Long before 2020 became the year of social distancing, Namibia was the ultimate destination for remote luxury. New properties are ever more high-end, and ever more private. Some are grand desert hideaways for only two guests, who share infinite desert horizons with no other humans (except perhaps the dedicated chef and driver, who appear only when summoned).
We retreated with anticipation to be the first at the Desert Whisper, far into the Namib Desert, just as Namibia was preparing to open again to international tourists. Developed by the locally based Gondwana Collection Namibia group, which has spent more than two decades perfecting its 20 Namibian offerings, this one is the pinnacle.
The Whisper is like a romantic asteroid flung down into the far reaches of the rock hills, with the desert unspooling into infinity all around. Outside it blends into nature, while inside it is flooded with natural light and holds the best-stocked bar we’ve seen outside New York.
A 19th-century colonial German architecture in the town of Swakopmund on Namibia’s Atlantic coast. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
Within this bean-shaped luxury pod is a full kitchen, loaded with fresh ingredients for breakfast, lunch, aperitivo, dinner and chocolates. Guests may choose to prepare and serve themselves or sip a cocktail on the terrace while the chef makes and serves the meal. (The chef and driver are posted at reception, about three miles away). The guest limit at The Desert Whisper is two people, with a minimum age of 13.
Beyond the kitchen is an open living/bedroom space with multiple sofas and easy chairs, a king-sized bed behind a half wall, a huge glass shower enclosure, and a private bathroom. There are books about Namibia and the rest of the universe, a big basket of locally produced bath amenities, and a telescope. (Note: Yes, there is air conditioning). The scenery is ever changing as the sun moves across the desert — spectacular sunsets are a given, along with the darkest of nights punctuated with some of the best star-gazing in the world.
The Desert Whisper, with its distinctive rusted exterior, provides the ultimate in social distancing. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
The Gondwana Reserve here is surrounded by national parks, including the Namib-Naukluft, where the world’s highest red dunes encircle the eerily empty salt pan, Sossusvlei. This Namib Sand Sea was declared a World Heritage site in 2013. This part of Namibia is known for its unique geological formations and incredible dune landscapes. We’ve seen oryx (gemsbok), giraffes, antelopes, mountain zebras, ostrich, wildebeest and dozens of small desert denizens from the ground and from a balloon.
One idea for a perfect day could be to take off in a hot-air balloon over the dunes at dawn, have breakfast in the middle of the desert, take a swim in The Desert Whisper’s private plunge pool before lunch, have the chef prepare lunch, take a restorative nap in the afternoon before your driver picks you up for a sundowner drive through the vast reserve, with a stop for an aperitivo in the desert as the sun turns the grass silver. Then, back to the Desert Whisper for a spectacular sunset and dinner under the stars. (Or, just sit by the pool all day, sipping something chilled and reading Wilbur Smith).
Dining at The Desert Whisper, with a view of the world’s oldest desert. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
About 20 miles away on the reserve is The Desert Grace. Here, the luxury chalets have individual plunge pools overlooking the view; there are some family rooms, a full restaurant and a bar/lounge. From the Grace, it’s possible to take individual or guided walks or e-bike tours, nature drives, excursions to Sossusvlei, or join the creepy and very popular Night Scorpion Walk, where UV light reveals scorpions hiding out in the darkness. The Grace might be an option for families or couples traveling together or for a destination wedding group, with the bride and groom staying at The Desert Whisper. There is a private airstrip which serves the reserve.
This Namibian itinerary could start or end at Walvis Bay, where there is a modern airport with flights to the international airports in Windhoek or Cape Town, or, as part of an independent or guided driving tour. Either way, it really must include a stop at the old German town of Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast, just half an hour from the cruise port at Walvis Bay. Founded in the late 19th century, it is now an active and diverse community, where Bavarian architecture, open-air craft markets, green parks, beaches, restaurants and boutiques reflect the multiple cultures of the country. We love side trips, such as to amazing Sandwich Harbor (with Sand Waves, [email protected]), Tommy’s Little Five tour of the dunes (www.livingdesertnamibia.com), Mola Mola’s dolphin tour of the Walvis Bay Lagoon (www.mola-namibia.com), or a drive up to Cape Cross to see the seals and have lunch on the ocean at the Cape Cross Lodge. (Hint: Seeing millions of seals living on one rocky outcrop is phenomenal, but it smells simply awful. You’ll need to mask up for this experience).
The 1,000-mile Namibian Atlantic coast is known for its oysters and fish. Swakopmund is full of good seafood restaurants, as well as those that offer wild game and other meat. We like The Jetty and The Tug on the water, Kucki’s Pub and Gabrielle’s Pizza. A fun favorite is Fork n Nice, the yellow school bus up Strand Street on the beach, where the takeaway includes terrific calamari and chips. The three very good restaurants at the four-star Strand Hotel overlook the Atlantic along the mole, where locals like to swim in the chilly sea. There’s a foodie walking tour in town (www.swakopfoodtours.com) and the laid back Goanikontes Oasis (www.goanikontes-oasis.com) a few miles away in the Moon Valley, a kind of Luckenbach, Texas, in Africa.
The plunge pool for two at The Desert Whisper. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
From Swakopmund’s small airport it’s possible to charter a flight to the rest of Namibia. We like to book private flights with Westair, which also has scheduled flights all over the country and to South Africa. We suggest planning a trip to Etosha National Park, which is about the size of Belgium and filled with free-ranging animals: elephants, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, zebras, springbok, ostrich, oryx, kudu and more. There are plenty of luxury lodges that ring the park, as well as a number of places to stay within. Gondwana’s newest property, the 40-room Etosha King Nehale, has unique private access to the Ontalelo Outpost, a waterhole actually inside the park.
Practical Info You Need to Know
First and foremost, Namibia has handled the pandemic very well and now has safely opened its borders to international travelers. According to Vera Salt, vice chair of the Association of Namibia Travel Agents, “Namibia’s vast size and its small population [under three million] makes it the perfect destination. Our infection rates have been very low and the government has implemented strict and controlled COVID-19 guidelines for tourists entering the country.”
As part of its Tourism Revival Initiative, Namibia has introduced a “visa on arrival” option for travelers from some countries, while others may apply for a visa in advance through a travel agency, such as Rennies Travel Namibia. Currently, arrivals with a negative COVID test less than 72 hours old do not have to quarantine and may continue directly to their destinations within the country.
The chalets at The Desert Grace are constructed from indigenous Namibian building materials. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
Masks, contact tracing, temperature checks, and mandatory provision of hand gel at every commercial establishment have been in place since Spring 2020. Travel in remote areas, where there are few people and wide-open spaces, is a benefit for those wishing to have a break from some of these requirements.
We asked Jacky Ebenau ([email protected]), sales director at Rennies, about how U.S. travelers should plan their travel to Namibia. She said that the most direct options are Lufthansa/Eurowings and Ethiopian Airlines, which fly from Europe directly into Hosea Kutako International Airport outside Windhoek. From there, travelers may take scheduled flights elsewhere in the country, pick up a rental car from major providers, or meet their guide/driver. The alternative would be to fly to Cape Town or Johannesburg, South Africa, and pick up a regularly scheduled flight to Windhoek or Walvis Bay, Namibia, on Westair or Airlink. Jacky noted that the return trip to the U.S. on Lufthansa/Eurowings requires an overnight stay at a German airport, because the flight from Windhoek is a day trip.
For updates, go to na.usembassy.gov or check with Jacky at Rennies.
A private plunge pool reflects the sunset at a Desert Grace chalet. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
Where to Shop
Blue skies, vast panoramas, hundreds of species of animals and birds, and good food/wine/beer do not preclude the delights of shopping in Namibia. Every lodge has its own gift shop, featuring locally made items, and almost every town has an open-air market, where vendors sell souvenirs made from everything imaginable, from telephone wire to seeds.
The country is known for its diamonds, gold and gemstones, including tourmalines, amethysts, and many others. Jewelers, many gemologists and designers trained in Europe, sell designs incorporating local stones and will create on order for customers. Our favorite is Sebastian Klein ([email protected]) in Swakopmund, who trained in Germany and apprenticed with the well-known Horst Knop, before opening his own studio downtown. A good source for gems and stones is the Kristall Gallery.
The lounge/bar at The Desert Grace brings together traditional Namibian décor with contemporary African style. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
Other very high quality Namibian products include ostrich and other skins, which are often exported to Europe. They can be found at Nakara in Swakopmund and Windhoek, among other locations and are exceptionally reasonably priced compared to Europe and the U.S. Karakul rugs, handwoven from karakul sheep wool from Namibia and the Northern Cape of South Africa, are distinctive whether done in natural or bright colors. Coming from the same animal, the Swakara pelts used in coats, bags and gloves are similar to Persian lamb.
Our favorite shops selling both souvenirs and high-quality décor items and linens are !Ikhoba on Sam Nujoma Avenue, Meme !Ikhoba on Tobias Hainyeko, Summer Salt on Daniel Tjongarero Street by Bojo’s Coffee Shop, and Make Waves in the open-air Arcade off Sam Nujoma Avenue. All sell hand-embroidered linens from the !Ikhoba Project, begun in 1963, as well as soaps and creams using Namibian plants. Soft and comfy kudu leather shoes and boots, a favorite of both men and women, are available around the country; we like the ones from Sibold in The Arcade because of the extra arch support. Oscar & Olive, also in The Arcade, sells kudu shoes and boots for children, as well as linens, blouses, dresses and unusual shoes for women.
A king-sized bedroom in a luxury chalet at The Desert Grace. // Photo by Sharri Whiting De Masi
We asked Jacky at Rennies if travelers feel safe traveling to Namibia. Her answer:
“Yes, absolutely they still feel safe. Their main concerns are that all the suppliers, i.e., airlines, car rental companies, and accommodation establishments, adhere to the safety standards. Social distancing is adhered to at all the establishments, especially those out of the main cities and towns.” She went on to say that self-drives continue to be a good option to travel through Namibia, though first-time visitors may prefer to combine private air travel with guided travel by car.
A chalet at the new Etosha King Nehale has a front-row seat to game viewing on the edge of the vast national park. // Photo by Shawn van Eeden
We say go for it. Now is the time for Africa, especially Namibia.