Inside Africa

Rwanda relaxation: A luxury jungle escape with volcanoes, gorillas and adventure

Rebecca Trenner, CNNUpdated 23rd January 2019
(CNN) — Just meters from the balcony of the hotel room, a troop of black and white colobus monkeys scouts the treetops for tender leaves.
A tiny infant clings to her mother's long black fur as she jumps from one spindly branch to another, her distinctive white mantle flowing behind her.
While most visitors to Rwanda's Nyungwe Forest National Park need to organize an early morning hike to track colobus monkeys, at One&Only Nyungwe House the primates come directly to you.
The resort is among several brand new ventures that are helping Rwanda establish its credentials as a luxury travel destination, particularly for people flying from Europe looking for temperate year-round escapes.
Almost a quarter of a century after it was headline news as it was sucked into a vortex of violence and genocide that left it in ruins, the central African country has flourished, and is now regarded as one of the safest places on the continent for travelers.
The main draw remains Volcanoes National Park in the northwest, home to a 480-strong population of mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey, the American researcher played by Sigourney Weaver in "Gorillas in the Mist."
Seeing them isn't cheap though.
In May 2017, Rwandan authorities doubled the fee for gorilla permits from $750 to $1,500, citing a desire to ensure that communities living near the park area receive a larger share of tourism revenues.

Luxury options

One&Only Nyungwe House (1)
One&Only Nyungwe House is Nyungwe Forest National Park's first five-star accommodation option.
Courtesy One&Only Nyungwe House
Since the price rise some tourists wishing to track mountain gorillas have opted to visit Uganda, where permits are $600.
For many, the experience in Rwanda is worth the additional cost, largely due to the country's hassle-free visa-on-arrival service, stellar safety record, luxury accommodation options and excellent roads, which mean the journey from the capital Kigali to Volcanoes National Park is less than three hours by car.
Travelers can also fly directly to Kigali from a number of major international European cities, including London, Amsterdam and Brussels. Rwandair is planning to launch a direct flight from New York in early 2019.
One&Only Nyungwe House (6)
Nyungwe House has 22 luxury rooms.
Courtesy One&Only Nyungwe House
Many travelers make quick visits in and out of the country, getting their gorilla snaps, before heading home or onto the next leg of a pan-African trip that perhaps includes a safari in Kenya or a beach holiday in Tanzania.
To encourage longer stays and visits to the country's other spectacular natural sites, gorilla permits are being discounted by $450 during low season for anyone booking an activity in Akagera or Nyungwe National Parks via the main government Irembo platform.
A range of new high-end hotel options gives jetsetters other reasons to stay longer in this beautiful country.
In the east the recently replenished Akagera National Park has luxury accommodation and the Big Five. In the southwest, One&Only Nyungwe House, which opened in October 2018, is the first five-star accommodation in Nyungwe Forest National Park.
One&Only Nyungwe House (9)
The resort's got all the usual luxuries you'd expect.
Courtesy One&Only Nyungwe House
It's one of the most exclusive lodges on the continent, with 22 luxury rooms and suites set on the edge of the park's dramatic mountains.
The usual luxury trappings of wellness experiences, rainforest infinity pool and detox smoothies are enhanced by the huge range of outdoor activities on offer.

Helicopter tours

One&Only Nyungwe House (3)
Colobus monkeys can be seen from the hotel room balcony at One&Only.
Courtesy One&Only Nyungwe House
Several hiking trails start from the resort and lead deep into the jungle, including the Isumo Trail, which culminates in Nyungwe's biggest waterfall, thundering down to produce dramatic plumes of mist above the rocky river.
The resort offers a number of experiences, from traditional African spear-throwing and hilltop archery, to nocturnal walks and helicopter tours that take in the epic panorama of Nyungwe Forest, Lake Kivu and other landmarks, starting from the venue's private helipad.
Helicopter tours over the national park offer amazing views of Lake Kivu.
Courtesy Visit Rwanda
Another highlight is "nature's bootcamp," an exhilarating early morning run and kinetic workout along a track surrounding the resort's tea plantations. The run makes regular stops to observe the spectacular bird life, from dazzling great blue turacos to a male pin-tailed whydah in breeding plumage, gliding effortlessly through the air with its broad ribbon-like tail.
The resort pays special attention to nature conservation and the support of local communities. Every last Saturday of the month guests can get involved in Umuganda, a nationwide program where citizens devote one morning of every month to working in the local community.
One&Only Nyungwe House (13)
The Canopy Walk in Nyungwe is a 200-meter-long walkway across a deep valley.
Courtesy One&Only Nyungwe House
The majority of activities in the heart of Nyungwe National Park begin from the nearby Uwinka Visitor Center.
Hikers can choose from a range of trails, ranging in length and difficulty, that snake through the immense equatorial rainforest, including the challenging Rukuzi Trail which offers views across to Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and an opportunity to see some of the National Park's 13 species of primates.
The visitor center is also the starting point for the Canopy Walk, one activity that's not to be missed. The first of its kind in East Africa, the 200-meter long walkway hangs across a deep valley filled with thick forest, lush flora and giant ferns, transporting visitors above the canopy and face to face with the tropical rainforest's butterflies, birds and monkeys.

Natural intimacy

One&Only Nyungwe House (2)
Seeing chimpanzees in their natural habitat is a big draw for tourists in Nyungwe National Park.
Courtesy One&Only Nyungwe House
Undoubtedly one of Nyungwe National Park's biggest draws is the opportunity to track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. The forest is home to one of East Africa's last intact chimpanzee populations, and for those willing to hike through the steep, muddy off-track terrain, the rewards are great.
It involves an early start -- tours leave Nyungwe House at 4:45 a.m., although there's freshly made coffee and a packed breakfast for the hour-long drive to Cyamudongo forest.
When our rangers tracked down a group of 10 or more chimpanzees, the chimps were lazily resting in the treetops after any early feed. We settled in a clearing and watched them bending branches to make temporary nests, while Dent's mona monkeys and white-bearded L'Hoest's monkeys kept us entertained, howling and leaping in the canopy overhead.
One&Only Nyungwe House (8)
The One&Only Nyungwe House experience will cost you at least $1,500 a night.
Courtesy One&Only Nyungwe House
When the chimpanzees awoke, their booming sounds filled the forest, and we had a matter of minutes for close observation and photographs before the group disappeared into the vastness of the jungle once again.
While many international tourists will still come to Africa in search of colonial-style safaris, white sand beaches, and natural wonders like Victoria Falls, Rwanda's new luxury lodges provide an intimacy with the natural world. But these experiences don't come cheap. A night at One&Only Nyungwe House will set you back at least $1,500, and that's before you've booked any excursions or hit the bar.
Without one major blockbuster attraction, like the mountain gorillas, it still remains to be seen whether travelers will make the journey down to Nyungwe to experience all that the National Park has to offer.
One thing is for certain. For wealthy intrepid travelers, looking to reconnect with nature, explore one of the continent's most pristine and untouched rainforests and trek where few outsiders have gone before, there are few better places to do it from.