotel wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Angelina Jolie. No, the A-lister is not the owner of Omaanda, the freshest addition to the Zannier Hotels portfolio, and its first in Africa, let alone the little-recognized southern African nation acclaimed for its tiny population of people and large black rhinoceros populace in a vast, surreally beautiful environment. Nor is she involved in any kind of official capacity as ambassador.

Jolie was simply the key to making it a reality, bringing together two friends: one a Namibian conservationist whose neighbor was selling a large piece of land perfect for an animal reserve; the other a French hotelier whose Cambodian property, Phum Baitang, was her temporary home while filming First They Killed My Father. Namibia and Cambodia also represent countries where two of her children were born (Shiloh and Maddox).

Coincidence or not, ever since President Trump lambasted “shithole countries” like “Nambia”— grossly mispronouncing the name — the profile of Namibia has been on the rise. Luxury travel operators like the Africa experts at Scott Dunn have been noticing increased intrigue and inquiries into trips, of which they’re planning more and more. (Though it’s not a typical safari destination, getting around in the country twice the size of California does require this kind of skill and intimate knowledge, especially when organizing private air charters.)

Meanwhile, intimate luxury lodges are also proliferating. Boldfacers including Charlize Theron (and Jolie and then-partner Brad Pitt, when their daughter was born) have traveled in the sparsely populated country, where another of the many appeals is the lack of paparazzi and natives unaware of celebrity, giving opportunity for sought-after anonymity, peace and quiet.

One person who didn’t quite fly under the radar when he visited recently — by his own choice, however — is Prince William, who tracked black rhino with a local anti-poaching unit at Hoanib Valley Camp, another new addition to the luxury lodge scene. He overnighted in the remote-yet-luxe camp’s largest tent, outfitted like the five others with wood carvings, ombre-dyed curtains and plush bedding.

The experience is immersive and incredibly private, guests (equipped with hot water bottles for the chilled early-morning adventures) head out for intimate game drives with conservation-minded guides skilled in tracking down desert-adapted giraffe, elephants, zebras and carnivores. In true colonial form, evenings, of course, are spent sipping Namibian gin and tonics around a fire and chatting with guides about their giraffe conservation work, or having the evening’s menu performed by native staff in their highly expressive click language.

While the towering stony mountains and vast rolling desert hills seem like the ultimate escape from civilization, there’s another place even more off the grid that’s quickly gaining a reputation for a bucket-list destination. A long, scenic picnic-studded drive from Hoanib Valley Camp (or a small private flight) gets one to Shipwreck Lodge on one of Africa’s most rugged, harsh and quiet stretches, the ominously named Skeleton Coast. The pink-duned setting is studded by not only the whale skeletons that give it that name, but remnants of shipwrecks from centuries of the aggressive Atlantic sinking various vessels. For quiet reflection or a total retreat from reality, this is the spot.

Ten cabins mimic small ships askew on the dunes overlooking the beach; they’re cozily outfitted with faux fur blankets, wood-burning stoves and daybeds beside picture windows that highlight the sparseness and solitude of the surroundings. Private experiences include slow, quiet drives on 4x4 vehicles through a sandy riverbed to search for elephants moving in slow-motion and spot stately oryx against rosy garnet slabs and dunes; surf-fishing with legs submerged in the icy waves; and private picnics in the fantastical Clay Castles geological site.

If Shipwreck is all about peace and quiet, Omaanda is the place to immerse oneself in the local culture through interactions with dynamic staff and a more social setting (beside the infinity pool with afternoon mezze, for example, at the pocket-sized bar with epic panoramas or in the restaurant over exceptional food), and delve into the immense wildlife conservation efforts happening on its massive private reserve and next door at N/a’ankusê Wildlife Sanctuary.

Drives at the boutique lodge with drool-worthy decor, individual circular huts and a beautiful open-air spa — unsurprising, considering Zannier’s other hotels, yet totally celebratory of indigenous Ovahimba architecture and traditions — might produce lions, elephants, antelope, warthogs, meerkat, wild dogs and even an elegant white horse (the land was formerly a farm, and some animals simply stuck around).

A partnership with N/a’ankusê, however, means guests can also take advantage of their once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like walking with magnificently graceful, powerful cheetahs. It’s here that Jolie’s friend, conservationist and passionate animal lover Marlice van Vuuren, does fabulous things to protect animals. And it’s also the site of a wildlife sanctuary named for Shiloh Jolie-Pitt (the family inaugurated it when they visited in 2017), where an orphaned infant rhinoceros was recently being nursed and raised under the watch of a veterinarian, alongside friendly goats. Namibia, it seems, is in so many ways the antidote to Hollywood.